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B. CONEHATTA, MISSISSIPPI, 1933

Joe Overstreet began his career in the Bay Area. He lived in the North Beach section of San Francisco, and was a fixture of the Beat scene. After moving to New York, he and his partner Corrine Jennings established Kenkeleba House, a gallery that has presented innumerable exhibitions of work by artists of color and women. Overstreet’s work of the late 1950s to the mid 1960s assimilates his interests in Abstract Expressionism, Jazz, and African-American history. Many of his paintings are direct responses to the Civil Rights movement, racism, and the history of lynchings.  


By 1967, Overstreet started working with shaped canvases.  He used wooden dowels shaped with a jigsaw and hand tools to make intricate stretchers, painting figures in patterns drawn from Aztec, Benin, and Egyptian cultures. Overstreet said, “I was beginning to look at my art in a different light, not as protest, but as a statement about people...By 1970 I had broken free from notions that paintings had to be on the wall in rectangular shapes.”

 

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Overstreet was a major innovator in terms of taking the canvas off the wall.  In his “Flight Pattern” series of the early 1970s, painted, unstretched canvases are tethered with ropes to the ceiling, walls, and floor. Many assume mandala-like imagery. Overstreet states, “I began to make paintings that were tentlike.  I was making nomadic art, and I could roll it up and travel...We had survived with our art by rolling it up and moving it all over... I felt like a nomad myself, with all the insensitivity in America.”


Over the past several decades, Overstreet has been a relentless experimenter– investigating both the spatial and textural possibilities of painting, and also complex cultural histories.


Overstreet’s work can be found in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Mississippi Museum, Rennie Collection and the Menil Collection. Since the 1960s, Overstreet has been part of watershed, historical museum exhibitions: most recently, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the age of Black Power” at the Tate Modern, London.

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