Saturday, September 24, 2011

Simply Iconic Examined

Special thanks to columnist Meaghan Boyd for this rave review of the Simply Iconic Exhibition that ran on

Simply Iconic is the title and the words I would use to describe the current exhibition at La Luz De Jesus Gallery located on Hollywood Blvd in the quaint region of Los Feliz. The breathtaking collection of work from seven Southern-raised, African American artists hold such a pure and intuitive energy. The exhibition includes work from Purvis Young, Sam Doyle, Charlie Lucas, O.L. Samuels, Sulton Rogers, Roy Ferdinand, and Herbert Singleton. Each artist has an interesting story that describes their passageway into the art making realm. This art is extremely un-pretentious and brilliant, coming from people who decided mid-way through life to embark on their artistic journey. The work is so honest and moving, resembling folk-art, but speaking in a deeply soulful way that grabs the attention of the so-called “High Art” crowd. It’s actually quite refreshing to see work like this in the La Luz De Jesus, which is a gallery that seems to appeal to the art genre of Pop Surrealism or Low-Brow. However, upon speaking with the curator, Matt Kennedy, the Simply Iconic collection (owned by Gordon Bailey) seemed to be a perfect fit. It is art that makes a statement with the way in which it is made, not necessarily the conceptual aspect. That being said, just because a piece of art is not considered to be “conceptual”, doesn’t mean that it lacks depth. I actually feel that crafty art can speak in a very pure way. The work holds the essence of one’s personality or being, as if parts of the artist’s soul are transferred into the piece as they work. Heavy concept is written in the paint, in the wood, in the clay. To cite one of my favorite conceptual artists of all time, Yoko Ono, “The medium is the message.”

The first artist I would like to talk about is Sam Doyle (1906-1985), a man who considered himself more of a historian rather than an artist. He was interested in documenting events that took place in his home town of Saint Helena, South Carolina, by means of painting and displayed the works in his backyard, which became known as a sort of outdoor museum. His work is executed with the pure, unadulterated expression of a child, so in a sense it is very liberating to witness. The paintings are done on large scale pieces or tin or wood with house paint. There is an essence about the work that feels very touched and worked with, lived with, like a piece of old furniture that holds on to memories. In fact, the work seems to be replications of memories. As Doyle once said “I paint from, I would say, the mind’s eye”. In my opinion, Doyle somewhat paved a gateway for neo-expressionism. One of his biggest fans was the famous Jean Michel Basquiat, who, at one point, actually traded all of the work in one of his shows for two Sam Doyle paintings. Another appreciator of Doyle is Ed Ruscha, who created a body of work as a tribute to Sam Doyle, which was purchased by Edith and Eli Broad.

O.L. Samuels (b.1931) has some work in the center of the gallery that is quite mystifying. Dark animal figures accented by glittering rainbow colors seem to watch over the room in a haunting sort of way. Samuels began making work after he was in a life threatening accident in which he was hit by a falling tree trunk while working as a tree surgeon. After the accident he became incredibly depressed. One day the voice of his grandmother, who was a freed slave, floated into his mind. She suggested carving a spool as a means to get out of depression. He felt so compelled to create upon remembering this old advice given to him by his grandmother, and began carving dreamy figures out of wood. The three works that are displayed in this collection are “Dog”, “Horse” and “Ickitty Chicks” , all made in the 1980’s. Each piece is painted black and is textured and colored with a concoction Samuels cooked up in his kitchen out of glue, saw dust, glitter and paint. So his work has this beautiful dark magic vibe to it. Although the work was full of color, Samuels was in fact, color-blind. When people would ask him why he used such an intense gradient of rainbow hues in his work, he replied that he was only using so many colors to make sure that he got the right one. What I found most interesting about Samuels wooden friends, was that each piece seemed to actually have a soul. The eyes of each figure were very captivating in a human-like way. All the figures were carved out of wood, but he used different materials for the eyes. Some had amber-colored marbles for the eyes and some had raven stones, even some had beer bottle caps. I actually felt myself very entranced by his work, as if the observation wasn’t exactly one-sided. I felt his work observing me, looking into me. His creatures seem to be psychically connected to everything and everyone around them.

Sulton Rogers (1922-2003) displays a more light-hearted approach to the art of whittling, compared to the sultry depths displayed in the work of his counterpart, O.L. Samuels. Rogers was taught wood carving as a child by his father. His tool of choice was his pocket knife. His small to medium scale wooden sculptures are smoothly worked allowing viewers to get lost in the simple patterns in the wood-grain. There is a boyish grit to the work that is actually a bit humorous and endearing. His piece, “Devil Family” (1990’s) depicts a group of red devils with pitchforks, nude and lustful, with delicately detailed genitals and pubic hair to form the perfect family, mother, father, and two children, a boy and girl. The juxtaposition of something considered evil or lusty with the ideal of a loving wholesome family is pretty amazing. Although Sulton Rogers was making this kind of work in the 1990’s when he was in his 70’s, there is incredibly boyish nature to his figures.

Herbert Singleton (1945-2003) seems to take the role of the bad boy in this collection, an artist who spent many years in and out of jail, and suffered through serious drug addictions. In contrast to the dark yet heavenly aspects of Samuels work, Singleton makes work that is just plain dark and hellish, including themes of voodoo and disease. He used a lot of opaque primary colors on carved bas-relief wood pieces. The imagery is painful and characterized by religious symbols and themes. Snakes seem to slither their way into a lot of his work. Most of the work is pictorial, but there are also some interesting totem-like masks on the wall resembling tribal African art. The most chilling of his paintings is entitled, “The Old Religion”, in which a person holding bone is sitting in a black caldron over a wild fire, while a man comes in with an enormous snake. Singleton’s work is very narrative and tells a dark, creepy story. It’s a bit like witnessing a car crash or like watching someone have a nervous breakdown right in front of you. Something you feel like you shouldn’t be so enthralled by, but you just can’t help it.

On the same wall as Singleton is the work of the esteemed “Goya of the Ghetto”, Roy Ferdinand (1959-2004) from New Orleans. His work has been described as “Rap in pictures” by his appreciators. His medium scale drawings are actually quite unsettling. There are many factors that come together to create this effect. First and most importantly is the imagery itself, which is very graphic and even border-lining on violent, then the quality of line and texture, and lastly the proportions of the figures depicted in his works. The line-work is manic, particularly the cross-hatching. Each piece is sort of vibrating with a bi-polar sense of line and texture. Parts of the piece are rendered in a soft patient manner, and other parts are fast and neurotic. The scenes displayed in this group of work are very honest and real, showing people from the streets of New Orleans, and one piece that depicts a baptism in a lake near a Southern Baptist church. Ferdinand’s work makes a lot of sense on the same wall as Singleton. The two artists create work that speaks in a painful tone, and seem to relate to each other in similar ways.

Purvis Young (1943-2010), the romantic of the group was motivated to create work by a need to spread peace to the world. His work resembles early expressionism, and even seems to unknowingly take from artists like William DeKooning because of his visionary emotional nature. His work is a lovely contrast to the works of Singleton and Ferdinand. Young enjoyed painting dreamy, mirage-like, spiritual scenes on scavenged pieces of wood. One piece was even painted on a piece of wood that had once been a step in an old factory. His color usage is soft and vibrant with lots of sea-greens and turquoises with hints of warm yellows mimicking light. There is a lot of movement in his work as well, creating this feeling that you are witnessing a reunion of angels dancing in a celebration of peace. The imagery holds a warm transcendental, ethereal energy, while the scavenged wood holds the energy of life. So many hands have touched that wood before Young was able to paint on it, so the actual wood itself seems to tell a story. I found his body of work to be the most poetic and inviting.

Lastly, the work Charlie Lucas (b. 1951) is very playful and lively. Like Samuels, Lucas also suffered from a life threatening accident in the 1980’s, and decided to take up painting shortly after his recovery. Lucas strikes me as the type of artist who really just loves to explore mediums. His paintings and mixed-media works exude a sense of excitement and discovery. There is a simple yet chaotic nature to Lucas’s work that is a bit disorienting. The work is all pretty flat, but accented by textured surfaces, like shattered glass, for example. What I love about Lucas is the way he used the materials, with such enthusiasm! Every piece is a type of journey, a new territory for opportunities to use new kinds of media, texture, and color.

It is seriously such a delight to view this wonderful harmony of art in the same space. There is a perfect balance in this collection of work that shines a new kind of light out of La Luz De Jesus. Simply Iconic is a small exhibition that one will want to ponder for quite a while. There is so much soul to take in from each and every piece of this brilliant collection. The show is certainly what the title claims to be. Certain artists from this exhibition have inspired famous artists, such as Ed Ruscha and Jean Michel Basquiat. Perhaps it will be of inspiration to you too! The exhibition will be up until October 3rd. Come get lost.

Article reproduced by kind permission of the author.

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