Sunday, February 19, 2012

Location, Location, Location! Cityscapes of Harvey Gilliam and Kojo Kamau

The 2012 bicentennial of Columbus, Ohio is inspiring a panoply of art shows. Cityscapes Yesteryear, currently open at the King Arts Complex and co-sponsored by Art for Community Expression, is a particularly sweet example. It features the work of photographer Kojo Kamau (website), most from his student days when he was getting to know his camera and 35mm film. "Buildings don't move," he laughs, so he practiced on the city—which has in fact moved considerably since his 1960 explorations.

Tall One, 24 x 20," 1960. Kojo Kamau. 
At the same time, his friend Harvey Gilliam was exploring his favorite places in watercolors. Having worked in oils, he had fallen in love with a medium that was ascending—like photography—to claim its own status among the primary visual arts.
Columbus Skyline, ca. 28 x 21," 1970. Harvey Gilliam.
Cityscapes Yesteryear gives the visitor windows onto the city disappeared, altered, and constant. These three views of a classic Columbus vista, of the Scioto River edge of downtown, with the landmark LeVeque Tower and various State office buildings celebrate architectural beauty, prosperity, and, taken together, continuity. Kamau and Gilliam have agreed with many others that this is the definitive view of their city, even with its changes across the years.
Urban Landscape #115, 24 x 20, 2006. Kojo Kamau.

I went into this show asking myself, "If I were not from Columbus, would I be interested in these works? Is their particular location their major appeal? Is work like this only for people who recognize the scenes?"

A point of reference for this question is a painting in the show from Kamau's collection, a Columbus scene by Roman Johnson, a Columbus native of national reputation. The work is Oak Street, from 1980. While outside information tells us that it's Columbus, the scene could be in just about any city. The interest of the work is not its specific location, but the artist's excellence in execution of materials and success in suggesting a story. It's a defined urban landscape for us to imagine our ways into.

I found that some of the work in this show operates at this level too, Gilliam's Central Market (20 x 27," ca. 1960), for instance. A resident of our city will recognize the landmarks in the background and know that the market is a thing of the past. For others, it's a charming scene from a collective past—from a European country, even—that it's easy to enter and enjoy visiting. As for being urban? Urban is defined in a must softer way than we know it today, wherever this city is located.

Kamau's Strolling on the Avenue (1997) is similarly an open image, a scene that could be from any tough neighborhood in an American city. The composition is powerful in line, color, and mass, and the viewer can find any number of stories—of hope, despair, damage or confidence—waiting to be told here. Made in Columbus, universally accessible.

But much of Cityscapes Yesteryear indulges the lover of Columbus by encouraging personal stories of exactly the kind I enjoyed when I met Gilliam and Kamau at the gallery. Gilliam remembers Helen Carter's Music School  fondly as the place his wife took music lessons. The house is not there any more, but he can locate its former site for me by tracing certain East Side intersections  no longer known for their leafy settings. 

Neither Gilliam nor Kamau ever considered his work to be anything for the historical record. Gilliam painted for enjoyment, selecting his scenes for personal reasons: He liked the look of the buildings, or had ties to them; one subject was the school where he waited in the car during his daughter's weekly lesson. Below, Unity Neighborhood Scene (16.5 x 35"), pictures his own neighborhood at 5th Street and 9th Avenue during the '70s, recollecting who lived where and the community they had. "There's a story behind every painting," he asserts. Clearly those stories lead him to his subjects.

Gilliam enjoyed having people look over his shoulder as he worked. He was happy to turn their interest to profit. A goodly portion of his work was done on commission from friends, or from others who met him while he painted, then asked if he would do paintings of their homes. He learned from another artist the value of putting together a portfolio to display at the annual home show, from which he also drew clients. Often, though, Gilliam made two paintings of a commissioned subject, keeping one for himself out of personal interest.

Gilliam is 91 years old now and Cityscapes Yesteryear is his first substantial show, the brainchild of Kamau, who saw the unique opportunity that Bicentennial Columbus and Black History Month offered. Gilliam, while prolific—his house is said to be overflowing with work—has not undertaken the artistic business of professional documentation or competing to be in art shows. Nevertheless, he sets very high standards for his work, a sort often overlooked by the local watercolor society painter. He is adamant about editing as he composes, careful to put in details that count but to eliminate such "reality" as detracts from the best composition. "I'm not concerned with documentation, with what's visible," he insists. I want to convince the viewer that it's here and now."

The Columbus that Gilliam represented forty or fifty years ago is in fact very similar to the city of today. In his paintings of neighborhoods of detached houses with lawns, and of churches, he depicts a city that builds out instead of up, whose neighborhoods are filled with houses and trees rather than with high-density construction, and where the density of houses of worship is very high. 

 Tim Treadwell House (left), Mt. Vernon Avenue AME (middle), and Church of the Living God (bottom), are examples of scenes from the pastoral city. The architecture may be faux-Tudor, institutional Deco, or a renovated cottage in a historic neighborhood, 
 but it's a calm, comfortable, and neighborly city, not a harsh, dirty, or worn place.

When Gilliam explains his other pictures, he locates the buildings directionally—for example, on the northwest corner of the intersection, or on the south side of the street—and nearly always names the unseen homes or businesses in front of which he worked.

His cityscapes give us located scenes, the very places he and others have occupied and loved over years of living in Columbus, Ohio. They can be found by map or compass. They are places filled with stories for generations of residents, their friends, and passersby. But they are also tiles in a mosaic that creates the character and the mythology of the city: The safe, easy-going community that is almost not a city at all. In fact, I like most of all Down My Alley (ca.1970), still a typical Columbus scene, as it remains a scene typical in small-town Ohio. 

Kojo Kamau's Columbus tends to be as particular as Gilliam's, but over his career he has taken his camera downtown. Gilliam paints the personal scene, the world in which individuals dominate. Even though he rarely paints people into his picture, it's easy to put ourselves into the personal, warm spaces. Kamau's photos are of the busy city, where a person can  get lost in the crowd or enjoy a faster pace.

Spicer's Furniture (24 x 20," 1960), above, is the emblem of "photographic detail," delivering every telephone and light pole, wire, parking meter, and every letter on every sign—all that Gilliam would edit out for the sake of a preferred narrative reality. Would one recognize this as an avenue in Columbus in particular? The people who have been there surely will. The abundant, distinct detail suggests that the stories may be different from those that attach to the houses with lawns.

Center of Town from 1960 is another photo that will undoubtedly fill Columbus natives with nostalgia or excitement, chock full as it is with the buildings that remain, have been replaced or altered. The huge signs that name businesses often become landmarks in themselves even when their namesakes have disappeared; Gam (Gambrinus Beer) and Roy's Watches are undoubtedly redolent of place and period, with thousands of personal memories attached. It's a picture that could be of another city, but lacking any outstanding landmark, it's a scene that draws its life from what viewers bring and add to it: their own sense of place derived from visual memory.

 It's interesting that Kamau used these signs in a photomontage, Night Lights, that well illustrates the difference between local cityscape and work about The City, generalized as a hard, fast, exciting place. Center of Town, above is clearly Our Town. Who would delve into the details of this photograph of a wide, unbustling city street lined by common enough architecture? Of course plenty of people would, and they are from Columbus, fascinated by the image's opportunity to attach their personal memories, city history, stories they've heard, and impressions to validate or disprove. Night Lights isn't history, but fantasy—television or movies, or global cities built up and not spread across seemingly endless acreage. 

But a dream city is our city as much as the green-grass genteel city and the crowded Afro-American neighborhoods and the remembered markets long gone. It's clear that there are many images in this show that would probably not mean much to a person from Burbank or Boston. Sometimes the formal aspects of a work aren't enough to make the subject matter broadly interesting. But everything here—including the work with universal appeal—was made with an eye focused exclusively on home. It reflects the complexity of the idea of a city, but even more, how a city, constructed and landscaped, is ultimately the cloudy locus for millions of individual moments, memories, and stories.

Kojo Kamau and Harvey Gilliam, 2012

With thanks to Julie Fultz for her assistance with the images of Harvey Gilliam's work.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Film by Michael Snow at the Wexner Center; Thoughts on Gallery Notes

Wexner Center for the Arts.
Photo by Brad Feinknopf
The Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University is a contemporary arts venue worthy of any city in the world. The Peter Eisenman building houses (among much more) four major galleries that ascend a hillside via a ramp illuminated by a high, angular canopy of glass. The wonderful art space balances airiness and gravitas. Though the walled walkway dramatically directs the eye toward the light from the window panes at the top, the ascent doesn't feel fatal. You may feel yourself gently inclining to a heavenly realm, but you don't have to die to achieve it.
Gallery ramp, Wexner Center for the Arts.
Photo by Brad Feinknopf
I had time to kill the other day before meeting a friend in the Wexner lobby. I decided to look into the little black box cinema, instead of browsing the bookshop. Every month, there's always something new playing—something a visitor can step into at any point—but I rarely go in for just the reason this trip reinforced: I get enthralled by the too-wonderful film that instantly seduces me away from my intended business. This modest theater appears peripheral to the architectural focus of the Stairway to Heaven. Its being easy to overlook, however, adds an ironically dependable element of surprise to every great experience that awaits the visitor.

I entered The Box via its truncated, black-painted hall. There's a quick jog into the tiny but very high space. The velvety blackness within is as smooth and disorienting as the time-travel that movies represent. After a few seconds, the light from the film helped me locate the four or five chairs scattered about so I could pull one to myself and sit.

What I saw on the screen (or wall? I couldn't tell in the dark) didn't really need a name or explanation. As far as my perception was concerned, everything before me was real. Nothing had been contrived, but existed, right there in front of me, in the same space, in the present.

The film was in medias res. It had no more plot than the relationship of a window, curtain, and wind do; no more than there is when idle observation of a breeze-blown curtain turns your thoughts inward.

I was watching a 62-minute color video shot by Michael Snow in 2002. It's titled Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids). Shot from a fixed camera, the scene is of a double casement window, the left half flung open, the right closed. The window is only slightly smaller than the area projected. It is covered by a light, white curtain, which hangs from a rod. A single panel covers both the open and the closed sides. It prevents our seeing the outside, turning the unseen landscape into a source of comfortable mystery.
Michael Snow, Solar Breath (Northern Caryatid).
Courtesy, Wexner Center for the Arts
The day is gusty. The curtain is alternately blown into the room and sucked against the window screen; we can hear the muffled blustering and flapping. The outside world is quiet, and so is the house, save for occasional sounds of people walking and the brief, contented exchanges of a man and woman somewhere "behind" us, in other rooms.

The location of this house is revealed only when the curtain rises high, allowing us quick glimpses behind the veil. If it sounds sort of erotic, it is sort of erotic—and tranquil. I found myself wide-eyed with anticipation for the next gust, which would disclose more. The curtain was like a stage drapery that would rise on a scene of life beyond the domestic, which occurred within the completely unseen world we attributed to the background residents of the house. Whatever was out there—the intermittently visible—was by definition a drama, defined by the lifting and falling of that rustling panel of white.

On another level, I found that this quiet film brought on waves of longing for recollected well-being. As a child, I often lay relaxed in bed watching flapping springtime curtains that played just this game, revealing flashes of blue sky. The breeze was simultaneously pleasant exterior and interior sensation—caressing on my skin, satisfying in my lungs. It was action a character at the same time. 
Michael Snow, Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids)
Courtesy, Wexner Center for the Arts
Like snow, the breeze transforms the world. But unlike the snow, the breeze changes the world invisibly. So this film, in conveying the wind's presence so convincingly left me achingly aware of absence. Each gust that lifted the curtain high made me yearn for something impossible to capture. I strained to fill my my body with the fresh air, with the breeze so evident in its secondary effects, yet wholly "invisible" to the primary sensation! 

There wasn't any wind in the film. The sound of the curtains, the visual capture of their movement with the illusion that the wind blows them toward me—it's all there. But the wind—the protagonist, the motive for everything in the film—is played by its ghost. It's represented only in our heads, by memory or by the particularized imagination of longing.

Why did Snow title this video, Solar Breath (Northern Caryatid)? To tell the truth, I don't really get it. "Northern" seems to explain itself in the course of the film, as setting. Caryatids are columns formed by statues of women, best known from the Erectheum of the Acropolis. They support the roof upon the baskets carried on their heads; full, draped garments fall around them. Perhaps the "caryatid" refers to the beauty of pleats and folds that the designing wind spontaneously fashions in the curtain? And "solar breath?" Wind is caused by the uneven heating of the Earth and its atmosphere by the sun.

I can't say that the title and my experience of the film come from the same world, and it's possible that I am disconnected from Snow's own themes. I found the film completely refreshing, and exciting. I didn't stay for 62 minutes—about half is more like it. I hope Snow would be glad that I was delighted by his work. Would he be offended that I didn't discover a meaning the title directs me to? Perhaps.

As I left The Box, I picked up a two-sided card innocuously provided, with some discussion about the film. I was indeed curious to know some more; perhaps I'd be enlightened about the title and the artist.

For scholars of film and for anyone abreast of contemporary art news and theory, the analysis of Solar Breath by J. Ronald Green, professor of film studies in the Department of Art History at The Ohio State University, is a gold mine. His essay, printed on that gallery card, is informed by his knowledge of modernism, minimalism and a broad swathe of contemporary art. He mentions "Ann Hamilton-like skirts of a Canadian caryatid," and makes a comparison to "shifting clouds within the frame of James Turrell's Skyspace installations." Such addition of information and idea should only be good, shouldn't it?

"A 35-minute glissando of a sine-wave audio tone is the main sound track of that film [Snow's Wavelength], which rhymes with and parallels the 45-minute zoom. Those two morphing phenomena form the basis for a complex time/space system, somewhat like the working of a representational destiny machine."

This is text from the only commentary available to the film's audience. That group presumably includes not only film scholars and art historians, but curious, non-specialist art explorers too.To provide only a document lodged in professional language, unsupplemented by something less technical, strikes me as too bad. I found Green's ideas about a solar-driven machine to be very interesting, but after I'd had a couple of days to think about them. 

If I had read that card as I went in, I might have concluded that I would be in over my head. I doubt that I could have had quite the unvarnished experience that I did. I may well have regretted that I "missed the point" or felt apologetic for the simple and sensual pleasure that I had. I'd have gone in feeling wanting: I lacked background in Snow's work and the thought of his colleagues. I'd feel like an inferior viewer with an expert looking over my shoulder.

I'm sure that the real Professor Green doesn't worry about anyone's reception of Snow's film. But scholarly language strikes hard against the viewer's ear; it is not the language of invitation. The focused points suggested in a scholar's essay narrow rather than broaden what the general viewer will concentrate on in their direct experience of the art work. Curators need to remember that many people have had to overcome personal misgivings about intellectual or cultural authority just to get themselves as far as a contemporary art venue in the first place.
Unless it's looking for an audience of learned or "qualified" viewers only, I don't think that Wexner should assume that its visitors all speak the same arcane language. Academic language may discourage as many visitors as it intrigues and provide only dry crumbs to feed the open-minded viewer's curiosity. 

Contemporary art often strikes me as available for engagement by open-minded and curious audiences. The works of independent, exploratory artists today constitute accessible challenges. Viewers can start from scratch and think their own ways into the activities of thought and execution, in effect joining the artist's process. Contemporary art can fascinate viewers through many kinds of mental activities that are not purely analytical or bloodlessly abstract. 

But once we get into theories and posited connections that cannot come directly from the viewer's experience of the art, we undercut their own connection—exuberant, sensual, or philosophical—with the piece. Unless the viewer is a specialist, she is unlikely to be prepared at first or second viewing for the sort of scholarly essay provided for Snow's film, though the film students should appreciate and discuss it.

In any gallery space, the notes should be given the utmost consideration. Who needs them or wants them, and why? Who are they written for? What are they meant to promote? What are the possible perverse outcomes of any particular notes proposed?

For contemporary art venues like Wexner, I think its an important first principle that the eager and curious—open-minded people who come to explore and learn—don't want to feel punished or patronized for giving contemporary art a go. Even when materials can be provided in great sincerity by fine scholars, they don't always fit the audience and can even depress it. Nor should expert art lovers ever be fed pabulum, silenced or neglected; at present they are not. 

Intellectuals are people who think broadly and deeply about the world, no matter what information they bring to a situation. Wexner is a fine house for intellectuals. Surely it's possible to address both the more and less informed groups without discouraging either and to the stimulation of all.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Leah Wong, Moving

Leah Wong, You and Others, 36 x 48 inches, 2010.
Courtesy of the artist.
Leah Wong, Things I See, 36 x 48 inches, 2009.
Courtesy of the artist.


It's been two years since Chinese-American painter Leah Wong's last show at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus. Her haunting 2010 show came hard on the heels of extended travels in her native China. One set of paintings then, executed in her natural palette of saturated hot colors, depicted a densely populated world in which individuals posed themselves to avoid contact with others. 
Her other series—mist perspective paintings—used the freedoms lent by conventions of Chinese landscape to move  viewers through events in memory, released from chronology.
There are no figures in her new show, Seen and Unseen, but there are legs galore—legs in leotards, with feet extended or flexed in dance positions. Often grouped like dream corps de ballet, they move in linear symmetry, or they lift their legs in circular formation from clouds or maelstroms, like synchronized swimmers
Leah Wong, Percussion, 24 x 30 inches, 2012
Courtesy of Sherrie Gallerie
The dancing legs perform nothing for which viewers constitute a seated audience: We, in fact, can only do our best to keep up. The legs are always propellant, even though it's never clear what those muscles are resisting to move them so energetically forward. The feet rarely contact anything like a floor. Through what medium are they moving? Air, fire, or water? Memory or dreams?

In Seen and Unseen, Wong gives us mostly mist perspective paintings, which she says that the Chinese read from top to bottom. In most of these paintings I have a strong, literal sense of sky at the top and earth at the bottom. It's not the top or bottom that I love most, but the middle ground where the floating landscape of the mind forms its own reality.
Leah Wong, Moon Walk, 40 x 30 inches, 2012
Courtesy of Sherrie Gallerie

Moon Walk, detail (author photo)
Moon Walk, detail of moons (author photo)
In Moon Walk, for instance, there's a sense of distance on the right and of greater proximity on the left where where the striped legs emerge from a flower-like form. Yet the cluster of circles and dots beneath the box-topped legs appears to float toward us in yet another space, possibly floating up to efface the dream/memory scene behind it. The rotating orange moons in vivid contrast against the deep blue sky (the moon's "walk?") marks real, celestial time in the space of real, mappable skies. The world of measurement and the world of remembered and dreamed reality don't compete, but integrate, their elements moving without friction between one another.

Everyone Has A Story—which shows Wong's command of color (her palette would overwhelm lesser painters)—is the same size as Moon Walk, but it's painted to give us an even more distant perspective on the worlds portrayed, In Moon Walk, we look through a sort of window framed by the branches of trees. Here there is a shallow, abstract foreground at the bottom, but otherwise, we have very little to orient ourselves from. The space seems less directional and much more ambiguous than in Moon Walk.
Leah Wong, Everyone Has a Story, 40 x30 inches, 2012
Courtesy Sherrie Gallerie

Detail, author photo
In Everyone Has A Story, earth appears on the bottom right, where a forest or orchard grows at the foot of a mountain, on the side of which rests an enclave represented by roofed buildings. But as we climb, solid reality is represented only by the suggestions of angular geometric forms that keep moving our eyes up into an ever more swirling, dense environment, at the top of which legs appear to rotate a fabulous pink flower. The top of the "mountain" is logically, then, much closer than its base, given the scale of the legs compared to the scale of the trees far below. It's almost dizzying. 

It would be vertiginous were it not that the composition at that point leans leftward into a pool of lighter colors and toward an island of smaller forms. A spatial illusion is formed in which the "mountaintop" is a height with a view of far-away islands in a river flowing below it. The left side of the painting is much more open than the right, which is compactly constructed of dense forms in carefully orchestrated sizes.

detail, center left, Everyone Has a Story. Author photo.
The visual balance of Everyone Has a Story  seems to have been achieved through Wong's own compositional storytelling. Especially on the left side, the surface seems as much drawn as painted: She uses pencil as well as paint; the marks are loose and gestural; nothing is represented or given any illusion of three-dimensional form. There is a strong sense of speed, of the wheels turning, and the artist feeling her way intuitively, ready to seize what happens. Things happen in reality—events accrue, and a story takes shape—on the right side where colors, shapes, and material from many overlapping narratives are put together. Whether it amounts to the story of one person or a universal story doesn't really matter. There's room for all in this painting: Any story on Wong's mind that is stored here, or any on ours that we wish to add.

Wong's paintings are sensual and seductive: Her palette is irresistible because she combines colors exuberantly. She fills her canvases with swirls, splashes, and dynamic directional forms that impart energy. She works every area of her painting so that any portion is a trembling microcosm of the whole. 

Seen and Unseen could be the title for any work in this show, let alone for the whole. We can plumb the mysteries of each work as if it contained a beautiful story waiting to be drawn out. Or we can visit these as gardens for memory and imagination.

I loved hearing Wong's brief gallery talk at her opening: I discovered how specifically she has inhabited these paintings. Wong left no question unanswered. The patterns of squares bisected from corner to corner, forming triangles? It seems that they are the memory of light reflected off the windows of a specific office building at a certain time of day on an occasion when she was passing in her car. The floating chairs? Her grandfather used to sit in that chair; chairs are inhabited even when they are empty: The chair is a figure. Boxes for heads? That's when we're talking as someone boxed in, or we're "square-headed," or we can't move mentally. The hummingbirds are tiny in the world, but strong and swift out of proportion to their size. Paper clay seashells occasionally attached to canvases remind her of her seaside hometown in China. In Wong's world, every detail is personal and observed.

Still, nothing in this work makes a statement or insists on a point of view. All of it convinces the eye that there are coherence and meaning in floating worlds, in the dynamics of memory and vision themselves. Wong's personal experiences and ideas are solidly embedded in these paintings. But for any viewer who spends time with this show, their own world will float into place—and will emerge from it—as well.

Leah Wong, Bus No. 11, 8 x10 inches, 2012. 
(An old friend of Wong's in China calls walking,"taking Bus No. 11.")
Courtesy, Sherrie Gallery

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Elijah Pierce, Sanctuary in the 1960s

Columbus, Ohio lays claim to its share of famous artists: George Bellows was born and raised here, as was James Thurber. Roy Lichtenstein studied and taught at Ohio State during the '40s. Currently living and working among us are the pioneer of computer art, Charles Csuri; photographer Tony Mendoza; Ann Hamilton, and Aminah Robinson. 

Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984
Christ with Rose of Sharon, 1965
Painted bas relief woodcarving,17 1/2 x 17 inches
Image courtesy of the Keny Galleries

Robinson is a direct heir—personal and artistic—of the artist I believe closest to our city's civic identity, woodcarver Elijah Pierce. Pierce, a barber by trade, came to Columbus in 1916 when he was 24. He died here in 1984, at age 92. The son of a former slave, he grew up in rural Mississippi where he studied through the eighth grade and learned to carve with a pocketknife.

In Columbus, Pierce was famous not only as a carver, but also as the spiritual center of a community. He was the man without whom a large and prolific generation of the city's Black artists might have missed their calling. Art, religious devotion, and rock-solid principles for righteous living were strongly allied in him, as both his oeuvre and the living memory of him attest.

During his lifetime, Pierce became famous beyond Columbus. In 1973, he won first prize in the  International Exhibition of Primitive Art in Yugoslavia. In 1975, he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, as a master traditional artist.

Among the many to whom Pierce was a mentor and inspiration is Kojo Kamau, Columbus's eminent photographer. Some of Kamau's photos of Pierce and his shop can be found online here. Although the photos show what we know to be an urban workshop in the late 20th century, Pierce himself looks like a man from an earlier place and era. His famously stick-like figure—his expression adding to the sense of a cigar-store Indian in the view of him at his table, formally dressed in his unimproved setting—certainly reinforces the stories about the man himself: unpretentious, plain, a believer with his eyes on the right course. Nothing about him suggests that he felt any need to appear sophisticated or urbane.

Amish, Holmes Co., Ohio
Variable Star Crib Quilt, c. 1890's
Pieced cotton chambray, 41 x 33 1/2 inches
Private collection
Image courtesy of the Keny Galleries

The Keny Galleries in Columbus are currently showing Two Visions of Spirituality: Elijah Pierce's Woodcarvings and Historical Amish Quilts, a beautiful show. Pierce's carvings make a natural visual pairing with the quilts. Together they evoke the warmth of personal, direct expression from a rural past. Ohio is home to substantial and still growing Amish communities that preserve traditional ways, down to continuing use of horse and buggy transportation and eschewal of electrification. Even though the patterns and sewing methods of the quilts displayed can be found today, the antique quilts in this show  (ranging from the 1890s through 1937) do indeed have the softness that age imparts textiles. Time has enriched their inherent beauty.

Amish, Holmes Co., Ohio
Probably made by Naomi Hershberger (wife of Daniel, married 1907)
Nine Patch/Diamond in the Square Variation Quilt, c. 1915-25
Pieced cotton and cotton sateen, 78 x 76 inches
Image courtesy of the Keny Galleries

It finally struck me, though, as I surveyed Pierce's boldly colored, folkloric carvings of Jesus, angels, and biblical stories, that most of his work in this show—hanging so comfortably among the antique quilts—actually dates from the 1960s and '70s. His carvings, so simple in appearance and convinced in moral vision, are the work of an urban Black man—one who remained a starched community elder, sitting downtown in his rocker, plying folk art during the civil rights era of fiery social and racial unrest.

Burning buildings during Watts riots, August 1965.
New York World-Telegram photo.
In 1965, when many of the pieces at Keny are dated, I was a high school student in small-town Ohio, unable to escape the network news my parents watched every evening. In memory, it's all scenes of shattered windows and fires at night in cities wracked by race riots. The people of my homogenous town had strongly worded and freely expressed opinions about Negroes in general. My skin was always crawling with generalized foreboding. Heroes and hopes were assassinated as if we were supposed to get used to it. The world felt to me wholly public and political, a world of causes, not individuals. For an introspective, cloistered girl it was an appalling time. While I was engaged by the cause of civil rights, I was overpowered by the intensity of the public world. I lacked knowing that it could be legitimate to insist on growing up as a clear-headed individual with some solid ideas about her place in the world.

My memories of the intense anxiety of the '60s make the Keny selection of Pierce's work feel almost shockingly immediate and new. These carvings, so focused on the spiritual life, picture havens of the personal in a world that we know was overtaken by virtual public warfare and urgent social movements. Art has to come from a strong, concentrated self—even art that responds directly to the affairs of the world or proposes changes in them. 

Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984
Angel (with Ruby Brown's Family), 1966
Painted bas relief woodcarving, 27 3/4 x 17 inches
Image courtesy of the Keny Galleries

Pierce was hardly oblivious to society: His work covered civil rights themes and heroes. The work in the Keny show is only a tiny selection of his spiritual oeuvre. But even here we see in one of his many portrayals of angels, an Angel (with Ruby Brown's Family) from 1966, his concern with issues of race. Ruby Brown is the title subject of a poem by Langston Hughes:
She was young and beautiful
And golden like the sunshine
That warmed her body.
And because she was colored
Mayville had no place to offer her,
Nor fuel for the clean flame of joy
That tried to burn within her soul.

In Hughes' poem, Ruby, the scullery maid, is corrupted into prostitution by men who take advantage of her entirely normal wishes for a life with a little money and incident. "The good church folk do not mention/ Her name any more." But Pierce depicts an angel before a cross with the sacred heart, and a rose of Sharon, protecting Ruby's family from any taunts by churchgoing neighbors. Not only are they protected, they are totally removed from others.

Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984
Angel with Mother and Child in the Garden, 1966
Painted bas relief woodcarving, 25 3/4 x 15 1/2 inches
Image courtesy of the Keny Galleries

In Angel with Mother and Child, too, a mother and her son appear to stand in a garden with an angel watching over them. Part of their blessed status seems to be their self-contained separation from anyone else.

Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984
The Good Samaritan, 1965
Painted bas relief woodcarving, 13 x 22 inches
Private collection
Image courtesy of the Keny Galleries

Even in The Good Samaritan, the most complex and detailed composition here, the special, protective relationship is celebrated. The priest and the Levite—dominant in their size, posture, and colors—pass the robbers' victim, but the Samaritan—small and brown—bows over to assist him. Their relationship appears, like the angelic ones we've seen, to be placed in a garden, away from the open space the others traverse.

Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984
Sermon on the Mount, 1965
Painted bas relief woodcarving, 15 3/4 x 15 inches
Image courtesy of the Keny Galleries

The most interesting removal of all, I think, is the portrayal of Jesus in Sermon on the Mount. He sits with his hands folded on his knees, alone on a hill under a sky with three-dimensional clouds. The yellow orb has beams that signify sun, although the darkness of the upper sky gives the feeling of night rolling in, with either the sun setting or the moon rising.

For a depiction of the Sermon on the Mount this is unusual, for there is no congregation even suggested, only Jesus with his upward-looking, far-away gaze. He's not preaching: He's thinking, or introspecting. Under a dramatic sky, with flowers growing at his feet, Jesus looks so contented! This is a moment of quiet happiness that the human writing this entirely relates to. It's a contentment that seems achievable, even without a halo.

While my observations about the carvings in Keny's beautiful show may add nothing to the knowledge of Pierce's work, my point in writing is about my own satisfaction to discover in this folk artist a fellow traveler through an era so disconcerting and painful to me, one in which I felt so keen a need for a quiet shelter. I wish I had discovered him then. 

I've never had religious convictions; Jesus is a metaphor for me. But the habit of cultivating strength from the inside out, through wise solitude, is one I've learned to value highly. It's a form of spirituality characteristic not only of religion, but of artistic visions as well. While the 1960s flamed, Pierce maintained his religious faith and expressed it through art-making too. Whatever his legacy in the church, his legacy among practicing artists is deep. To inspire seekers of freedom for the inner life amidst a clamorous world of mass concerns strikes me as a great legacy.