Sunday, April 8, 2012

Columbus, Ohio, Where Outsiders Have a Home

Since the beginning of the year, the Ohio Arts Council has presented 100 Years of Art: Celebrating Columbus' Legacy at their Riffe Gallery downtown Columbus, opposite the Statehouse. The show closes on April 15, but I hope that even a late review will tantalize readers to consider the rich artistic heritage of our city, given ample attention in this show.

Columbus takes pride in being the home of George Bellows, Roman Johnson and Emerson Burkhart; in its associations with Roy Lichtenstein, Stanley Twardowicz, and ground-breaking ceramist and ceramic engineer, Arthur Baggs. 

Melissa Wolfe, Curator of American Art at the Columbus Museum of Art, who chose this show, recognizes that it's not only the famous artists, nor those successful in prized genres like landscape and portraiture that give us our rich legacy in the visual arts. At least as important in Columbus is our abundant and abiding heritage of folk and outsider artists. Wolfe has selected generously from the untrained masters in mounting this show. Their works have astonishing presence—they are visual magnets in the show. They as much as anything assure Columbus its pride of place in the national art history.

William Hawkins (1895 – 1990), The Iguana, 1978-81
Enamel on Masonite with glitter, 33 ½ x 51
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Gift of the Estate of Michael W. Bletz in memory of “Mic”
William Hawkins, above, is as famous among folk-art collectors as George Bellows is among fans of American realism. Barely educated, he was a truck driver and laborer and only painted  for the last twenty years of his life. His paintings of animals, prehistory, historical events and everyday life are full of a kind of manly grandeur and vitality. Wolfe's gallery notes quote his advice, "You have to do something wonderful, so people know who you are." Hawkins' work, whatever its size, is always big in feel. And wonderful. And unmistakable.

Grandpa Smoky Brown (1919 – 2005), Wizard of Oz, 1992
Mixed media on cardboard, 30 x 40
Private Collection
In Columbus, Smoky Brown's reputation is quite as elevated and secure as Hawkins' is. Another late starter, he gave himself over to painting when he moved to Columbus in 1976, at around sixty years old, where he entered a rehabilitation institution that helped him free himself from alcohol and drug addictions after years of struggle. He had always been involved in creative enterprises, but the last quarter of the twentieth century saw him unleash monumental creativity with anything he touched. Wizard of Oz, shown, is actually a 3-D work. The frame is rolled cardboard, and the supporting layer is too. The brilliantly-painted figures sit on top of a sheet of clear plastic or acrylic that bows out over the support, which is itself painted and  collaged upon. The foreground painted sheet is also covered with layers of translucent packing tape and has altered photographs of Brown and relatives taped to it. What came to Brown's hands became highly colored—even lurid—wildly imagined art, contemporary in feel. His work responds to popular culture with its twist of sci-fi, cartoon, and street characters.

Elijah Pierce (1892 – 1984),
Crucifixion, mid-1930s (reworked by artist in 1970s)
Carved and painted wood with glitter on wood panel, 47 ¾ x 30 ¾
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Museum Purchase
Columbus has been (and continues to be) the home of exceptional carvers. I have written previously about the great Elijah Pierce , and this show includes a masterwork—almost 4 feet by 3 feet—from the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Crucifixion. Most of the figures are bas-relief, cut out from the background, but the crucified figures, as one can see from the shadows in the image, are detached; they literally stand out. The magnificent work is arresting for its size, its high coloration, its contrast of hellish red and celestial blue, the two spheres overseen by the central figures of crucified Christ and, below his feet, the be-suited Devil with horns and pitchfork. The symmetrical composition and clarity of character and symbol mark Pierce's evident didactic intent. The work is a latter-day stained glass window, a scriptural narrative that both the educated and illiterate both can follow and take to heart.

Walter O. Mayo (1878 – 1970)
Ark of the Covenant, nd
Carved and painted wood, 20 ½ x 23 ¼
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Promised Gift from the Family of Helen Cobb and
Walter L. Mayo, Sr.
An extremely elegant carver whose subjects, secular and spiritual, were realized in three dimensions, was Walter A. Mayo . Mayo came to Columbus from small town central Ohio. He was a mule driver before he was a truck driver and, like Dawkins and Brown, came to art later in life. His observational work captures not only detail but affect; it represents a world of happy rural normality. His spiritual work, like this Ark of the Covenant, shows that his imagination found unseen, spiritual worlds just as detailed as the everyday, but invested with passionate belief.  Wolfe's gallery notes report the thrilling fact that, "Mayo also carved a miniature, hand-lettered scroll listing the Ten Commandments that is placed within the Ark." 

Ralph Bell (1913 – 1995)
Untitled (Man with Red Hat and Dog), 1993
Acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36 x 4 ¼
Campbell inventory #93DC
Private Collection [c/o Keny Galleries]
Art-making provided soul-saving releases for artists Ralph Bell and Mary Frances Merrill, both of whom suffered crippling disabilities. Bell was institutionalized as a child, unable to speak or write, to use his hands or arms. He was eventually diagnosed as having cerebral palsy. It wasn't until he was almost 70 that an art therapist contrived a mechanism he could place on his head to hold a paint brush. That's when he took up painting with exuberant gusto, producing works like Man with Red Hat and Dog. 

Mary Merrill (1920 – 1999), Calypso
Mixed media on linoleum, 11 ¼ x 9Private Collection
I wish I had a better image of the Mary Merrill selection in 100 Years of Art, for it is quite a disarming piece, a vivid image on a thin piece of curled-up, nondescript linoleum. Lined up like a mother duck and her ducklings, a woman has her hand lowered to gently guide her three similarly-dressed daughters before her. She carries her big load on her head; they carry tiny ones. All the figures are fashioned from little scraps of bright fabric. Calypso is created from almost nothing at all, yet minimal and humble as it is, it goes straight to the heart. Wolfe tells Merrill's as another story of an artist who started making art late in life, whose production seems to have been tied to years of agoraphobia. Confined to her house, she used anything she had at hand to work with, including according to Wolfe, "chewing gum, make up, jewelry, and coal nuggets." 

It's no coincidence, I think, that Hawkins, Brown, Mayo, Bell, and Merrill began making art late in their lives. Unlike academically trained artists, they seem to have come to art with lives full of experience and reflection, ready for some place to put it—exuberantly. Such explosions of color and invention. such confidence in instinct make their pieces in this show masterworks indeed. We are all lucky for Wolfe's insight in recognizing this art that comes directly from life unmediated by technique.

Between the world of fine art and outsider art lies another category on which Columbus can pride itself, cartoons. Ohio State educated Milton Caniff, and now houses his papers in its nonpareil Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon kept many a youthful Sunday enthralling, and I am delighted that Wolfe included him in this show of Columbus greats. This panel of Terry and the Pirates from June of 1943 is huge (two sheets of paper, probably 4 feet high). To see it at this original size is to fully appreciate the cartoonist's mastery of black and white dramatic composition, and the integration of text into each panel, while he keeps each panel its own tense, charged, pod of energy. It's wonderful story-telling in spring-coiled visuals. 

Milton Caniff (1907 – 1988), Terry and the Pirates, June 20, 1943
Ink on paper, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, OSU
Last but not least is James Thurber. The author of My Life and Hard Times, with its immortal stories ("The Night the Bed Fell," "University Days") about his youth in Columbus should be as well-known as his New Yorker cartoons. Thurber is represented in this show by two cartoons. I picked the one I did because I can assure you that the absurdity of This is George Busby is known to have caused more people to fall out of their chairs than any other work by Thurber. That's a fact. You could look it up.

"This is George Busby, darling, and he's in marvelous form!"
James Thurber (1894 – 1961)
This is George Busby, Darling and He’s in Marvellous Form
Ink on paper, 10 ½ x 8 ¼
Private Collection, courtesy of Keny Galleries
 (If you can't make 100 Years of Art, works by many of these artists can be seen locally at the Columbus Museum of Art, the Lindsay Gallery, and the Keny Galleries.)

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