Growing up in Compton, he dreamt of being Michelangelo.
In high school – where he charged $20 a pop for portraits of his schoolmates’ mothers and girlfriends – he was known as “Willie the Artist.” He went on to post-secondary training as an artist, too.
But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, after he’d had enough of work as a medical photographer and then as a coordinator for public access cable TV, that Los Angeles artist Willie Robert Middlebrook “finally decided” on his vocation. He dropped commercial photography and turned his attention to his art.
Work produced since that decision will be featured in a solo show at USC Fisher Gallery from Sept. 5 through Nov. 21.
The 40 digitally manipulated photo-paintings were created primarily in the last five years under the general title “Portraits of My People.” The pieces, taken from the “Black Angel,” “God Suite” and “Sinner Man” series, range in size from 17 by 22 inches to a heroic 8 by 16 and-a-half feet.
“The exhibition explores the aesthetic that informs Middlebrook’s choice of subject and manipulation of pictorial language,” said Max Schulz, co-curator with Ariadni Liokatis of “Family Pictures/Ecumenical Icons.”
“Focusing his lens on himself, wife, children, close family and friends, he translates these intimate portraits of African-Americans into an all-encompassing heritage, resonant with biblical and mythic overtones, of the human family,” Schulz said.
Middlebrook calls himself a “visual communicator.” He writes in his artist’s statement: “After spending almost all of my pre-adult and the majority of my adult life seeing negative, non-quality or no images at all of my people, I decided that there was a need to direct my focus exclusively to producing great images of my people; not necessarily in a positive light, but always in a true light.”
New developments in Middlebrook’s art include mixed-media collages and 6-foot polychrome ink-jet prints.
Middlebrook attributes the scale of his work partly to his own scale – about 6 feet 2 inches and 400 pounds – as well as to a lesson learned long ago that the bigger the art, the better it gets remembered.
The process Middlebrook uses for what he terms his “giant diaries” is an eclectic one.
“I believe in appropriating images, so I appropriate my own,” he said. Drawing on his street photography and pictures of his family members for the “Black Angel” pieces, Middlebrook scans the images into a Macintosh and then works with them in Photoshop. For the abstract elements, he employs what he calls “controlled staining”: dripping photo-chemistry onto images until he achieves the desired effect.
Middlebrook never worked in color before going digital and still likes to shoot in black and white.
“The computer gave me control over color. It allowed me to expand on my imagination and put in elements of the way I see things, the way my mind works.”
Each piece has a personal meaning to Middlebrook. He gives the example of “Black Angel 43: His World 2,” a work commissioned by USC Fisher Gallery and now part of the university’s collection. About a year ago, Middlebrook explained, he was stricken with Bell’s palsy – a kind of paralysis affecting one side of the face only. He manipulated the self-portrait in the middle of the piece to capture the feeling of the disease, “of the face moving off, of losing control of your muscles.”
But, Middlebrook said, it’s not important what his interpretation is. “Art is about sharing,” he said. “Whether the response is positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – it’s only with a non-response that you’ve failed.”
An admirer of da Vinci and still an avid fan of Michelangelo (he saw “The Agony and the Ecstasy” three times this year alone), Middlebrook said that what he appreciates most about these Renaissance men is their inventiveness.
So, any digital Sistine ceilings in his future? “If,” he said, “someone lets me.”
USC Fisher Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.
on Tuesday, Sept. 11, and Tuesday, Oct. 2, from noon to 1 p.m.
“Families at Fisher” on Saturday, Oct. 20, from noon to 3 p.m.
Tuesday tours, Sept. 25, Oct. 9, 16, 23, 30 and Nov. 13, 20, beginning at noon.
Admission to the exhibition and all events is free. Call (213) 740-4561 or visit https://www.usc.edu/fishergallery for more information. See http://home.pacbell.net/wrmbrook to learn more about the artist and his work.