Abstracting Social Questions: The Work of Juan Logan
By Shantay Robinson
Juan Logan’s social abstraction is not so much stating his position in his paintings as much as he’s posing existential questions. “I’m trying to explore questions I’ve had for an extended period of time, and I try to answer those questions in a visual context” he says. Logan reflects back to an Elizabeth Catlett talk where she expressed the notions of the social as opposed to the political. He says she stated that the social means you’re commenting on the things that are happening around you and the political suggest you’re taking a particular point of view. Logan has been working in social abstraction for several decades now. He can remember a time in the 1960s where his perspective and art were not considered black enough because it was abstract.
“They were looking for hard core and angry,” Logan recalls. “When you think about all the imagery that came out of that movement, during that period, things were expressed differently. And the idea of doing things in terms of dealing with social abstraction, where I was, fed into a different path.” Still, there were some museums and collectors that did acquire Logan’s work at the time. He maintains some of his work from that period. Although his work has always been abstract, he admits they were more didactic then, which allowed him to use images that people would easily recognize. He created art about everything from nuclear war to abortion – the things that were happening in the United States at the time.
“My interest in all these things have never been to provide answers to these questions. My interest has always been to ask better questions. So, if you can ask a better question you can deepen your investigation. I try to ask better questions of myself, so the answers that I’m seeking are not so much for an audience, but they’re for myself. I need to know. I want to know. Then if I can put those questions in a visual context, you can ask yourself or seek those answers for yourself.”
Though he asks probing questions that lead to series of hundreds of paintings, Logan admits the answers to his questions sometimes escape him. “I understand more about what I’m asking at the end of it all. But I sometimes feel that the answer was incomplete, so I spend more time on it. And that’s why sometimes it takes years. I listen to young artists talk about it sometimes, and they’re working on a series of work. And I say well, how many paintings are in that series. They say well, I’m up to five, but I’m going to move on now. I say well I’m glad you’re able to answer all of your questions with five paintings, I wish I could do that.” Logan’s series can run from 60 paintings to as large as 160 paintings. “There’s no hurry to leave it. It just evolves into something else that’s no longer a part of that,” he says. He works seven days a week in the studio and is able to make paintings as large as he wants, leave them in place for a time, and spend time on them. He’s not working for an exhibition or on a timeline. He just works. Because of that, he has bodies of work that have never been shown. “I figure they’ll be shown eventually somewhere. But the main thing it allows me to do is spend time with it to develop it,” he says.
The head shape has been ubiquitous in much of Logan’s work for, at least, two decades. The first time he used that head shape was in 1967 in a painting titled, I Am Black during the Civil Rights Movement. The head shape has appeared in many of his later pieces, especially in a piece titled Unconscious Bias, which is comprised of an installation of 1100 heads. The piece is inspired by a New England Journal of Medicine study that found, 90% of the time, white males were referred to specialists when they went to doctors for the same condition as African Americans or women who were given medicine and sent home. Logan has seen this phenomenon play out in his own life. His father had a heart attack, and the doctor didn’t want to miss a baseball game, so his father died two hours later. His aunt went to a hospital for treatment and was given medicine and sent home. She died an hour later. His cousin whom he picked up from the hospital was complaining about chest pains upon leaving. The nurse told him to take antacid. He died of a heart attack in the passenger seat of Logan’s car a block away from the hospital. He understands how unconscious bias plays out in his own life; the study just confirmed what he already knew. He says, “And the interesting thing about the Unconscious Bias piece, look at COVID-19 today, more black and brown people are dying of that than anybody else. Then there are pharmacy deserts in our communities. Where are they going to get vaccines? They have no cars. Again, we are placed at a disadvantage. But again, trying to place all of those things in a visual context, what does that begin to look like? Those are the questions I’m raising for myself.”
Logan’s painting Help Me, Save Me, Love Me, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, illustrates how he uses layers of ideas to convey some of the questions he raises. “You look at images of people at the Superdome where they waited outside for a long time to go inside. But it was not a place that helped and saved people. Murders took place in there and rape took place in there. It was not a good situation. And the Red Cross didn’t do all that it should have done nor did FEMA.” Using puzzle pieces in this painting replicates an aerial image of throngs of people waiting outside the Superdome to get inside. Help Me, Save Me, Love Me is an abstract piece, but the puzzle pieces in the artwork aptly stand in for what it looked like from an aerial perspective as people waited outside the Superdome. In addition to the representation of the people in this artwork, the puzzle pieces represent the Katrina situation as a large puzzle that had been taken apart and couldn’t be put back together again. People were displaced, they had to move to other states, and places where many once lived, became gentrified. Logan says, “The interesting thing about that for the most part was they wanted someone to help them, to save them, to act as though they actually loved them and take care of them.”
Logan’s social abstraction asks that we relate his paintings to life experiences. By using tangible aspects, like puzzle pieces, the ideas come together to acknowledge the questions he is raising in his artworks. It is our job, when looking at his work, to make the connections. Of the Katrina situation, he says, “But how do you talk about that situation. How do you make it simple and easy because it wasn’t simple and easy? And it was a very painful situation.”
Overall, his artwork examines physical and mental landscapes that we exist in. He says, “When you think about the mental landscapes, we have had to exist in a very difficult space that’s been created for us sometimes or we create for ourselves.” Although physical aspects are relatively easy to render, interestingly, Logan allows his painting to illustrate a space that we cannot really see – the mental space. He deals with the architecture of memory and how it exists in space. Of Elegy LVII he states, “I painted 5700 heads and I did that to talk about all those children who were being held at our southwest border. And when you think about them, in no time at all they won’t know where they came from. They won’t know their language because we’re not speaking it here for them. In some cases, they are. They’ll forget about their parents, their culture, traditions, all of it. It will all disappear. They won’t be able to recall in no time at all. In weeks or at the most months.” Logan uses the head shape because everything takes place there first. To him, the figure of the head represents humanity. Logan’s work focuses on three ideas – race, place, and power. He says, “Race impacts black and brown people more than anybody else; power impacts us on how it gets exercised.”
Logan’s exhibition, Juan Logan: Creating and Collecting, at the Bo Bartlett Center at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia opens on April 9. The exhibition will feature his work alongside artworks from his collection. Though there is no thematic connection between his work and the artists’ work from his collection, he mentions the curators wanted to focus not so much on how he responds to the work from his collection for his practice, but the work he responds to period.
“I work in a particular way, but at the same time, I enjoy figuration,” Logan acknowledges. “So, there’s Robert Colescott, I love his work. There’s Elizabeth Catlett and Kara Walker. I enjoy their work. So, they weren’t so much influencing me, so much as I simply enjoy them.”
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SHANTAY ROBINSON was a participant in the inaugural class of Burnaway Magazine’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, a fellow in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies Digital Publishing Project Editorial Fellowship and was chosen for the CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring program. In addition to writing for Black Art in America, she has written for Washington City Paper, Arts ATL, Nashville Scene, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Sugarcane Magazine, Number, Inc., and International Review of African American Art. She also published a scholarly article in Teaching Artist Journal. She presented papers about art and education at SCAD’s (Savannah College of Art and Design) Symposium on Art and Fashion, Georgia State University’s New Voices Graduate Student Conference, Georgia State University’s Glorious Hair and Academic Identities Conference, Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference, Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, and New York African Studies Association Conference. In 2019, she sat on a panel at Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Week. In 2020, she served as visual arts judge in Shreveport Regional Council’s Critical Mass 8 Art Competition.
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