New York

Leroy Person

Luise Ross Gallery

The work of self-taught artist Leroy Person (1907–85) has largely escaped the pull of the burgeoning folk/outsider market during the last two decades. Person’s minor-key sensibility may set him apart from the heavy-handed expressionism favored by institutions in that field, but his furniture constructions, carved sculpture, and crayon drawings occupy a powerful position within the margin even as they fruitfully challenge its borders. Comprising thirty-three works, Person’s recent solo debut provided a modest yet effective retrospective.

Person’s intensely private, spiritual vision defies easy categorization, although the context for his creative output can be identified as a rich constellation of Afro-Atlantic vernacular traditions ranging from quiltmaking to yard decorations. He labored in the sawmills of northeastern North Carolina until, at age sixty-three, he experienced a “divine calling” to praise nature through art. Person began by transforming his house and fence, carving nearly every wood surface and polychroming it all with cast-off paint, wax crayons, and simple, jury-rigged tools, some of which were on display here. From 1975 until his death, he created a range of works conceptually linked to that original environment. In his sculptures and drawings (all works Untitled), Person celebrated the flora and fauna indigenous to the swampland that surrounded his home, including lily bushes, crayfish, fowl, eggs, and snakes. He also represented his own tools, including wrenches, knives, and circular saw blades, in an ode to labor. Distilled into a highly stylized hieroglyphics, these images unfolded on his surfaces in an allover design.

Person enlisted everyday, household objects in his totalizing approach. Presented here was a common cheese box transformed into a radiant, wheel-like disk. Most notable, however, are his chairs—intended by the artist to serve as thrones for imagined African kings—which combine manufactured furniture parts with other found materials, all carved and vigorously rubbed with crayon to create a sort of patina. Two of these thrones, humble yet strangely elegant, were on view. With dioramas carved from roots and different woods, Person moved beyond the functional into the realm of “art for art’s sake”; the three on view ranged from abstract configurations to dreamlike figural rebuses that suggested quirky chessboards frozen mid-game. As his health failed, the artist put down his pocketknife and began drawing in crayon on cardboard or paper. These offer his signature hieroglyphics charged with a renewed gestural intensity, and include geometric compositions and offbeat grids (likely influenced by his wife’s patchwork quilts), as well as brightly colored figures that may have been inspired by the cartoons that Person saw on his first television set, acquired in 1977.

The challenge offered by Person’s legacy is profound. This exhibition highlighted a series of parallels between his autodidactic vision and the aesthetic solutions thought to be the exclusive property of academically trained artists like Paul Klee, Jean Dubuffet, and Cy Twombly. With his innate understanding of the rough, suggestive poetry of collage and his powerfully raw brand of figuration, Person unselfconsciously demonstrated a level of authenticity that has been the holy grail of mainstream twentieth-century artists who tried repeatedly—and in vain—to effect a willed forgetting of the dictates of Western culture.

Jenifer P. Borum