Los Angeles

“Black Folk Art In America 1930–1980”

The only problem with the traveling show “Black Folk Art in America,” organized by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. and culminating this month at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, is its premise and the abysmal catalogue essay by Jane Livingston, the Corcoran’s associate director. Once these obstacles are vaulted the show offers, with minor exceptions, artworks as fresh and as exhilarating as any in SoHo galleries.

That one can discern black American folk art as a discrete entity separated from other folk art is a preposterous assumption. In defense of the exhibition’s premise, there are shared cultural traditions among Southern Blacks whose memories of African culture and of slavery have not yet turned to yogurt. But contemporary black American culture is no more exempt than white American culture from mass culture’s homogenizing permeation. And to assert, as Livingston does in her catalogue essay, that American folk art is dominated, “in authenticity and in sheer numbers of practitioners, by black folk artists,” is patently absurd. It isn’t even true of Southern folk art, though Livingston suggests that the most authentic black American folk art is from the rural South—perhaps because this is an area of the country where folk art predominates over fine art and Blacks are more distinctly isolated from both mass culture and white culture than elsewhere.

To continue that “the style I am characterizing has to do not with crafts or traditional utilitarian artisanship, but with full-fledged gratuitous art objects, paintings and drawings and sculptures,” further distorts folk art’s nature, suggesting that by embodiment in these presumably more esthetically exalted traditional fine-art forms folk art gains legitimacy. Folk-culture scholar Henry Glassie has argued that the purest forms of folk art are ephemeral—flower gardens, decorated holiday foods, scarecrows, snowmen, harvest figures—and are consequently by their very nature not containable in the neutral spaces of museums or galleries because they are tied to nature and its seasons. Whether or not one perceives such forms as the purest folk art they are undeniably a huge aspect of it and cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, how can an exhibition’s organizers claim a title as all-encompassing as “Black Folk Art in America” for works of art by only 19 black Americans? The bottom line of the show’s premise is that it must have been eminently fundable. But raising money doesn’t make a good show—good art does, and it is to the organizers’ credit that for the most part they have chosen very good art indeed.

Typically, folk artists make conceptual images, taken not from direct observation of the world but from their memories and feelings. Though composition as a concept may elude self-educated, untrained artists, many folk artists possess an innate sense of composition. Such a one is Sister Gertrude Morgan, who in 1957 received “divine word” that she was to become the bride of Christ. From then until her death in 1980 she wore only white garments, and gradually painted and upholstered everything in her house white. The objects she used in her missionary work—megaphones, fans, her guitar case, paintings—were the only ones painted bright colors, and these colors took on a visionary intensity in the white environment of her home. Installed in a white room in the museum her objects seem apocalyptic, as she believed them to be.

Though folk art frequently emanates from profoundly felt religious beliefs—folk artists often believe that God told them to make art—secular and even profane life is well represented in the exhibition. Steve Ashby’s whirligig Woman and Mule, 1970s, for example, depicts an act of copulation formerly reserved for Tiajuana nightclubs (supposedly) and bestiality porn. The wind-activated pumping action is a witty and jaded variation of whirligigs’ traditional themes: churning butter, sawing wood, scrubbing laundry.

George White ingeniously combines disparate elements in his small, constructed genre scenes. His Emancipation House, 1964, includes a Popsicle-stick picket fence, a drawing and text from a book, part of a plastic plant, a toy ladder, and a small ceramic dog. Surprisingly, his sense of color, size, scale, and shape integrate these various elements into a coherent whole. The most appealing genre scene in the show is White’s Gone Fishing, 1965. A bare-breasted woman sits on a small platform atop a one-gallon jar, her fishing line dangling through the mirror-water into a subaqueous construction below, featuring small ceramic fish. Like the dog in Emancipation House, the fish are mass-produced dimestore sculptures, transformed and refreshed by their new context.

Many such examples of popular art enter these folk expressions, primarily in constructions that incorporate mass-produced popular art objects, their homogeneity domesticated and individualized by their new setting. David Butler’s Walking Stick with Figure, ca. 1975, transforms a plastic flower, some grapes, a toy block, an umbrella handle, and a toy sheep into an unlikely walking stick—a highly idiosyncratic object. Another kind of transformation of popular art occurs in William Dawson’s small, totemic Chicken George, 1977, which depicts a character from the television series Roots. Unlike the famous Hopi Indian kachina doll with a Mickey Mouse face, this confluence of indigenous and popular culture does not pervert; rather, Chicken George has come home from television.

Some constructions use unusual media: Nellie Mae Rowe’s Two-Faced Head, 1980, and Purple Pig, ca. 1975, use chewing gum as a modeling material. The former’s garish color and exuberant decoration convey extraordinarily heightened intensity, transcending the obvious “split personality” reading.

A deep sense of spiritualism pervades much of the sculpture in the show. The staring fiberglass eyes Jesse Aaron applied to his mostly wooden constructions make contact with something beyond the world of mere mortals. Aaron—who was half Seminole Indian, but never mind—seems to have hacked and gouged strangely grained chunks of wood, joining some and finding others complete in themselves. Though crudely formed, Aaron’s figures have a refined sense of tranquility and harmony. Those of James “Son Ford” Thomas, on the other hand, are forlorn and macabre, with strangely staring, vacant eyes. His Skull with Corn Teeth, 1973, is as powerful a memento mori as any I’ve seen.

William Edmondson’s stone carvings too seem set apart from the mortal world. “Jesus has planted the seed of carving in me,” Edmondson told a Time magazine reporter in 1937, when the Museum of Modern Art showed 12 examples of his work. The artist began by carving grave markers, then turned to sculptural animal and human forms. The profound sense of eternity of Speaking Owl, ca. 1937, for instance, affiliates it with Egyptian sculpture, while its simplicity suggests the most modern American sculpture of Edmondson’s time.

The star of the show by far is Bill Traylor, whose pencil, crayon, and gouache drawings on shirt cardboards and other scraps of paper strut and wobble, dive and amble, with the grace and economy of acutely observed living gestures. Traylor often drew the general shape of his subject with a straightedge, then animated the lines with the slightest bulge, curve, or twist. So sure is his sense of line that the simplest variation of a mechanical line brings flat shapes to mercurial life. His figures’ simplicity and sense of essence is at once Paleolithic and ultramodern.

Even with its dubious premise and the catalogue essay’s lapses, the exhibition, ranging from raucous profanity to serene spiritualism, is an exuberant success and a very impressive feat. At a time when many fine artists affect naive styles, this show demonstrates that the true source of art is deep conviction and a compelling urge to embody it.

Bruce Kurtz