Why a Self-Taught Artist’s Dream of Social Justice Rings Especially True in a New Venice Exhibition

The show draws attention to Purvis Young's socially oriented work, and will remain on view at Palazzo Mora for the duration of the Venice Biennale.

Purvis Young, Untitled Triptych (2000). Courtesy of Skot Foreman Gallery.
Purvis Young, Untitled Triptych (2000). Skot Foreman Gallery.

During the Venice Biennale, it’s “the contemporary” that counts, with headlines and audiences captivated by everything’s that’s new, from the Lithuanian Pavilion’s global-warming opera to Ghana’s jaw-dropping debut.

But beyond the pavilions, the avid art lover will find there is much more to discover. Among the exhibitions worth venturing to is Purvis Young: PERSONAL STRUCTURES Identities” at Palazzo Mora, which brings together a unique selection of works by the self-taught American artist.

Installation view of Purvis Young's multimedia works at Palazzo Mora for the Venice Biennale (2019). Courtesy of Skot Galerie.

Installation view of Purvis Young’s multimedia works at Palazzo Mora for the Venice Biennale (2019). Courtesy of Skot Foreman Gallery.

Born in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami in 1943, Young developed an interest in art in his youth, honing an idiosyncratic approach to art-making that merged painting and drawing with collage, often incorporating detritus and found objects. His works make references to a host of sources: the nightly news, art history, American history, and the symbolism of religion and folklore, to name a few, and they brim with archetypal characters, from angels to warriors, and athletes to prisoners.

The works in this exhibition showcase the depth of Young’s social concern, encompassing many of his late works from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Of Bahamian heritage, Young was deeply inspired as a young man by the Chicago mural The Wall of Respect, which highlighted the achievements of African Americans. He went on to create his own homage in Miami’s Good Bread Alley, creating murals that underscored social struggles and dreams of liberation and freedom.

Installation view of Purvis Young's multimedia works at Palazzo Mora for the Venice Biennale (2019). Courtesy of Skot Galerie.

Installation view of Purvis Young’s multimedia works from the 1980s at Palazzo Mora for the Venice Biennale (2019). Courtesy of Skot Foreman Gallery.

These concerns never left Young’s lexicon, and his work from the 1980s (on view in Venice) depict the migration of “boat people”: refugees fleeing the Caribbean and South America during the fall of the colonial era. These mix with later works from the late 1990s and early 2000s, which, inspired by documentaries, explore historical moments of challenge, from the Great Depression to the Trail of Tears.

In the current political climate, as people from many parts of the world become transient, fleeing political, environmental, and economic peril, these works, with their emphasis on the shared human cycles of life—love, joy, hardship— seem at once prophetic, hopeful, and dishearteningly contemporary.

Purvis Young: PERSONAL STRUCTURES Identities” curated by Skot Foreman Gallery will be on view at Palazzo Mora through November 24, 2019. 


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