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Review: Dolin and Graves at Madame Walker

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Leslie Dolin and Mike Graves, "Betty Davis" (detail), from Sister Soul
  • Leslie Dolin and Mike Graves, "Betty Davis" (detail), from Sister Soul

The subjects of the portraits that make up 'Sister Soul' are African-American soul singers of the '60s and '70s—women like Tammi Terrell, Nina Simone, and Chaka Khan. Their likenesses could find no more appropriate home at the Madame Walker Theatre Center, which has hosted a few not a few soul legends in its time.

And just as these singers collaborated with the bands they fronted, Leslie Dolin and Mike Graves combined their talents in this show to create a seamless and inspired artistic vision. Graves built up collages on canvas and painted them before handing them over to Dolin, who composed the portraits in inks, oil and acrylic. (It’s no accident that many of the portraits are painted on sheets of gospel music, just as soul music is based on a foundation of gospel.)

The portrait of Khan, the largest canvas in this series, shows the soul diva knelt down onstage on spread knees, in a revealing dress and holding the microphone tight to her mouth. Khan’s hand, which holds the microphone, is painted bright yellow over a clearly visible page of sheet music. So is the hand of her other arm reaching heavenward. The pose is at once sexual and soulful, prayerful and enticing.

Like all of the other subjects here, Chaka Khan is instantly recognizable. That is to say Dolin is capable of a dead-on realism, though there are expressionistic, painterly touches in these works as well.

Another highlight of the show is the portrait of Nina Simone, which sees this singer in a thoughtful pose while a passing passenger train—a signature Mike Graves image—seems to emanate from her brain. Through Sept. 13 at Madame Walker Theatre Center

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