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Abstract Art Comes To LIU Post With ‘Navigator’

Paintings by Joe Overstreet on display at LIU Post through Sept. 27, lecture tonight

Artist Joe Overstreet has led a fairly interesting life so far. Born in Conehatta, Mississippi in 1933 of both African American and Native American descent, he saw the world from the water when he joined the Merchant Marine right after high school. After spending several years in the Merchant Marine, he was inspired to paint, eventually becoming part of a community of artists in New York City during the Civil Rights movement, fighting bigotry and ignorance through his art. Now approaching 80 years of age, he’s still painting in his NYC studio today.

With such a background, one might expect the current show in the Hutchins Gallery at Long Island University, “Navigator: Paintings By Joe Overstreet,” to be filled with representational work expressing his love for the beauty of the sea, or political paintings from the ’60s and ’70s. However, in recent years, Overstreet has turned increasingly toward abstraction. While the paintings on display at LIU (all recent work from 2011-2012) do feature some recognizable figurative elements, such as birds’ wings, “Navigator” mainly features pieces defined more by bold shapes and bright colors than any easily discernible topic.

“The artist claims that he no longer has to look for a subject,” says show curator Virginia Creighton. According to Creighton, Overstreet no longer feels the need to inject political meaning in his art (although he doesn’t object if an observer brings a political view to the work) and instead paints from a more personal motivation; looking to capture little moments in nature, like the movement of a leaf in the wind, that symbolize his search for his place in the universe through art.

Overstreet uses the technique of mixing melted wax with his oil paints, called encaustic painting, which helps him achieve vibrant colors. Next to color, shape is very important to him; the show features many arcs and ovals, both of which have great personal significance.

“He was always told as a child that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so the arc is something that became important to him from an early age,” said Creighton.

He also incorporates math in his paintings. His mathematician father-in-law introduced him to Fibonacci numbers, a numerical sequence closely related to the golden mean that is often repeated in nature. Intrigued by the fact that these numbers seem to explain aspects of life, Overstreet includes Fibonacci-inspired spirals in his compositions to dovetail with his personal search for meaning. While he comes from a background of religious faith (his grandfather was a minister in Mississippi), rather than appealing to any specific religion, his work appears to represent a personal spiritual journey.

For Creighton, who has known the artist for many years and watched his work evolve, the show has been a joy to put together. “This was a wonderful process, because I got to see the artist’s work in his wonderful studio,” she said. “It’s just an amazing experience, when you get close to the artist and find out what makes them want to do their work.”

Creighton will deliver a lecture on “Navigator,” featuring audio recordings of the artist, at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, at the B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library, Reference Commons; the lecture is free. The exhibit runs through Sept. 27 at the Hutchins Gallery in the B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library on the LIU Post campus, located at 720 Northern Boulevard in Brookville. Hours are 2 to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.