New York

Lonnie Holley

Luise Ross Gallery

Lonnie Holley works in an environment-cum-studio situated on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama—a dense jungle comprised of lyrical, twisted wire shapes, colorful acrylic paintings, industrial sandstone carvings, and weathered assemblages constructed from found objects and materials. A young, self-taught innovator within what Robert Farris Thompson has identified as the vernacular African-American traditions of cemetery decoration, the yard show, and the bottle tree, Holley has forged a sophisticated visual vocabulary that works to bridge the arbitrary divide between the mainstream and the marginal.

Holley’s work is fueled by the juxtaposition of two diametrically opposed esthetic modes: an immediately readable, lyrical figuration and a multivalent, richly metaphoric abstraction. The former is most often realized through a signature facial type reminiscent of African sculpture that appears in exquisitely graceful wire silhouettes, sandstone carvings, and acrylic paintings, which are most effective when they form part of an assemblage, but which hold their own as discrete art objects. One standout sandstone carving was the dark, elegant, Native-American head, wittily punctuated with light-colored lips, entitled Promise to Me from the White Mouth, 1990. A spiritually charged, tangled abstraction, however, is Holley’s forte: a form of recycled, found-object assemblage that fuses the Kongo nkisi /Southern mojo tradition of magical-medicinal wrapping, the “flash” of yard-show–style reflective surfaces, a unique genius for embedded puns, and an innate sense of composition. It is a varied but ultimately consistent approach enabling Holley to address a wide range of political, historical, and religious issues.

The strongest works here were the ones in which Holley explicitly wrestled with the dichotomy between spirit and matter. In Working the Copper Mine, 1993, a boot wrapped in gaffer’s tape and adorned with ethereal wire faces becomes a memorial to forgotten laborers. The totemic The Ancestor Throne Not Strong Enough For No Rock Nor No Crack, 1993, is a regal throne offering fake flowers to forebears and a stretch of bright-orange industrial tubing to connect past and present generations. This show’s tour de force was For Every Woman I Have Seen, Part of Africa’s Dream, in Her Honor, 1993—an explosive but strangely unified composition, made of wire, plastic tree branches, a shoe, and clothes hangers clustered together on a vertical pole—exemplifying as it does the delicate balance between order and chaos, spiritual and secular, form and nonform, and the visible and the hidden, that characterizes Holley’s Birmingham environment.

Jenifer P. Borum