By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Just plain folk
ConnectSavannah Import Default Image
Regardless of the intentions of individual artists, the art museums in which their works are collected are often intimidating institutions that intentionally separate the work of art from daily life, and place it in an untouchable context where it looks down on and mocks all of those not in "the know."

Which probably explains the discomfort experienced by the working class patron in an art museum.

Some museums, however, are warmer, more intimate, more approachable and, in their respect for form combined with a passion for the works they contain, are not so much institutions as actual works of art in themselves.

"Art" wrote Rebecca West, "is a necessity and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which Life can be poured and lifted to the lips to be tasted." This could well describe The Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art, newly opened in Savannah and created through the collective effort and vision of one Savannah family, the Sottiles.

In their endeavor, we are reminded that the root of the word, "curator", means "to care" and the curatorial attention to every detail in adapting the building and in the construction of the galleries extends to the artworks within and makes for a whole and satisfying experience.

This experience, however, is not purely aesthetic, but springs directly from the theoretical reason for the museum’s existence in the first place, which is to develop a meaningful definition of the term, "folk art."

Towards this end the Sottiles have eliminated all folk crafts, i.e., hand-crafted objects with a domestic use value, from their museum and have concentrated on painting, by which they hope to demonstrate that paintings that have been relegated to the "folk art" category should be, in fact, considered as fine art.

This is quite a radical idea. The folk art category has always been used to keep artists from impoverished and humble origins in their place - excluded from the contemporary, fine art debate. And this is why many artists from the working class have struggled to escape the definition of folk artist, with its tidy market niche that can be viewed with condescension and easily appear reductive.

But as the recent boom in advanced art education has encouraged an over-emphasis on technique at the expense of meaning, fine art becomes itself more trivial.

A brief statement in The Hurn Museum brochure has this to say: "Once crafts are eliminated, folk art merely differs from fine art by placing greater emphasis on message rather than technique."

All fine art is a universalizing of the particular, but folk art is exemplary in the way the artist processes local customs of church and family and rural and urban daily life and converts them into significant artistic statements.

As artist Romare Bearden put it, "I try to explore in terms of the life I know best those things that are common to all culture."

The Hurn Museum has organized this subject matter into three categories: Visionary (spiritual); Vernacular (everyday); and Outsider (distressed) and has devoted a room to each expression.

At first it seems controversial to place a work by Bearden in a folk art museum since he is considered a modernist and someone the mainstream can no longer ignore, but in terms of the Hurn Museum’s agenda, it makes perfect sense. Bearden’s work evolved from experiences, presumably not unlike those of many artists exhibiting here. Born in North Carolina, he came of age in Harlem in the 1920s, and the foundations of his art are Blues and jazz, to which the beautiful watercolor ("Out Chorus") on display in the first gallery testifies. It stands not as representation of Blues musicians, but as a work built on improvisation, echoing the language of the Blues.

If the viewer looks past this Bearden, it is possible to see into the main, central gallery that is now devoted to a retrospective of the Savannah artist, Rudolph Valentino Bostic. Like Bearden, he studied the work of other artists, but in Bostic’s case, he confined his studies to book reproductions of Renaissance religious works that best suited his own biblical subject matter.

This exhibition is overwhelming, and not only due to the sheer quantity of the works. There is an intensity here that has little to do with the representations of angels, Adam and Eves, pietas and Christs on the cross, all of which look deeply human and ordinary.

There is an intensity that comes from the way in which they are painted. His palette is almost completely restricted to warm colors, predominantly reds, yellows, black and white and the paint is applied with strokes that seem aggressively joyful.

The paint is an enamel housepaint applied to a cardboard surface and covered with numerous layers of polyurethane. These works reveal an obsessive desire to represent a quality of inner light or even ecstacy.

In the small Visionary, Vernacular and Outsider galleries, there are numerous works on display, most artists represented by one work each. In his book, "The Painter’s Mind," Romare Bearden wrote: "Many things are revealed to us as we look at a work of art with its multiplicity of images. Not all who look will see the same thing; some people, for instance, will be pleased by a particular image, others depressed, each according to his temperament, his imagination, and his spiritual needs. But whatever the image, the only reality present is structure."

And it is those paintings that exhibit a concern for structure that I take delight in. For instance, In the Vernacular Room, it is the line in Betty Sue Matthews’ "Dog" that attracts me, and so it is with the pairing in Darryl Scott’s "A Little Dance", in which there are two buildings, two fiddle players, pairs of animals and two couples dancing on a field of grass.

And, in the Visionary Room it is the symmetry and color of Rose Waltons’ "Eve Brown", a portrait of a woman pierced at the throat by a snake’s fangs.

But it is the works of Michael Banks in the Outsider Room that really impress me. There is a narrative in Banks’ "Lost in the Crowd" that remains mysterious, even after many viewings. It is a four foot square painting on wood, with lines etched into the surface on which there are represented eight very strange boys of assorted skin colors, all bald with eyes placed absurdly far apart. Two are wearing pointed hats and two have eye masks and they stare out at the viewer as if posing for a snapshot or strangely reflected back at us from a mirror.

Banks’ other work, "Clown," is painted on the cover of a copy of Art in America. The cover image had been a portrait photo, presumably, but Banks’ covers everything over except a couple of letters in the title and one eye.

It is now transformed into a painted figure wearing a pointed hat, whose arms are drawn as if they were made of twisted, knotted wire The face of this cyclops weeps tears on the cheek that has no eye and close to where the missing eye should be, there is a tiny cross and a circle, surely a telescopic camera lens or rifle sight. These are the two works I mentally steal away with me and they continue to haunt.

In order to leave the museum, it is necessary to exit through the introductory room, past the Bearden that sounded the first bars of the Blues when the viewer entered. Now, as it delivers the "Out Chorus" of its title, what might it be saying to us?

One of the many definitions of the folk artist is "one who is self-taught". But if we stop to consider this in any depth, it falls apart, as all artists have been self-taught in that their education was mostly informal - copying the works of other artists, talking to other artists, and then following their own trajectory.

Until the 1980s, art school education was also informal. Teachers were merely mentors who watched the young students’ talents unfold along whatever lines they chose. We now have the first generation of artists who have been trained as technicians and have had to take advanced degrees including computer skills in order to market and self-promote themselves enough to get into galleries. The cost of all this, along with the vast expense of art materials is restrictive, as it is no doubt meant to be.

But curiously, and because of their very exclusion, it is perhaps the so-called folk artists who will become the true inheritors of the modernist fine art tradition. Working with humble materials and from necessity, transforming and stylizing the raw material of their life and culture into artistic significance, it will be they, alone, who carry on the duties of the artist in our society.


The Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art is at 1015 Whittaker St. Hours: Tues.-Sat. 11 - 4, Sun. 12 - 4, Closed Monday. Admission $4 adults, $3. students, children under 12 and members free.