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A Fine Dividing Line
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The Purvis Young retrospective has been scheduled at the Hurn Museum since the museum opened last year. Ricardo Manuel Diaz’ exhibition, advertised in Art Papers, was to have taken place last month at Opus Gallery in Savannah, but was cancelled when the gallery unexpectedly closed in January.

In taking on the Diaz exhibition at short notice, the Hurn Museum has not only given Savannahians the possibility of seeing the work of this artist, something that was being denied them, but has also been able to push the debate on the definition of “folk art”, which is central to the museum’s mission.

The curatorial idea is to present an encounter between “folk art”, represented by Young, who is from Miami, and “fine art”, represented by Diaz, from Chicago, under the title of “A Fine Dividing Line.”

More interestingly, this happens not to be the first encounter between these two artists. Over a year ago, they became acquainted while Diaz was in Miami and spent an afternoon together talking about painting. The rules of chance set in motion a possibility here which the individual participants - curators and artists - decided to pursue, whatever the risks involved. What I feel has been revealed in the resulting exhibition is a meditation on the condition of painting in contemporary society.

Paint in the process of painting has a tendency to turn to mud. For the beginner, who desires to make a design of clean, bright colors, this can be frustrating, but for the practiced painter, controlling this essential excremental quality of paint is the nature of the process.

Neither Young nor Diaz can be called “colorists” in the sense of arranging high, brilliant hues. Diaz works within a narrow range of chosen colors and seems to become immersed in the muddy substance of paint. Figures are scratched and carved into existence in a world of greys, which could be defined as color that has lived through and suffered a lot, a color as old as the earth it came from.

For Young I sense, color is what comes to hand, like the found surfaces of metal and wood and scraps of discarded materials he uses. Paint is a material to be scrubbed onto surfaces, and to be used to draw marks.

The marks Young makes are predominantly a compulsive, cursive script of tiny figures that scramble all over areas of the painting surface. These marks are small human beings in profile resembling the letter “S” and often with raised waving arms.

But the world of Purvis Young is a dual world, in which other figures appear, facing forward (or backward?), robed and frequently with haloes, making them resemble the letter “i”. Humans and spirits.

But which is which? Who is being haunted and who is doing the haunting?

The titles of the works invariably refer to West African gods that having accompanied humans on the middle passage continue to exist is Cuban Santeria and Haitian Voudo. They have the musical names of Obatala, Loa, Shango and Eleggua.

Traditionally, these gods lived intimately with human beings. The Loa mounts and rides on the backs of humans and Eleggua takes human form to merge with ordinary people on the street corners.

However, without understanding any of the references of the titles, the viewer experiences the ambivalence of being at once inside and outside the material world, an experience that is central to all human consciousness.

The prevailing world view of modernity, however, has reduced these worlds to one material reality; the great Loa of Voudo has departed, because, as Haitians put it, “Great gods cannot ride little horses.”

But all material contains its own spirit. This is particularly true of the colors and clay that are extracted from the earth. In his book, What Painting Is, James Elkins likens the painting process to that of alchemy.

And for Ricardo Manuel Diaz, I believe paint is the alchemist’s Materia Prima, the substance that has every form already within it but in a confused state, poised halfway between chaos and the completed painting. As Elkins says, “The paint is like a bird’s nest, with the threads all tangled and interwoven and the painter’s job is to tease them apart and lay them out for everyone to see.”

But the Materia Prima is not only a substance full of unrealized form, but also that empty moment of silence before the act of creation commences. In Diaz’ process of applying paint and removing it, a figure emerges, or is frozen at the point of emerging, partially formed but always facing out, as if coming towards the viewer.

Even when the figures are in groups, they are always isolated from each other. When the gods depart, man feels himself, alone, singular and pitted against a hostile universe.

Contemporary art is becoming predominately technological. The ancient human practice that has existed for millenia, of making images in paint, clay, stone or wood, seems to be, like the god, on the point of disappearing.

But the process of painting doesn’t go away; it merely goes underground, overshadowed by the modern arts of filmmaking, photography and computerized image making, all of which advance daily in complexity and in the equipment needed to create art from them.

The mainstream art world has embraced this techno-art as the future of Art, which undoubtedly it is. The Hurn Museum, having eliminated “craft objects” and sculpture from its definition of folk art, finds itself examining the progressively excluded world of the painter.

As far as I can see, there can be no such thing as folk photography, folk video or digital folk art. Perhaps then, the “fine dividing line” of this exhibition title is the vanishing point where the separate categories of “folk” and “fine” art disappear and painting remains the pursuit of those for whom it is a way of life, like the Tao; painting is a meditation and a philosophical journey which some must take, whatever the risks. w

“A Fine Dividing Line” -- Purvis Young, through July 31 and Ricardo Manuel Diaz through May 31 at the Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art, Savannah, 1015 Whitaker Street. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission: Students $3, Adults $4. Call 234-7322.

Connect Savannah art critic Bertha Husband is a native of Scotland who has studied art at Oxford University and Ruskin School of Fine Art. She has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Her art criticism has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Somnambulist, and Left Curve.