New York

Elijah Pierce

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Elijah Pierce is an 84-year-old black man who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He is a barber and a sculptor. He showed a remarkable set of carved wood reliefs painted with enamel and occasional glitter. The works portray religious scenes from the Bible, narrate scenes from the history of slavery (Pierce’s father was a slave), illustrate old sayings (“Life is a book and each day is a page”) and generally involve subject matter unavailable to present-day sculpture and painting in New York.

The best work was the Noah’s Ark scene. The animals, in pairs, were carved with an affection for the strength and solidity of the animal form. Pierce knows what he wants, and knows how to do it, technically. This scene had a largely unpainted (though varnished) surface; only some peripheral foliage was painted green. The animals were not obscured by the briskly applied enamel that tended to hide rather than articulate form in other works. The detail of the carving was also more apparent. The detail enriches what is essentially a narrative scene with many individual points of interest and also an all-over surface density.

Pierce does not seem to work on the assumption that there is a division between “arts” and “crafts.” In this sense, it is difficult to agree with the label “primitive” as it applies to Pierce, for the craft is more than workmanlike, it’s expressive. The animals were naturalistic and also analytically concise, both statically arranged in staggered flat spaces and animated, full of life. If “full of life” seems a bit trite or sentimental, it is again only because we are not used to thinking in terms of the value of craft, craft vitalizing form in the expression of feeling through subject matter. We hardly even think in terms of subject matter, except in photography.

Pierce’s themes are handled with honesty and humility (as only a man of unquestioning faith can do), and this elicited a curious response on my part: what do these pictures and their values mean in the context of the art gallery? If an artist who worked in SoHo presented such work, how would we take it? As irony? If a man like Pierce lived in SoHo (granting the unlikeliness of that), would we be able to understand his work? The experience of these reliefs was one of lost possibilities.

In fact, only subject matter (here, Christian-religious) can afford the simple, loving creation of forms devoid of self-consciousness and full of security and faith. The success of these works as “folk art” in New York is really the disillusioned modern yearning for “simple” human values and confidence in a situation dominated (for them) by obscure, societal forces. I do not subscribe to this innocent bliss theory of folk art, but I do respond to Pierce’s pictures with a great deal of innocent pleasure.

Jeff Perrone