Artist Cullen Washington Jr.’s most recent collection of abstract paintings was inspired by the “agora,” or the public gathering spaces in ancient Greece that gave birth to democracy.

He will discuss his work and how it links to human interconnectivity during the “Artist Talk with Cullen Washington, Jr.: Abstract Meditations on the Grid and Humanity,” at 5:10 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Michigan Theater.

The event is presented by the Penny Stamps Speaker Series and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and is part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. It is free and open to the public.   

Artist Cullen Washington Jr. poses next to one of his abstract pieces.
Artist Cullen Washington Jr. poses next to one of his abstract pieces.

The talk will kick off an exhibition of about two dozen pieces of Washington’s work at the museum. The exhibit runs through May 17.

“What Cullen seems to look at is how does the idea of the town square reflect how we organized ourselves as human society,” said Lisa Borgsdorf, manager of public programs for UMMA. “I think that’s a really compelling topic for all of us, including students, especially in this time when we’re looking at the relationships between institutions and history, and how that has manifested in terms of societal divisions and policies. It’s very timely.

“The work itself is just stunning.”

Washington has had a lifelong interest in art. His first solo exhibition was at age 9, when his drawings of animals and superheroes were hung in the library of his Louisiana elementary school.

Today, Washington lives and works in New York City. His art has been shown internationally, including at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

He said he favors abstract art because it has a broad reach and can unify people by appealing to what he calls humanity’s greatest common denominators: their minds, emotions and souls.

Washington started working on the body of work called “Agora” in 2016. He said his art was enriched by his spring 2019 ARCAthens artist residency in Athens, Greece, where he visited an agora and learned about its important role in both the creation of democracy and freedom of speech.

Washington said public squares are exhibition spaces for democracy, humanity and freedom — all themes that run through his work.

“Art (is) a way of thinking for me, always has been,” Washington said. “It is a way of communication, and a way of interacting with the world.”

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