Few artists have been blessed to create an image that later becomes an icon. Van Gogh can claim Starry Night and Leonardo Da Vinci hit it big with the Mona Lisa (though I must point out that he did work on refining it for 15 years). Among them now is Ernie Barnes who definitely got it right with this one. Sugar Shack, one of the most acclaimed images in the past century, is a snapshot of a dance floor within the eastern and southern United States during the 1950’s-1960s. This region had a collective of venues that were safer for black performers to take the stage and was lovingly referred to as the Chitlin Circuit. Due to its subject matter and vibrant depiction this work is not only one of Ernie’s most coveted pieces, but it was also featured as the background for rolling credits in the hit show Good Times. During the shows reign on the air Sugar Shack also appeared on the album cover for Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. Then three years later featured during the same Motown special in which Michael Jackson revealed his famously revered moonwalk to the world.
Barnes’ extension of limbs and depiction of movement is undeniably successful. The figures of Sugar Shack have all been molded to move within, as well as move the eye around, the painting. The eye takes a bit of time to rest on one spot in this painting as a testament to this. In other words, the characters are not only captivating as single units but also interlock to make a dynamic whole. Sugar Shack’s composition is also successful in unifying the back and foreground. As readers of the English language our eyes naturally scan from left to right. Thus this piece was designed so that upon reaching the left border the viewers eyes can follow the staircase and balcony until they are pulled back to the point of emphasis— the dance floor. Creating a flow for the eyes similar to the shape of the records the subjects of this piece are sure to go home and spin!
On another note (pun intended) the subject of the majority of Barnes’ work is the humanity of man. Sugar Shack is no an exception. Notice how every character within the piece has their eyes closed. Barnes spoke on this visceral detail by saying the following, “…I began to see, observe, how blind we are to one another’s humanity. Blinded by a lot of things that have, perhaps, initiated feelings in that light. We don’t see into the depths of our interconnection. The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings. We stop at color quite often. So one of the things we have to be aware of is who we are in order to have the capacity to like others. But when you cannot visualize the offerings of another human being you’re obviously not looking at the human being with open eyes.” This is not only a wonderful touch to the already captivating piece, but it is also interesting in relation to its palette. Without considering the browns, this entire painting consists of the primary (basic) colors red, yellow, and blue. These colors create all other colors known to man. And are used in harmony to highlight the life within the work. The social and technical components of this piece are the painterly stroke of genius.
In conclusion, Sugar Shack captures the jovial energy and addresses the intricate social structures of a historic time period. All the while remaining simple and exciting. Don’t have to take my word for it. Classic television has also approved this piece as a punctuation to good times.
Review Written by James Sprang
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