New York

“Coming Home!: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South”

Museum of Biblical Art

“Coming Home!: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South” was a Trojan horse of sorts. Organized by the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, it quietly infiltrated New York via the newly established Museum of Biblical Art. There it challenged the folk/outsider art establishment by unapologetically celebrating Southern culture and evangelical Christianity as the context best suited to facilitate an understanding of the region’s self-taught artists. “Coming Home!” was part of a growing critical/curatorial move toward the reclamation of such artists from both the carnivalesque sales hype of outsider art—which banks on stereotypes of eccentricity and social isolation—and the sanitized neomodernist formalism that defines blue-chip American folk art as sanctioned by mainstream museums and auction houses.

By organizing ninety-five paintings and sculptures by seventy-three artists—from the familiar (Howard Finster, William Edmondson) to the relatively unknown (C. M. and Grace Kelly Laster, Anderson Johnson)—into separate Biblically inspired sections, the show’s curator, Carol Crown, associate professor of art history at the University of Memphis, argued effectively for the recognition of this art as inseparable from the cultural and religious matrix of the American South. Such a distinction is significant at a time when many institutional attempts to bring this art into the mainstream downplay this context for the benefit of secular audiences. The most successful aspect of the show was its evocation of the power this kind of work exudes in the context of the artists’ own homes and yards, a quality that is often lost in sleeker, formalist presentations.

The organic sprawl and panstylistic sensibility of the exhibition’s first section, “Southern Religious Life,” set the tone for the entire installation. Here, the commanding Preacher, ca. 1938, by William Edmondson—an artist whose work’s value is too often reduced to its unselfconscious affirmation of classical modernist form—came to life when juxtaposed with the angelic figures of The Last Trumpet, 2001, by Alabama yard-show griot Joe Minter. Two abstract paintings by John “J. B.” Murray were presented as visual representations of speaking in tongues, breaking with the more common, formal appreciation of his work that focuses on its quasi-expressionist style. The intensity of work by visionaries like Edmondson and Murray, as well as Elijah Pierce and Sister Gertrude Morgan, was complemented by examples of more utilitarian but no less formally inventive inclusions such as Anderson Johnson’s Portable Pulpit, 1989. In this initial section, the Bible as revered object and shared, sacred text emerged as a distinct unifying force.

The other three sections of “Coming Home!” drew very specifically on Biblical narrative. “Garden of Eden” presented a variety of interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve—including wood carver Edgar Tolson’s Temptation, ca. 1970. More curatorially edgy were the last two sections, “The New Adam,” and “The New Heaven and Earth,” both of which explored artists’ interpretations of the New Testament, from the life of Jesus to the Book of Revelation. A wall in the former section bearing three-dimensional interpretations of the Crucifixion by Lonnie Holley, Jesse Aaron, Raymond Coins, and the late Hawkins Bolden was easily the exhibition’s most powerful moment.

The presentation of the vivid charts used by the nineteenth-century millennial group the Millerites to illustrate the Second Coming of Christ grounded the remainder of the show by revealing key common sources for twentieth-century Southern visionary artwork depicting apocalyptic themes. Here, the vibrant paintings of the late Howard Finster—potent combinations of shared sources and personal vision—emerged as the most consistently compelling expressions of the Southern evangelical worldview. It was precisely this alchemical admixture of collective visual and philosophical culture and intense personal expression that “Coming Home!” revealed as the key element uniting Southern self-taught artists. While the show never asked viewers to embrace evangelical belief, it did, however, ask us to accept its inspirational potential.

Jenifer P. Borum