Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on September 7, 2006 with the permission of the Hickory Museum of Art and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Hickory Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Homegrown and Handmade II: The Natural World - Selected Works from the Huffman Collection of Southern Contemporary Folk and Outsider Art
by Charlotte V. Brown, Hon AIA
The works of art that Barry and Allen Huffman have collected over the past twenty-five years can be understood in many different ways. That quality is one of the strengths that make the collection important-the susceptibility of so much work to more than one way of interpreting it, approaching it and recognizing its multiple messages. All worthy work has something new for the viewer each time it is seen and experienced.
The art in this collection and collections like it mystifies many viewers because while some work looks like folk art, some work looks like nothing they have ever seen. Different thoughts and feelings, including dismay, surprise, humor and annoyance, are natural, honest and very human responses to the work-- and a part of its power. The makers do not seem to be concerned that what they have created does not always meet expectations of how "art" should look, and their work challenges our concepts of art in audacious ways. Some of the work seems unsophisticated, crude, swiftly or carelessly made and barely finished, like David Hunter's metal cutouts. Found, re-cycled, strange and unfamiliar materials are sometimes used to make pieces. Russell Gillespie combines peeled tree galls and limbs with carefully constructed architectural elements to make his work. Familiar natural objects are combined to make exotic constructions like Q. J. Stephenson's assemblages which remake the natural world to fit his unique vision of it. Furthermore, some of the work looks ephemeral, or at least not intended for public display such as Leroy Pearson's untitled drawing of four crossed wrenches made with crayon on cheap paper. On top of that, some of the work seems deliberately willful and capricious, and filled with sly humor or sarcasm, like Joe McFall's constructions that bring messages of death and retribution via airplanes and whirligigs. And sometimes the work, such as Lonnis Holley's Get on Your Knees with Your Child, conveys painfully personal feeling that is embarrassing in its direct honesty and the artist's exposure of distress or pain. Often it is not easy to look at the work -- or even know how to look at the work.
Artist Vernon Burwell mailed some very inadequate photographs of his sculpture to me. My first response was a combination of "you've got to be kidding" and complete astonishment. But my feelings were strong enough to propel me to Burwell's front yard in Rocky Mount. There I had what I have learned to call my "open mouth" experience. I literally stand with my mouth open in amazement. For minutes or more my disbelief is suspended along with my tendency to be critical-- and my heart and soul, my eyes and mind experience the creativity and energy of an artist's work. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings in E has the same effect; so do Bosch's Gardens of Delight, Vernon Owens and David Stuemplfe's pots and Elvis' s 60s recordings. The work enables me to release all expectations, demands and judgments and just be in the moment with the work.
Some people come equipped with the ability to accept that opportunity, that moment, and embrace it. I am blessed to be one of those, although I know that I have also learned to just stand still and look and be open to what is before me. When I taught the history of art, I learned that there are ways to help students to be open and engaged, whether by the most refined academically trained artist or by art made in other cultures at other times. I achieved results when I could suggest other ways of seeing the art and the skillful and unanticipated ways in which the work could directly affect the viewer. These effects derive not only from the subject matter, but also from the ways in which the otherwise apparently ephemeral, crude or limited artistic means combine with the chosen subjects to dazzle or dismay and to engage the viewer in a conversation with the work. Touched too deeply by the unfamiliar or unexpected, we are all inclined to back away. If I can show that these artists' efforts are not so unfamiliar and unexpected then their work will be freed to overcome our natural inhibitions. Our capacity to see, feel and understand will expand. New experiences change us, and we are then better able to understand our lives in new ways.
A number of strong themes life, death, tragedy, sin, salvation are present in much of the work in the Huffman Collection. Two elements, however, unite the collection. First, the artists are largely dependent on the natural world for the images that animate their art. People, landscapes, animals, and plants are the storytellers. Second is the use of a diversity of materials to convey the ideas presented. We need to examine both these elements and appreciate how one is essential to the other.
The Natural World
The natural world and all the material things that we make and place in it are the sources for our visual images and the stuff of our dreams. For artists, the natural world has been the chief subject in the history of art since the Renaissance. St. Francis stands in a landscape, the flight into Egypt takes place against Tuscan hills, Icarus falls into a Dutch sea complete with seventeenth century sailing ships in Brueghel's great painting. An imagined scene juxtaposed with a familiar one is a powerful way to thrust a significant experience into the viewer's world. A Renaissance painter uses a number of technical skills to achieve a convincing landscape into which he then inserts his figures. The illusion of space, air and natural light is seductive and when combined with close attention to color and the accumulation of detail, we begin to think that we are looking at a sort of recreation of the event. This kind of painting, like sculpture that relies on an implied naturalism, is the consequence of a careful accumulation of convincing visual clues. But since the middle of the nineteenth century other ways of making work-- Asian, African, aboriginal, along with the techniques of impressionism, symbolism, surrealism, and the advent of photography, movies, television, and advertising have taught us that there are more ways of making art than we can imagine, and there are many different ways of depicting the natural world.
Minnie Reinhardt makes us see her life experiences, her memories, by accumulating information from her rural experience which she combines convincingly on the small canvases that she uses. First she chooses subjects that are very familiar to her and that will either be familiar to the viewer by experience or by expectation. Many of her viewers have observed the rural agricultural life that she depicts. At least as many others know that life only through literature, poetry or the recollection of older family members, because fewer and fewer North Carolinians grow up on farms. Banjo picking, harvesting, planting, celebrating holidays, hanging out clothes or hanging up Christmas decorations allude to past times when life was less complicated, if much more difficult. Seeing these scenes mixes feelings of nostalgia with pleasure.
The modest memories Reinhardt shares are reinforced by her modest sized canvases. The scale of the work allows three important elements to come into play. First, the small scale of each piece makes the work very personal, that is, the paintings become an event between us/the viewer and Reinhardt. A second effect of the scale is to allow Reinhardt to control a very focused field for her subjects, and no object she depicts is very large in relation to the overall size of the canvas. Distant mountains are truly hazy and undefined, the actors in the story are small and simply rendered in paint, and all seem a little distant in time and place, as if we are looking through the wrong end of a telescope. This creates a push-pull energy between the viewer and the work: the painting is here in the present, the subjects are there in the past and far away, but we can move up close to the surface and observe an amount of detail that appears at odds with the distance. Third, the scale of the work also takes advantage of other slightly or very familiar, more traditional models of similar scenes, so that the painting already looks old-fashioned, like an old photograph, an embroidered sampler, or a calendar illustration.
Reinhardt's compositions, for all their complexity, are always roughly the same. The paintings are almost like photographs with their shallow depth of field. Thus, every object becomes important. She places the main action at the center of the canvas near the middle, from top to bottom and left to right, and she leaves space near the center open. In Possum John Rudisill you can walk between the bed and the table where the banjo player sits, lined up with the middle of the table. All the other detail or activity revolves outward, toward the edges. Viewer and banjo player are the chief protagonists, and both are in the middle -- in the literal and figurative spotlight. Reinhardt makes a space for the viewer to step into and observe just as the "empty" space on the horizon in the middle of Hudson River scenes engages the eye and pulls the viewer into it. This practice reinforces the personal communication between the viewer and the painting already established by the painting's subject and size.
Two other aspects of Reinhardt's work further engage us her organization of the figures on the flat surface of the canvas and the careful selection and placement of details. Reinhardt probably did not use traditional Renaissance one point perspective because she was not trained in its rules, but she was not daunted in her desire to put her memories on the flat surface of the canvas in a convincing way. Her familiarity with quilts -- large scale compositions containing many smaller ones, all in a flat plane -- like her pictures, showed her that she didn't need traditional perspective. Her knowledge, whether conscious or intuitive, undoubtedly gave her the confidence to know that if she organized the information using a rough symmetry and balanced her colors, then the viewer would understand and "see" her memories. In Possum, the rafters of the ceiling reinforce the order of the room; one lines up with the far side of the well-made bed, the other with the banjo player's head. The action is emphasized and its importance reiterated, just as a quilter repeats aspects of a pattern.
Reinhardt also organized the information she presented by carefully selecting the gestures, poses and objects that best fill her memory's map of a particular event. Reinhardt used the lesson we have all learned some photographs or paintings succeed precisely because the person or event is captured at that perfect moment when gesture or light reveals the most characteristic attributes of a person or place. She had a keen eye for such moments. Count the number of stones in the chimney that spells solidity and permanence. The chinks in the logs, the fireplace implements, the dog, the boots, the banjo and the hat, like ? the lighted candles, the fire in the fireplace, the brightly colored quilt on the bed, the white top of the banjo -- tell you something you know, feel or remember and therefore reacquaint you with this place. Look, Reinhardt seems to say, here is what I remember, don't you remember the scene, too? If you don't remember, Reinhardt's map of the essential will take you to the place. Her work is always fresh because she has used tools that we intuitively understand and that help her to capture our attention again and again.
A number of works in this exhibition use some of the same techniques: modest scale; salient, telling details; concentration on a single form, figure or moment in time; and the organization of a two-dimensional work by flat patterning. Herman Bridges' drawing of a house is as flat as a quilt. The building pushes against the surface of the paper and like Reinhardt's work, the close focus, the intensity of the drawing achieved by the multiplication of lines, and the balance of the composition across the surface of the paper plane pull us close. Priscilla Cassidy and Harold Crowell use similar techniques to engage our attention and pull us close to the surface in order to reinforce the information they have gathered for us to see.
The Medium is a Message
Raymond Coins approaches the natural world in a completely different way. Unlike Reinhardt, who takes us into her world through the accumulation of information that is carefully ordered into patterns, Coins, like Crowell and David Hunter Holley reduces the world to a few simple ideas or images that are made permanent in his sculptures. Sometimes he uses a material that perhaps helps him make the work. Recalcitrant stone is literally and figuratively weighty; it will endure and outlast our own puny efforts. All sculptors know this when they choose to use stone. We know it intuitively and that is why monuments of all kinds must be stone.
At other times Coins seems to force the material to work for him just as Russell Gillespie does when roots, burls, windfalls, or just leftover trees are carved or adapted to make a work. It is as if he sees the form he wants to achieve in the material and then works to present it in a kind of shorthand. But regardless of the material, Coins seems to have an adversarial relationship with the wood or stone that provides the essential energy necessary to make the art. Stone or wood is stronger than Coins, and the sculptures embody his need to make figures in spite of being the weaker of the two forces.
Coins's figures are direct and have simple power. The way in which he depicts forms recalls much earlier work such as that unrecovered by archaeologists. This work from early civilizations is almost always religious in nature. It usually is an expression of the relationship of society to its gods and its worldview. While busily inventing writing, crop irrigation, cities, and law -- and engaging in unceasing warfare -- the Sumerians also made figures whose forms are powerful and arresting. They have much in common with Raymond Coins's work in that they gain their power from the simplification of the features and gestures of the human body. Made as freestanding clay figures they reflect, by their size, their social importance. Using the same convention, size = importance, the artists carved stone reliefs, and we can easily determine who are conquerors and who are the conquered. And that's what Coins does in his work. Coins makes figures that are symbols for recognizable forms, ciphers that can carry meaning.
Coins was not motivated by the same needs that produced the Sumerian work, but he was motivated by similar needs to endow his figures with meaning and his strategies give them presence and elemental power. They are reduced to expressive essentials. Some of the figures appear to have emerged from a life lived on the land, where struggles either reduce us to nothing or stiffen us to survive and endure. Some of the figures embody the essence of the struggle of a modern person against life and all its vagaries.
Hubert Walters and Mose Tolliver achieve something similar with simple materials. Both make works that rely on simplification and reduction. Walters's paintings, like Tolliver's figures, establish an ambience that is the artist's domain and into which he invites us. Tolliver's world is wry and sometimes slightly sarcastic. His colors are flattened and applied with absolute confidence and conviction. Walters's work, with its dense swirling colors and surfaces, is more atmospheric and foreboding, as if the storms his boats must survive have come inland. His paintings are very unlike his boats and other constructions. We see another side of the artist whose choice of medium is used to project a different message.
Academically trained artists choose materials with due regard to the way in which the medium will literally shape the art. The history of art in the twentieth century is filled with examples of artists who have deliberately rejected the traditional and expected. Perhaps the most famous after Marcel Duchamp is Robert Rauschenberg, who has appropriated everything from stuffed animals to quilts and tires. Most of the artists in the Huffman collection were not trained in the use of media, and thus they have been unfettered in the choice of materials. Their choices are no more random, haphazard, capricious or arbitrary than those of a Rauschenberg, though sometimes they are driven by their situation and necessity. Georgia Blizzard's pit-fired ceramics, whose blackened surfaces reinforce the deeply felt emotions that fuel her work, are the consequence of poverty but the process serves her well. Vollis Simpson constructs his whirligigs with the metal he has long understood from working with vehicles and road signs. He neither has to justify nor explain the use, because the materials are perfectly suited to his goals and the medium becomes the message. R. A. Miller's cutouts demonstrate another way in which metal can be used, and his figures and signs are just as appropriate to the material as Simpson's whirligigs. These three examples demonstrate that necessity is truly the mother of invention and experience its handmaid.
But that is not all that the artworks show. The works are as articulate in the hands of these artists as that of any academically trained maker. The results may be different, but the effect is the same: the material helps to deliver the message so deeply offered by the maker. And it is this effect that confounds so many viewers.
We are taught to believe that art should be artful and well made. The maker should be skilled in the use of wood or concrete or metal sheets. The apparent absence of this skill frequently results in a tendency to be dismissive of the work. But we have already learned from Picasso and Rauschenberg that the medium is essential to the message, and the same advantage should be accorded to the untrained maker. The material is such an essential part of the expressive process that it becomes a powerful actor in the scene and proclaims a creative and energetic rush that is overwhelming at times.
James Harold Jennings' art also shows that the medium is a message. Wood scraps, unsealed and unfinished boards and house and car paint are turned into sculptural reliefs for walls or ones that stand free on the floor. Plastic and rubber are formed into crowns and other decorations. Inscriptions tell the story. The materials are covered with thick paint and subsumed by the intense, relentless, colorful patterns with their didactic messages, meant to inform and reform. The work is as vivid as a billboard. The goal is to get the message across; Jennings achieves his end.
Q. J. Stephenson's work is equally rich in the ways he uses materials: concrete, wood, paint, found objects such as shells and seedpods. He is amazingly sophisticated, turning whatever comes to hand into the artwork that engages the viewer in a world of the artist's own making, a reality that is literally derived from what is found, appropriated and transformed through his combinations. There is almost a magical realism about his assemblages, as if we see a world fresh and new, wet with dew and the sparkle of unearthly light.
This is, of course, the clue to all the artists' work. As makers, they transform material into an expressive experience. It is just not always easy to understand what is being expressed, and the materials sometimes further the masquerade. This is perhaps most true in the paintings in the Huffman collection. Many of them seem to be without precedent in a viewer's lexicon, but familiar clues are equally absent in much of modern painting. The perspective is nonexistent, the paint seems awkward and recalcitrant, the colors are not naturalistic, and they also seem devoid of any symbolic meaning. But the swiftly painted surface of an impressionist painting or the non-objective organization of an abstract expressionist surface should prepare the viewer for the many different expressions found in the exhibition. Here the gestural emphasis is perhaps felt the most. In these works the artists hands', fingers, brushes, scrapers, are as intrusive as chapped skin. A tactile surface is characteristic of most of this work, a feeling derived not from smooth paint or soft pigment but from a huge burst of energy that spews across the surface.
The works of Harold Crowell, Myrtice West and McKendree Long each demonstrate how different and how successful the gesture can be. Crowell uses strong colors, and his flattened surfaces contain a struggle between colors that push and pull the viewer into and away from the bursting energy of a few simple forms. Mytrice West has much in common with Crowell, though she creates a deeper picture plane/space where her forms combine to give expressive energy to her ideas. Home is Where the Fight is, Yea oh yea is an astonishing picture that reduces the pain and stress of marriage into two exotic animals that will not be denied attention. Broad strokes reinforce the simplified forms that fill her space.
McKendree Long's work seems to be in direct contrast to the gestural simplicity of both Crowell and West. Trained academically, Long uses familiar techniques to establish space and place, and his skill at drawing makes his figures terribly present. Gesture, however, is what carries his work and fills it with a restless energy that can be compared only with other painters like Ryder and Van Gogh, whose churned and tortured surfaces animate the events depicted and make them more frightening because of the constant implied motion and emotion of the artist. Long's work offers an important bridge in the Huffman collection. He began as an academic painter, and in his need to deliver an apocalyptic message, he created a new language for himself using whatever he needed to make the work achieve his goals.
This is the message of all these artists. Our challenge is to see the message and be open to it. Like Long, these artists bring us news from other places, from the natural world which does not love us and from the world we have made that can destroy us. They bring those worlds together in visions and wonders that offer us hope and courage -- if we will only look.
About the author:
Dr. Charlotte V. Brown, Director of the Gallery of Art & Design, North Carolina State University, wrote the above essay in conjunction with the exhibition Homegrown and Handmade II: The Natural World - Selected Works from the Huffman Collection of Southern Contemporary Folk and Outsider Art, held March 18 through October 1, 2006 at the Hickory Museum of Art.
Resource Library editor's note:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Claudia Teague, Community Relations Manager at the Hickory Museum of Art, for her introduction of the author to this publication and her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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