In her long career -- she taught for 47 years at Howard University -- Lois Mailou Jones surely had to struggle. She is female and black, she lived through revolutions. One sees that in her work. Yet her paintings never yell or thrash. Their main strength is their calm.
No one who explores the spare survey of her work (it covers 40 years) that is now on exhibition at the Phillips Collection here will find her paintings slipshod. But neither are they shocking.
The School of Paris still lifes of 1938, with which her exhibition opens, show how carefully she studied the pictures of Cezanne and of older masters. First in Boston, then in Paris, Lois Jones was trained. She drew from plaster casts and from living models. She was taught to use the palette knife, and to catch the look of light on linen, silver, glass. From the first she understood that there is more to painting than headlong innovation or mere self-expression. Jones believes in craft.
But craft can be a prison. Jones understands that, too. Much as she admires, perhaps even loves European painting, she will not hide her blackness behind the well-made brush strokes of her well-made paintings. Even in the 1930s, when to do so involved risk, Lois Jones acknowledged her blackness in her art.
In Paris in the 30s she painted masks from Africa. There is a 1939 picture in her show of a man in a cafe in Paris. The wine he drinks is French; his pose recalls the portraits of Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas, but his face is black.
Her style, not surprisingly, has changed much since then. Nowadays she often paints hard-edged, uninflected panels of flat color and concentric circles much like Kenneth Noland's, but Africa remains a subject and a source of her past-accepting art.
Her "Congo Dance Mask" of 1972 includes a 3-D wooden mask, cowrie shells and beads. In "Ubi Girl from Tai Region," 1972, a work in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, two differing traditions, one African, one European, calmly coexist.
Her pictures at times are wholly apolitical. The beauty that she found 40 years ago in a simple still life is not so very different from that which she sees today in the look of sun on tile roofs, on mountains and the sea. Her "Homage to Martin Luther King," 1968, is, in contrast, a picture full of pain.
In her final years at Howard, Jones was sometimes criticized by anti-bourgeois students there for being too "colonial," but Jones had been around too long to think of painting landscapes as some sort of betrayal. Her current show makes clear that she has always been loyal to her heritage, her training, and herself. She is not a prophet, nor is she a retrograde. Lois Jones is a painter of her time. Her exhibition closes Oct. 31.