New York

Willie Birch

A native of New Orleans and a resident of Brooklyn, Willie Birch has focused primarily on telling the story of black urban life through sophisticated visual portraits and fables. His figurative, brightly colored narrative paintings and papier-mâché sculptures are informed by folk and funk in equal measure. But in his recent installation, entitled Spirit House, 1993, Birch set his sights on three African-American traditions of the rural South: the yard show, the shotgun shack, and the bottle tree. Lining the perimeter of the central room with a variety of empty bottles and dried flowers, he constructed a simple wood and papier-mâché frame house in the center, out of which a real tree sprouted. Both the house and tree were garlanded with bottles and a variety of other objects as well as poems, contributed not only by the artist himself, but by 106 others—a communal effort that underscored the work’s central theme of the importance of the home.

Like his figurative sculptures (each of which bears a central, glass-covered vessel filled with a mysterious mixture of elements—Kongo nkisi charms by way of New Orleans voodoo gris-gris) the yard, shack, and tree that comprised Spirit House were visually and metaphorically polyvalent. The empty, reflective bottle or vessel, which has been used for centuries in Afro-Atlantic culture as a decorative/protective tool, has a two-fold purpose: to protect the grave and the house against harmful spirits, and to retain and shelter the good spirits on the premises. In addition to the many bottles, other protective emblems appeared, such as a symbolic lightning-rod in the form of a carved representation of the Yoruba orisha, Shango, and an image of an African-American woman kneeling in prayer. Miniature houses, text fragments, a broken fan, musical notes, and old sneakers were but some of the objects that adorned the walls and window ledges of the house, and the bare branches of the tree. Together, these elements leveled distinctions between the religious and the secular and between life and art.

It was the interior of the house, however, that was the focus of this installation. By cutting out shapes of stars in the roof, Birch allowed the gallery’s track lighting to filter in, creating a rural, moonlit landscape. In placing the house’s contents on the outside and the landscape on the in-side—literally turning things inside-out—Birch honored yet another element of Southern, African-American visual vernacular: decorations at gravesites that acknowledge and draw power from the spirit realm. Through his deployment of these strategies of bottle decoration and turning things inside-out, Birch lured the viewer into a liminal space—his house was the ultimate spirit-catcher.

Spirit House demonstrated that the history of installation art has multiple roots, one of which is the anonymous, nonacademic mode of funk-spiritual assemblage found in the African-American South that is only now gaining currency via the work of such self-taught artists as Lonnie Holley. Birch teaches this lesson not by lecturing at us but, rather, by patiently waiting for us to catch up with him.

Jenifer P. Borum