Homecoming: Paintings and Drawings by Ernest Shaw, Jr. is the artist’s first solo exhibition at his alma mater. It is on view at Morgan State University’s James E. Lewis Museum of Art through March 10. The show consists of large-scale drawings and paintings and is curated with the intention of  allowing visitors to fully immerse themselves in Shaw’s career. 

Ernest Shaw and Schroeder Cherry blocking the exhibition. Courtesy of The James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University. 

Shaw, a West Baltimore native, attended Baltimore School for the Arts and Howard University, in addition to Morgan. The figures he paints reflect his subjects’ buoyancy, brilliance, and brightness, as well as their history. The magnitude, the sheer depth of the works, and the boldness of the colors invite the viewer to get close. Once you do, you will see Shaw’s application of layers and threads of Black history, diasporic history, and the power of education. At the beginning of the year, Shaw’s portrait of civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall was unveiled at the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis.

Homecoming explores Shaw’s figurative portrait practice. Most compelling as I moved throughout the gallery were the various depictions of James Baldwin, which aesthetically served to mark the evolution of Shaw’s practice. I thought about James Baldwin’s connection to Baltimore through Baldwin’s sister, artist Paula Whaley. I thought about my affinity for Baldwin’s work and words, and how he has inspired Black artists for generations. 

Traveling through JELMA, I could imagine Shaw several years ago in his studio working on a painting of Baldwin, and then rendering different iterations of the same subject through 2022. Some works have one painting technique or material utilized, while others are chock full of painted symbols, colors, and embellishments, all reflecting the spirit of Baldwin. Over the years Shaw’s paintings have become bigger in scale and more complex in detail. 

In Baldwin (2018), an acrylic painting on canvas, the familiar figure’s gaze penetrates with a furrowed brow. James Baldwin is depicted here against a background of a salmon pink, his hand resting on his chin. Shaw has painted him with a signet ring on his finger. 

Where There’s Smoke (2022) is a more recent mixed media work layered with paints and pigments ranging from the deepest matte black to the most vibrant crimson. Baldwin’s hand is adorned with a signet ring and holding a cigarette. He gazes out of the frame away from the viewer, and his expression is contemplative and pondering. Baldwin’s head is marked with an application of blue Black, and his skin is a cross-hatching of browns and pinks. Shaw has painted an African mask overlaying his face, a link to the lineage Baldwin, and Shaw, and many Black Americans share. We are strangers in a strange land, living and working and producing and writing and painting in this country. 

Schroeder Cherry, puppeteer, educator, and artist, was a professor of museum studies at Morgan State before he was appointed as curator of the James E. Lewis Museum of Art in 2021. Cherry invited Shaw to co-create an exhibition in the museum. He says they discussed titles, and Shaw chose the name Homecoming as a nod to his Morgan roots. Cherry selected portraits of various subjects from Shaw’s oeuvre. This show is a veritable homecoming, one of the most prolific and beloved artists returning to campus and having his work on full display. Cherry told Baltimore Beat that the large scale of Shaw’s art is due to a comment from Shaw’s former Howard University professor, who offered him a single critique: to make larger works. The resulting paintings displayed at JELMA are significant in scale and large in emotion. 

Installation view of Let The Right One In at Critical Path Method.  From left to right: Oletha DeVane, The Crow Spirit, 2023. Dave Eassa, Moon, 2021. Sanah Brown-Bowers, The Kings Court, 2023. Alex Ebstein, Untitled (compressed reference), 2023. Courtesy of Critical Path Method. 

Let The Right One In is a group exhibition featuring work by seven Baltimore-based artists, including Sanah Brown-Bowers, Oletha DeVane, Dave Eassa, Alex Ebstein, Toskago, Elena Volkova, and Anderson Woof, currently on display at Critical Path Method (CPM). Curated by Vlad Smolkin, CPM’s owner, the exhibition’s title alludes to the 2008 Swedish vampire film and references the folklore that a vampire cannot enter a home without an invitation. CPM, which opened in 2021, is a contemporary art gallery located in a row home in Bolton Hill. According to the press release for this exhibition, the title “calls attention to the bonds at the thresholds between the artist, the gallery, and the community.” 

Like Shaw and Cherry, Smolkin and the seven artists in Let The Right One In have established and interrogated their own positions in Baltimore City. Both resulting exhibitions are full of place, beauty, interrogation, and explorations of the self. 

Let The Right One In is one of the first exhibitions for MICA student Toskago. He offers a series of oil-painted artworks called The Negro’s Dilemma (2022). The deep and surreal nature of the paintings is striking and in perfect harmony with the other works in this gallery. The artist inserts himself into the artworks and his application of oil paint imbues the pieces with a haunting quality. ‘

Toskago, The Negro’s Dilemma (self-reflection), 2022.

Sanah Brown-Bowers’ The Kings Court (2023) is a magnificent photorealistic painting of the very real Black-owned Baltimore barbershop Kings Court. The central figures in the image are a child getting his hair cut by a barber, and the rest are an assemblage of found objects, a jar of Murrays, Black film references, photographs, LED lights, and sound. Brown-Bowers is a self-taught artist, and this artwork, with its pinball machine-like dynamism, perfectly encapsulates the spirit and nature of many Baltimore art makers, that ethos of making something out of nothing and ending up with something magnificent. 

Sanah Brown-Bowers, The Kings Court, 2023. Courtesy of Critical Path Method.

Oletha DeVane’s Mawu Moon Goddess (2019) consists of beads, acrylic, glass, and resin collected and assembled by the artist’s hand. These materials come together to depict an African deity, and the central figure’s power emanates through the borders of the artwork. Seventeen clear orbs hold beads, glitter, and various found materials, and in her belly is a bejeweled and beaded navy planet Earth. Her hair fans out around her head, a crown of navy, purple, and black streaks outlined in a thin halo of cerulean. DeVane’s boundless work brings Africa into this home gallery in Baltimore. DeVane’s exploitation of African spiritualism is another tie-in to the theme of home, belonging, and place, embedded within Let The Right One In as well as Homecoming.

Oletha DeVane, Mawu Moon Goddess, 2019. Courtesy of Critical Path Method.

Homecoming: Paintings and Drawings by Ernest Shaw, Jr.  is on view at The James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University through March 10, 2023. Let The Right One In is on view at Critical Path Method through April 8, 2023. It is viewable by appointment only. Email info@cpmprogram.com to make an appointment. 

Teri Henderson is the Arts and Culture Editor of Baltimore Beat. She is the author of the 2021 book Black Collagists. Previously, she was a staff writer for BmoreArt, gallery coordinator for Connect +...