New York

Bessie Harvey

Despite being misused and overused, the term “visionary art” describes the art of Bessie Harvey in its most profound and moving sense, as an evocation of the connections between material and spiritual being. Her organic sculptures are realizations of invention and faith, in a form that is both physical and metaphysical. Using fragments of the trunks, limbs, or roots of trees, together with wood putty, spray paint, house paint, glitter, glass and plastic beads, feathers, dried vines, and other found materials, Harvey creates works whose meanings are layered like the inner and outer skin of personal and universal realities. The images that emerge from the gnarled and knotty wood grain transcend both formal analysis and theological interpretation, instead speaking to us directly about the inspiration, eccentricity, and esthetic gift of their mother-creator.

Harvey's spiritualism is not that of conventional religious doctrine but a home-grown faith based on a wide assortment of mystical, humanitarian, and Christian principles. Her ideas evolved out of the indigenous racial, social, moral, and folkloric traditions that have influenced her life and shaped her identity. Born in Georgia in 1928, the seventh of 13 children in a poor black family, Harvey was married at the age of 14; she now lives in Tennessee and has 11 children and 26 grandchildren. Her artmaking is about the faith that has sustained her with strength, dignity, hope, and love through years of emotional and physical struggle. This is apparent in the works shown here, which were made between 1983 and '87.

The faces that emerge from Harvey's sculpted, painted, and variously embellished wood forms are gestural narrative expressions. Some of the sculptures have descriptive titles—such as The Beast, 1983, and The Healing and Blue Eye, both 1986—but most are untitled. They pay reverent homage to the artist's mythologized impressions of her sacred black ancestry, reincarnating the proud oppressed spirits of old Africa, cherished in her imagination as a black Eden. Her discovery of human characters (or trapped souls) in tree limbs is an obsessive act dedicated to the intrinsic beauty in all things underappreciated and overlooked. Their physical and psychological traits unconsciously reflect the artist's extensive autobiographical memory. However, their vigor comes from the cosmological union of nature and God. Steeped in powerful voodoo beliefs, charged with the gospel grace and energy of Baptist fervor, Harvey's art is a transfiguration of the earthly into the sublime. Her organic sculptures are like Jungian models of inanimate objects spiritually empowered and activated through worship.

The mysterious artistic territory that Harvey builds upon is fertile ground. Although we are kept from a complete understanding of much visionary art (or our acceptance of it as divine revelation) by a web of modern cultural, religious, and esthetic preconceptions, her works are at the very least accessible as esthetically dynamic icons. Viewers who tend to heed the rational part of their psyches over the irrational may never appreciate the full richness of Harvey and other outsider or visionary artists. I believe that her art serves as a sincere form of personal therapy as well as a cathartic totem for the human community. We can ask no more from any artist.

Carlo McCormick