Joe Overstreet: Jazz hands

Storyville Series at City Hall East

Summer is Atlanta's season of jazz festivals, and with it the art world can expect a flood of mediocre, jazz-inspired paintings meant to honor that most radical of musical forms. If it were up to me, this legion of copycats would spend a day at City Hall East, studying the masterful paintings of Joe Overstreet's Storyville Series to see how it's really done.

First shown in 1988 at Kenkeleba House, an alternative gallery space on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Overstreet's large-scale oil paintings reference New Orleans' Storyville section. Storyville was established as a district for legalized prostitution and gambling at the tail end of the 19th century, and became a hotbed for the then-nascent jazz art form.

Overstreet captures the flavor of the Storyville legend with energetic figurative compositions and unsettling color choices that mirror the dissonant dominant seventh of a jazz tritone. In "Miss Emma Johnson's House, 331-333 Basin Street," a not-quite-right mauve sky activates a geometric house rendered in chalky blues and sickly grays. Overstreet refuses to resolve the color and instead leaves us with the always-unresolved tension of a Thelonious Monk solo.

Seen from a moving train, Overstreet's 18 paintings might look like the standard fare of abstract expressionism. After all, he emerged from the same crucible of postwar painting as Joan Mitchell and Franz Kline, and it shows in the full complement of drips, scrapes and palette-knife arabesques. But unlike his contemporaries, Overstreet both uses and undermines the modernist tradition that gave birth to him. Instead of the drama of a flicked paintbrush, Overstreet chooses the drama of New Orleans' potent stew of color, class and gender. Like Jacob Lawrence before him, Overstreet insists on remnants of narrative content at the expense of pure formal investigation.

The tension makes him a more complicated and interesting painter, balancing the contradictions of being a black artist in modernism's white world. It's worth noting that the tradition of resistance continues, for example, in Atlanta artists Kevin Sipp's and Cullen Washington Jr.'s complex responses to postmodernism. (Washington's Hoodlores Series is currently on view at the Rialto.)

The federal government shut down Storyville in 1917. Appropriately, the Storyville Series is City Gallery East's final show before it closes. I can think of no better tribute than Overstreet's festive second-line parade as another chapter in Atlanta's history comes to an end.

Storyville Series. Through Aug. 1. Free. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. City Gallery East, 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-817-6981. www.bcaatlanta.com.

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