Critics’ Picks

Ralph Lemon, Untitled, 2013-14, archival pigment print, dimensions variable.

New York

“When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South”

The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
March 27 - June 29

Southern comfort comes at a cost. Or at least, so suggests Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Vegan Arm, 2006, a skeletal limb offering up a pail of what looks like Pepto Bismal at the entrance to “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South.” The group show of thirty-five artists subscribes to the Southern Gothic notion of a land of patched roofs and porch swings, where imagination is as fertile as the soil, and artistic production can be directly tied to visions. The danger with fetishizing the South as a spiritual intoxicant, however, is that those who drink too deeply risk indigestion.

Hancock’s sculpture is part of the artist’s elaborate self-scripted mythology around “Mounds,” human-plant hybrids threatened by the evil race of “Vegans,” but his is only one of the visionary universes glimpsed within the exhibition, which surveys such “outsider” artists as Minnie Evans, Bessie Harvey, Marie “Big Mama” Roseman, and J. B. Murray. The last, for instance, an illiterate farmer from rural Georgia, produced thousands of calligraphic scrawls—“the language of the Holy Spirit, direct from God”—after an eagle appeared to him. Other manifestations are contaminated by a murky undercurrent of voodoo, detectable in works by John Outterbridge, David Hammons, James “Son” Thomas, Rudy Shepherd, and even Ralph Lemon, who photographs eerie, animal-masked figures in low-income interiors. The exhibition is at its richest when it embraces the erotic permissiveness associated with the Deep South. Witness the sloppy pansexuality permeating drawings by Henry Speller and his wife Georgia; the grinning hijinks of the pastel, Pokémon-like creatures populating Frank Albert Jones’s “Devil Houses”; or Patricia Satterwhite’s sketches of potential QVC commodities, with their lurid, TV-ready taglines.

That said, the show buckles when it tries to force inspiration, as with the calculated spontaneity of Xaviera Simmons’s The Favorable Outcome of Every Navigation, 2014, and Courtesy the Artist’s 24-Hour Ballad, 2013–14, which invited friends and collaborators to offer their own interpretation of the folk standard “Black is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair),” to mixed results. The thing about a Southern drawl is that one can always tell when it’s affected.