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Art: Elizabeth Ann James, Columnist
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Angels, wild men and apocalyptic geniuses:
Folk and self-taught masters
The idea of this show is to display a wide range that falls within the genre. The artists in the show – all of them have passed on now – are considered masters on the international folk and outsider scene. – Duff Lindsay
God's Plenty, by Elijah Pierce, 1943.
Lindsay Gallery does, indeed, as its sign boasts, exhibit “the best in folk and outsider art.” The gallery seems to be listed in every current catalog of folk and outsider art. Not only that, but Lindsay openings seem to draw large crowds who not only chatter, but buy.
In March, Lindsay will offer a host (if not always a heavenly host) of folk and outsider artists. “Folk and Self-Taught Masters” opens Friday, March 2 and runs through March 24, 2007. The exhibit stars Columbus’ Elijah Pierce, woodcarver, and William Hawkins, painter, both internationally renowned, along with a host of others. Each artist in the exhibit is considered by the experts to be a master (as in The Great Masters) of folk and outsider art. Duff Lindsay is a wonderful source of information on these rarified geniuses.
An Apocalyptic Surprise
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was a reclusive self-taught artist who lived in Milwaukee. He was a painter by night and a baker by day. His reputation is soaring in sophisticated art circles, and he will “co-star” with Pierce and Hawkins in the Lindsay exhibit.
Duff Lindsay explained that Von Bruenchenhein’s art should be described as “apocalyptic.” Born in 1910, dying in 1983, the artist became alarmed about the invention of the hydrogen bomb and the direction of modern culture. He was a tireless, marvelous self-taught painter whose stepmother had been “spiritual and artistic.” His imagery includes phantasmagoric creatures, nightmarish metropolises, and mushroom clouds. Radiating hearts dance. Many of his paintings “take place” under the ocean or in outer space. Galaxies seem to include . . . dinosaur spines? Entrails? Coral reefs? Doesn’t matter. Von B’s love for the natural world and the universe is marvelous, and so are his bright romantic colors. What’s more, many of these complex renderings are intricate finger paintings. Duff had to explain that actual finger paints were not used, but that enamel paint was applied by the artist’s fingers, or by feathers, or locks of his wife’s hair, or whatever!
Von Bruenchenhein was married to one woman until his death. The curvaceous Marie was his favorite subject. He constructed a marvelous crown for her. He portrayed her as a beloved “pinup girl.” In the Lindsay exhibit she is probably the gorgeous mermaid figure who stands in profile on a bold magenta rock. Bold, not brash, blue clouds or waves create a frenetic, stormy firmament or ocean. If you look closely at this 18 x 12 inches enamel painting from 1957, you’ll see it’s a finger painting, and it shines.
Bruenchenhein was a busy guy. His gift for invention was unfettered, and one of his “towers” was constructed from chicken bones!
Elijah Pierce and William Hawkins
Elijah Pierce, master woodcarver, was a spirit-bound pastor and a wage-earning barber. And he achieved an international reputation while he was still alive. If you haven’t seen his elegant yet capricious carvings, you are certainly missing a treat. “Capricious” here, is intended to suggest liveliness, originality. Yet, Pierce was an exacting and tireless technician.
Elijah Pierce, whose father had been a slave, was born in an actual log cabin in Mississippi in 1892. He started to carve in the early 1900s, and he lived on as an amazing presence until 1984, when he died in his adopted hometown, Columbus, Ohio.
Gallery owner Duff Lindsay, an Elijah Pierce specialist, explained that in the ‘40s, Pierce had often carved and presented “sacred art demonstrations.” During these illustrated homilies, Pierce would preach on moral lessons from scripture, at the same time asking his wife Cornelia to point out the figures and events he had carved in sections on long wood panels. Later on, he separated and sold sections from the panels.
“Death on the Level” was a demonstration panel. From it, the shiny brown carved wood Stork, sophisticated in design, could be hung in any fine contemporary home. Yet, it is likely that in a demonstration, Pierce would have explained that the stork, like Jesus, would die for its young. He would have explained that the stork mated for life.
In another “Death on the Level” panel, gloom and doom, indeed, frontier justice, follow The Mule Drawn Buggy, a hearse with smudgy oil lamps. It is a dark and stormy night in this relief carving, and the black-hatted drivers remind us of old black-and-white horror films. The wages of sin may be you know what but there is always charm in Pierce’s carved warnings.
Harvest Angel, 15 x 19 inches, is a polychromed woodcarving completed in 1943. This traditional yet dusky angel was carved in dignified curves and ovals. She’s from a panel called “Redemption.” Her arms almost form an oval. His, or her, tan face gazes calmly upon us. Her curvy off-white wings are strong. We can see separate feathers, see the carve-strokes in the dull blue sky, in the soft lime-green leaves that form a bower. Glitter has been sprinkled reverently, sparsely. The harvested fruit is not glossy, yet it is warm in tone, and Pierce has carved its delicate creases and knobs. The greens and blues are heavenly, but they do not shine. I like the gold-orange pumpkins best. I wish I could have seen Reverend Pierce, assisted by his wife, present “Redemption.”
The exuberant folk painter William Hawkins who died in 1990 was, like Pierce, a longtime Columbus resident. Hawkins was a big kindly guy, yet, in general, a wilder, more pugnacious sort than Pierce. Indeed, it is William Hawkins who painted one of my all time favorites, Red Dog Running. In it, a scruffy dog with big ears, seems to fly on the wings of, well, alcohol! (Red Dog is owned by the Columbus Museum of Art.) I have never seen any Hawkins in which high octane energy does not run in zig zags, and that’s art! Hawkins did odd jobs. He scavenged for enamel paints, any paints, and scrounged for boards and panels. His earliest works tend toward black, gray, red, white, because these colors were easiest to obtain. He painted one brush at a time, until it was worn to the stub.
Neighbors who loved Hawkins and thought of him as kindly and talkative, nonetheless didn’t want to get him riled.
Three Way Loser, around 5 x 4 ft, is a blast, a storm of economical yet wild strokes. There’s a crudeness here, an ineptitude. Hawkins’ energy creates rhythm. In some places the board has been daubed in blacks, reds, burnt oranges, and scratched and scraped. And I don’t mean by the palette knife, I mean by the brush. There is raw action, but it takes awhile for the strokes to fall in place. Three Way Loser is about hunt and kill.
Flying, cringing, and attacking, the depicted animals are crude but recognizable. Black eagle has tried to snatch a wolf cub. But when mother wolf suddenly appears he (the eagle) loses the fight, the meal, and some tail feathers – Hawkins own words provide an integral part of this painting in which images embody an incident in motion, past and present. That’s why Duff refers to it as cinematic. Three Way Loser is framed with red-and-black squares. It was easier to sell that way because the buyer wouldn’t have to buy a frame!
Hawkins grew up poor, real poor, in rural Kentucky and had a lot of experience with outdoor and farm life. It’s likely he had first-hand knowledge of the above “tail.” His power surpasses his skill, and that’s okay. When it comes to folk art, he’s the real McCoy. On each painting he has announced in big wobbly letters so that we will remember forever: “William L. Hawkins. Born in KY. 1895, July 27. When he was alive he kept boxes of magazine pictures and made pencil drawings from them. Lindsay will exhibit several of these drawings.
Folk artists Eddie Arning, who made astounding, regular crayon paintings, was once a mental patient in a facility and painted during that time of his life, never afterward. S. I. Jones, Popeye Reed, William Dawson and other folk and outsider luminaries will appear in the March show. In February, the savvy work of Robert Falcone brightened the cold weather with “Fresh Fruit Tarts,” vintage pinup girls mingled with single images of fruit. Falcone is a genius at melding technique and concept.
Lindsay Gallery is at 726 N. High St. Hours are W-F, 12 - 6 and by appointment. Call 614-291-1973.
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