Monday, August 29, 2011

SIMPLY ICONIC: Self-Taught Artists included in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Permanent Collection opens this FRIDAY!

I've just acquired the wood to build new pedestals for the exhibition we're hosting in the white-walled gallery. It's a project with roots in our glorious past, but featuring the highest calibre of self-taught artists we've ever assembled under one roof. We're utilizing a completely different set of mounting materials and exercising a whole new display scenario to accommodate some of the most impassioned artwork to emerge in America during the past 150 years; all of it conceived in our conflicted South. Simply Iconic showcases soul-stirring works from some of the most gifted vernacular artists included in the Smithsonian American art Museum's permanent collection:

Come bear witness. You will leave inspired!

Sam Doyle
(1906-1985) South Carolina

"I paint from, I would say, the mind's eye" said Sam Doyle, who fashioned his personal portraits and tributes with evangelical enthusiasm, blending ancestral Gullah lore and his devout Baptist faith into a multi-cultural impasto. As a youth, Doyle attended Penn School, established in 1862 to provide educational and vocational skills to newly liberated slaves. Following his retirement in the late 1960s, Doyle fully committed to painting the history of his beloved Gullah community and more generally African-American advancement. Over the next decade his museum-like exhibition evolved into the St. Helena Out Door Art Gallery where haints and saints rubbed rusty shoulders and shared the boughs of Spanish moss laden oak trees with other celebrated figures.

Doyle's artwork brought him much acclaim, particularly after his inclusion in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's seminal 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America 1930 - 1980. Curated by Jane Livingston. He had the sublime pleasure of seeing his artworks formally presented and shaking the hand of First Lady Nancy Reagan. Aficionados traveled from around the world to view Doyle's outdoor history lesson. He commemorated many of their visits by painting their hometowns or countries of origin on a 4ft x 8ft plywood panel and he amended his gallery sign, adding "Nation Wide" parenthetically to emphasize its broad appeal. As evidenced by his "Visitors" sign, Doyle's influence is far and wide.

The late Neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat once traded some of his own artworks to a gallery owner for a few of Doyle's and noted contemporary master Ed Ruscha paid posthumous tribute to the artist with his painting "Where Are You Going, Man? (For Sam Doyle), 1985." Ruscha recently cited Doyle as a strong influence, saying "When I look at them {Doyle's paintings} alarm bells go off warning me of their power." His tribute painting is in the collection of Eli Broad.

Roy Ferdinand
(1959-2004) Louisiana

Known in New Orleans art circles as a sort of 'Goya of the ghetto,' Ferdinand has described his work as rap in pictures, while some critics have placed his utterly honest depictions of inner city decay within the social realist tradition of Courbet. "I've been around long enough to know what's good and what's not good, and I instantly knew that Roy was good," says Willie Birch, a nationally prominent African-American artist who nominated Ferdinand for inclusion in the 2001 New Orleans Triennial.

Charlie Lucas
(b. 1951) Alabama

Popularly known as "Tin Man," Charlie Lucas has attracted a large following. In recent years, he has traveled widely, lecturing at Yale University at the invitation of an African-American studies scholar and spending time as an artist-in-residence in France. A job-related accident in 1984 forced Lucas to give up his job as a maintenance man at a healthcare facility. While recovering from back surgery, he asked God to help him find something to do that no one else could do. Soon he began fashioning sculpture out of recycled metal. Gradually, his creations morphed in two directions: upward, to towering, gigantic men made entirely of spot-welded steel ribbons and 12 to 15-foot dinosaurs and downward, to 10 to 15-inch men and animals made of railroad spikes and bent wire. Although he has no formal art training, Lucas' sculptural work clearly combines skills he learned from observing his grandfather's mechanical and automotive repair techniques, his grandmother's basket-weaving, and his great grandfather's blacksmithing.

Sulton Rogers
(1922-2003) Mississippi

Sulton Rogers was originally taught woodcarving as a child by his father, who Rogers claimed could "build anything." Rogers' fantastic wood figures and captivating parings are renowned for their satirical style, mirroring the apparently amenable character of the artist himself. Rogers spent many years away from Mississippi, joining the army and later traveling through numerous states in the early 1950s before finally settling in New York State and finding work as a foreman. The boredom of the job led him to carve in earnest, which he continued to do following his retirement and return to Mississippi. Rogers carved his figures with a pocketknife, then painted his creations with acrylic. Most themes are human-related, but Rogers also enjoyed depicting snakes, 'haints' (spirits) and vampires, with occasional sexual or erotic references. His humans sometimes have exaggerated and comedic features, or amusing facial expressions. Rogers claims inspiration from dreams or people he has met during his travels.

O.L. Samuels
(b. 1931) Florida

O.L. "Geech" Samuels left home at the age of 8 to work as a pineraker on Georgia farms, and, later, for the railroad. He boxed professionally as a middleweight. Samuels has had many near misses with death: his home was dynamited after he complained to the cops about drug-dealing in the neighborhood; he was knifed; and, in 1982, while working as a tree surgeon, he was hit in the head by a swinging trunk. He barely survived that event and was confined to a wheelchair. Samuels fell into a deep depression. The words his great great grandmother, a freed slave, told him long ago finally pulled him out of his sadness. She told him that when a person became sad he could carve on a spool and it would help him heal. Samuels took her advice and picked up some wood and started carving. Although he is colorblind, he paints his carvings and says the colors seem to match up. He combines paint, glitter, sawdust, and glue into a secret formula, which he warms on the stove, and applies to his wood sculptures. Samuels explains, "They ask me why I use so many colors and I say I want to be sure I get the right one." .Samuels' unique artwork is in a number of important collections including the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Herbert Singleton
(1945-2007) Louisiana

Herbert Singleton first derived meaningful income from artistic endeavors in the early 1980s, carving walking sticks for New Orleans buggy drivers and "voodoo protection" stumps for friends. After his final stint of incarceration, the dispirited artist was encouraged by a French Quarter gallery owner to carve out his pain. Singleton dismantled an old chifforobe and created his first bas-relief panel: a stark white skeletal figure cut out of a black background, bordered by red. The heads of serpents are shown peering from the "infected" figure's ribcage. In works such as "Who Do We Trust" and "Who Speak For Man" Singleton addressed our seeming inability to meet the standards we set for others. In one masterwork, he carved self-destructive indulgences -- drugs, gambling, sex -- into a huge cypress log he salvaged from the Mississippi River. Exhibited as the "Algiers Rosetta" in High on Life: Transcending Addiction at the American Visionary Art Museum, Singleton referred to his work more directly as the "Tree of Death." In other more festive works he paid tribute to the uniqueness of New Orleans culture. Singleton's artworks are in numerous important public and private collections worldwide including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Purvis Young
(1943-2010) Florida

"I paint what I see...I paint the problems of the world." said Purvis Young. He often wore dark glasses to "hide his tears" at the injustice and sadness he witnessed. As a wayward youth, he was convicted of breaking and entering and spent time in prison, where he began drawing again and perusing art books. "I didn't have anything going for myself," he explained. "That's the only thing I could mostly do. I was just looking through art books, looking at guys painting their feelings." In the mid 1960s he was inspired to make art by Vietnam War demonstrations and by protest art, notably the Wall of Respect mural in Chicago, painted by members of the Black Arts Movement. In the early 1970s he created a mural of his own, plastering a wall along a deserted stretch of Overtown's Goodbread Alley with dozens of his artworks. The mural drew attention from the news media and from Miami's art establishment, including an eccentric millionaire, Bernard Davis, who owned the Miami Museum of Modern Art and briefly became Mr. Young's patron, providing him with painting supplies until his death. For over forty years he created art with scavenged plywood, nails, books, cardboard, Masonite board, broken doors and mirrors. Of his own work Purvis Young had this to say: "I want people to know that I wish there would be peace in the world, and I will paint the way I paint until there is, and then one day maybe I could just hang up my brush and not paint any more."

SIMPLY ICONIC opens on Friday, September 2nd, 8-11 PM and runs through Sunday, October 3rd. Prices will not be posted online, so contact Billy Shire or gallery director Matt Kennedy for pricing or purchase inquiries.

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