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On a drizzly May night, fans converge on the 9:30 Club for the semiregular Groove Gumbo music and arts showcase. As the crowd watches the soul bands onstage, another show takes place unannounced in the balcony: Twenty-foot images, stark compositions in black, white, and red, flash upon a side wall in what’s part art exhibit, part marketing ploy.
Rodney “Buck” Herring got the idea from a job at the Newseum, where he created graphics for the 126-foot-long Video News Wall that dominated the museum’s main hall. Now Herring, 29, uses a video projector to throw images of his printsthe originals measure around 3 feet square-onto the larger “canvas” of nightclub walls. Though he’s exhibited his prints traditionally, at the usual struggling-artist spaceslocal restaurants, last year’s Art-O-Matic eventhe’s hoping the multimedia approach will help him find a larger audience. “It can capture a whole room’s attention,” he says hopefully.
The Baltimore native started drawing when he was 7, largely to pass the time when he went along with his mother to her real-estate job. A District resident since 1997, he studied art and graphic design at Hampton University but started his career teaching computer classes at a Baltimore high school. After three years at the Newseum, Herring landed back in the computer lab, this time at H.D. Cooke Elementary. All the while, he ran a graphic-design shop on the side.
Herring creates his images using photographs from old books or shots taken by his design firm’s photographer. He manipulates the photos in various graphic-design programs, flattening the images, removing most of the colors, and replacing them with his signature red, black, and white. The result is like a black-and-white TV picture with the contrast turned way up: Details become ambiguous, yet the forms remain prominent. “It’s a process of breaking images down until you get the desired effect,” Herring says.
The content in his debut series, Palmaresnamed for a Brazilian state where escaped African slaves lived in freedomis minimal: three little black boys standing together, a close-up of someone’s eye, half of the face of an Afro-coiffed woman with lush eyelashes. But the opposing colors suggest an underlying tension. “I used…black and white because they elicit an automatic response,” says Herring, “and red because it’s significant to the African diaspora.”
Clearly, Herring has something political to get off his chest. One of his prints, Inspiration2, pictures former Black Panther H. Rap Brown. Another piece, Indoctrination, depicts a man behind prison bars, his face obscured in shadow, white stars burning where his eyes should be.
Herring calls the prints “glimpses of reality”a reality he believes people of African descent can identify with. The stars in the convict’s eyes are a poke at American society. “I thought of it as the oppressive Stars and Stripes,” he says. “It’s also a beacon, like the North Star was to the slaves.”
Though he continues to show his work in traditional venues, hoping to reach that broader audience, Herring thinks local indie-music fans like those at Groove Gumbo may be more likely to become his patrons. “This is the black art scene in D.C.,” he says. “These people are willing to think beyond the norm.” Celeste Dawn Mitchell