Friday, January 16, 2009

Keith Westbrook paints the White House black

Paint the White House black
Kevin Westbrook show opens Friday at Left Bank Books

By Chris King
Of the St. Louis American

Local artist Keith Westbrook knows how to seize the moment.

The dude has a show going up the Friday after the inauguration of President Barack Obama titled "Black House" – with a centerpiece portrait of Obama posed in front of The White House painted black.

"Black House" opens 6-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23 in the basement gallery at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid.

The show is not entirely Obama-themed, though; it shows the range of Westbrook’s work.

"My work is all over the place," he said. "I deal with a range of themes. I fluctuate from politics to sexual issues to relationship issues to cultural issues."

Westbrook loves him some Barack Obama – he calls the new president "the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s dream, everything Dr. King stood for" – but his head was actually full of music when he painted "Black House."

"I wanted to take the old slogan from Parliament Funkadelic of a Chocolate City," Westbrook said."They were talking about cities after the Civil Rights Movement that had elected African-American mayors. Those cities had pretty significant African-American populations – like Washington, D.C., which is known as a Chocolate City, with a very heavy African-American population."

That was just part of the soundtrack in his head while he was painting in his bedroom/studio in South City. Here’s the other track in the mashup.

"There’s this song by the rapper MC Breed, who just died maybe a month ago – he’s from Detroit, another Chocolate City. His song is called "Ain’t No Future in Yo Frontin.’" It has a line that says, ‘I’m gonna paint the White House black.’"

Add it all up, and …

"I called it ‘The Black House’ because an African American is now occupying it for the first time."
No other way to say it: that’s cool.

Age 44, Westbrook is a St. Louis native. He went to high school in SLPS at Visual and Performing Arts and then had the extreme and rare good fortune to study art with the great John Rozelle at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.

"He taught me a lot of the formal issues," Westbrook said. "That was really my introduction to formal art. He taught me the elements, principles, foundations of art."

Westbrook jumped across the river to finish his undergraduate degree at SIUE with another local African-American master, Philip Hampton. "He was a great supporter of mine," Westbrook said. "I learned a lot of what I know of color from him."

Other "formative influences" from his undergraduate days include African art, black protest art of the 1960s, Jacob Lawrence and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Westbrook went on to earn his MFA at the University of Iowa in 1992. Now he is back home, teaching art at Central VPA, where it all began for him.

"Funny how life happens," he said.

He numbers among his friends in the local art scene Seitu James Smith, Thomas Sleet and Cbabi Bayoc.

He spoke to the American before the historic inauguration, but he was planning at the time to get into the act and make a party out of it.

"Maybe I’ll go out, find an inauguration party, celebrate like everybody else," he said. "With Monday being Dr. King’s birthday, it will be two days of celebration."

Friday will be another for him.

Kevin Westbrook’s show "Black House" opens 6-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23 in the basement gallery at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid. It closes Feb. 23.

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