Since the 1960s, Juan Logan (b. 1946) has mined Southern histories to produce a powerful alloy, one joining abstraction to a narrative that yokes the social injustices of the pre-Civil Rights era to today. Logan’s exhibition, “I’ll Save You Tomorrow,” organized by curator Bradley Sumrall at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, brought together approximately 25 works, including mixed-medium canvases, sculptures and an installation. Many were made in the last five years, although some of the sculptures date to 2001. Throughout the show, Logan gave form to the idea, as articulated by scholar George Lipsitz in How Racism Takes Place (2011), that “social relations take on their full force and meaning when they are enacted physically in actual places.”
Born in Tennessee, Logan lives in North Carolina, and draws on his heritage to reflect upon once-segregated places of leisure for African-Americans, including Chowan Beach in North Carolina, Lincoln Beach in Louisiana and Fort Mose Historic State Park in Florida. On medium to large canvases, Logan builds backgrounds out of gridded collages of wallpaper, on top of which he paints textured organic shapes. In Lincoln Beach (2008), he creates an abstract depiction of New Orleans’s once-popular lakefront amusement park and beach, which closed in 1964 in response to a court order against discrimination. Here, an irregular blue ellipse sits on squares of tan wallpaper with palm trees. Logan avoids painterly gesture, maintaining clean boundaries between land and water, echoing the formerly imposed borders of this once blacks—only beach.
Sugar House (2011), the most ambitious painting on view at 6 by 16 feet, has a red ground on which appear different-size silhouettes of haloed heads. These silhouettes are sometimes packed with collaged puzzle pieces, and other times are painfully empty and dark. The heads float through the space alongside clouds dotted with sliced-up lottery tickets and depictions of cancer cells, references to systems that have historically disadvantaged people of color. Behind the clouds is a long, machinelike form that represents the treadmills used to punish and torture rebellious slaves, one of which was in a jail in Charleston, S.C., called the “Sugar House.” In making works filled with discernible and barely discernible objects as well as nonobjective shapes, Logan establishes a tension that alludes to antiquated and contemporary systems of entrapment.
Logan could easily have selected Fairground Park in north St. Louis as a subject for a painting. As reported recently in the New York Times, a group of African-Americans were attacked while lining up to get into a desegregated pool there in 1949. The park is a 15-minute drive from Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teen was killed by a white police officer in August. By focusing on places that were sites of inequity, Logan uses the physicality of abstraction to consider the persistent actuality of racism.