Critics’ Picks

James “Son Ford” Thomas, Untitled ,1987, unfired clay, artificial hair, sunglasses, wire, aluminum foil, beads, glass marbles, paint, 11 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 5 1/2".

New York

James “Son Ford” Thomas

80WSE Gallery, NYU Steinhardt School
80 Washington Square East
June 9 - August 7

James “Son Ford” Thomas began making skulls at the age of ten with the intent to scare his grandfather. Not amused, Thomas’s grandfather cried out when he encountered the first memento mori, ordering Thomas to get rid of the clay likeness. Not deterred, Thomas tied a string to his grandparents’ bedsprings, ran it through a crack in the wall, and tugged at it during the night—assuming the posture of a true prankster. He wanted to “shake ’em up.”

Thomas recounts this anecdote in documentary footage presented in his first major institutional presentation, “The Devil and His Blues.” In a succession of rooms that organize works by their figurative content, birds, caskets, busts, and dioramas join Thomas’s skulls. Working with unfired clay found in the earth of his native Mississippi, Thomas made facial features from resonant materials: an untitled, undated likeness of George Washington has cotton hair and marbles for eyes, and an untitled skull from 1989 features aluminum foil eye sockets and teeth made of pebbles. These small sculptures (few exceed ten inches in any dimension) upset expectations: the skulls were often made for humdrum use—as pencil holders, ashtrays—while the placid birds obliquely reference a prohibition that prevented African Americans from hunting meat-rich quail.

Thomas is widely known as a Delta blues musician, and he also worked as a sharecropper and a gravedigger. Presentations of Thomas’s work are bound to explore the reverberations of these occupations, but this exhibition wisely avoids leaning heavily on mythic backstory. Idiosyncratic as Thomas can seem, he stakes out a generous foothold in the jumble of experiences, preoccupations, and passions that make up the textures of American life.