McArthur Binion & Jules Allen: Me and You | Gray Gallery, Chicago

BY Folasade Ologundudu, May 1, 2024

Let us, for a moment (or rather an eternity), forget America’s falsehoods of white superiority, and thus, by default, Black inferiority, and the notion that Black lives are all dread, suffering, and poverty. We have heard this story one too many times, and it is tiresome and untrue. Instead, let us remember the everyday moments of glory, richness, and rhythmic movement that is Black life, in all its nuanced forms. These are the moments reflected in the photographs of Jules Allen: a group of children playing in front of an open fire hydrant on a hot day; a procession of men in a marching band captured in a candid moment; a group of women congregating on a city street, one with foam rollers in her hair. It is here that Allen’s photographs shine. His images jump and pivot with motion as bodies take flight, hats tilt with style, street scenes commingle and mesh, and light creates abstract forms.  

Jules Allen, Untitled, 1996-97. Courtesy Gray Gallery

In McArthur Binion & Jules Allen: Me and You, on view through May 31, works by the two artists are shown together for the first time, after nearly 40 years of friendship and intellectual discourse. “For  40  years we’ve  been  looking  at  each  other’s  work  and  talking  about  it,” said Allen in an interview with the author. “Not  only  that,  we’re  looking  at  each  other. His  sense  of  line, design, and  balance  is  the  same  as  my  photographs. The  design  of  my  photographs  is  the  same  as  his  paintings.” Allen’s striking images of everyday life, and the profoundly personal abstract paintings of Binion both draw upon the innovation of the avant-garde. Their careers percolated during the Black avant-garde of the 1970s and ‘80s in New York City, a period marked by experimentation and innovation.

Presenting a new body of work, Handmadeness, Binion constellates intricate geographies and personal histories into interwoven compositional grids. Handmadeness:three, in varying hues of violet, is particularly striking. The work, which reveals Binion’s face, interlaces history and memory through laborious repeated patterns. Allen showcases images taken over the past 40 years across the U.S. and Africa that display the expansive dynamism and insightful observations of Black life that characterize his photographs. His images are a celebration of the ways in which we build worlds through movement, sound, and imagination. 

Jules Allen, Untitled, 2000. Courtesy Gray Gallery

A retired Professor Emeritus of art and design at Queensborough College, Allen has published numerous books, including The Hats and the Hat Nots (QCC Gallery Press, 2022) and Your Own Sweet Way (QCC Gallery Press, 2013). The compositional grid and the sharp angles of Allen’s Untitled, (1996-97), from The Hats and the Hat Nots, suggests parallels with Binion’s work. In the image, a woman sits on the stone ledge of a massive church door, her head bowed and hands clasped. Her hat tilts as she takes a solitary moment of rest. In Untitled (2000-02), from Your Own Sweet Way, Allen’s fourth book documenting images from Africa, the foreground is dominated by a large foosball table. Two men play the game as a child observes with curious, shy eyes. Behind him another child walks past the table, a large basket on his head filled with produce. The images provide a glimpse into the lives of Black Americans and Africans throughout the diaspora.