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‘Faces of Folk’
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In one of the small galleries reserved for intimate, temporary exhibitions at the Hurn Museum, there are currently showing twelve works by nine artists under the title of “Faces of Folk.” In a variety of sizes, styles and media the viewer is confronted with the theme of portraiture. The works have been carefully chosen from emerging artists in the Museum’s collection, and what initially stood out for me was the overall painterly accomplishment, experimentation with media and clearly modernist influences that were apparent, and that we generally do not expect from artists labeled, “folk.” For instance, Rose Walton’s acrylic portrait of St. Lucy recalls the stylized faces of early Modernism’s famous outsider, Modigliani: oval, melancholy, elongated faces, long necks, small mouths and empty pupil-less eyes. This saint’s story is that she removed her eyes and presented them to an aggressive suitor who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. In Walton’s complex vision, the two eye pupils have been removed and yet seem to reappear on the chest. A strange doubling of eyes/breasts that seem to be a recurring theme in Walton’s work. And something of Van Gogh’s portraits comes to mind in front of Della Well’s pastel, “Yes, Mama. I’m Being a Good Girl”, particularly in the attention to face and patterned sweater and in the crude drawing of the hands resting in the subject’s lap. A hint of De Kooning’s series of women from the 1940s is evident in the violent slashing and impasto of Matt Sesow’s “The Father of the Bride.” Here the subject glares out at the viewer through grinding teeth in a gashed mouth that extends beyond the contours of the face. In fact, the painterly, expressionistic gesture dominates this show. It is there in the scrubbing paint application of Cher Shaffer’s mixed media, “Self Portrait (Looking into the Light)” and in the few disciplined, Chinese-like brush strokes that make up Carrie Knowles‚ serigraph “Morning Tea”; it is there in the mass of ballpoint pen graffiti marks that cover the forms in Gabriel Schaffer’s mixed media, three-headed portrait, “Man With Three Souls”, and in the multitude of fine brush strokes that build up Eric Legge’s grinning “Portrait of a Friend”; again, in the looser brush strokes of Rudolf Bostik’s enamel and food coloring portrait, “Green Lady.” There are, in fact, only two works here that seem to display no discernible influences or interest in flick-of-the-wrist paint handling: Michael Banks‚ “Good Boy, Bad Boy,” a large, flat face with a halo and protruding tongue, and Harriet McGee’s very strange shadow box, “Eve in the Big Garden”, in which the naked Eve, a bird in her hand and accompanied by a tiger is partially buried by a mass of carefully cut out, three dimensional layers of paper grass and leaves. Influences and painterly skills are not what one expects from folk artists, usually thought of as untaught in the arts and generally uneducated. In the past, they were left alone with only their internal vision as inspiration, and they created artworks from their special place “outside” the mainstream culture, which dealt with the human condition in vital and serious ways. Early Modernism broke with the European Fine Art tradition by consciously borrowing from the arts of other cultures, from Asia and from African tribal art and then from the marginal works of the rural poor and the institutionalized. But influences abound now for the folk artist too, and are mostly unavoidable and always reciprocal. All visual information circulates freely, whether we want it or not, and is picked up and used by all artists, sometimes unconsciously. I have googled all nine artists and with the exception of two, they appear on folk art gallery websites. All of them belong to two post-war generations. Half are now in their fifties, and half are in their thirties. They are all literate, educated, and have been exposed to mass media -- magazines, books, TV and film. And since at least two of them have degrees in non-art subjects, the folk artist criteria of “self-taught” must here be merely defined as not having attended art school. In contrast to this story, there are works on display in another gallery at the Hurn, by three classical American folk artist outsiders, Clementine Hunter, born 1886; Sam Doyle, born 1906, and Howard Finster, born 1916. Each started painting in old age and worked in isolation, as if they were the only artists in the world. At least in the paintings on view, they all paint by filling in their figures with flat color, a naive style. I have a controversial opinion that work done in secret, not originally intended for exhibition or sale should probably remain that way. Looking at these works, one can’t help feeling that something of their meaning has been destroyed by overexposure, publicity and market speculation. Even before he died, Finster was referred to as “Folk art’s first superstar,” a death-knell if ever I heard one. As Michel Thévoz has written of outsider art, “It really seems as if, like Orpheus, Western culture is doomed to destroy whatever is -- or rather whatever was -- strange, merely by gazing at it.” If, in these times, the real outsider is normalized out of existence, perhaps it is painting itself that is being marginalized. Looking at the folk art websites, it is incredible how much painting is being done by those termed “folk artists”, and dipping into the glossy art magazines, it is interesting how very little painting is being done by those in the so-called Fine Art category. The mainstream of contemporary art is now dominated by technological art that is very expensive to produce. So perhaps those who continue to want to daub canvas with colored mud need to be sidelined into the lesser market of folk art. w The Hurn Museum is at 1015 Whitaker St. Call them at 234-7322. Our resident 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.