Curating Ronald Lockett: An Exhibition History in Two Acts
Co-authored by Katherine L. Jentleson
Co-authored by Katherine L. Jentleson
Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett (ed. Bernard L. Herman)
Ackland Art Museum, 2015
Ackland Art Museum, 2015
Between 2000 and 2004, nearly a dozen Lockett works toured the country as part of Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South, a show of seventy pieces from the Ronald and June Shelp collection. In a review that appeared in Art in America, critics David Ebony and Kate Wodell noted, “Until recently it has been difficult to see work by some artists in this show,” and they used Lockett as an example, calling his Smoke-Filled Sky “one of the most striking pieces on view.”1 Although isolated works by Lockett have appeared in about fourteen group shows since 1989, prior to his retrospective in 2016, opportunities to see large cross-sections of his work had been virtually nonexistent. As for his presence in the permanent collections of American museums, which increasingly include work by self-taught artists, important southern institutions like Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and the Birmingham Museum of Art were the first to acquire work by Lockett, and today his art can also be found at the Ackland Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), and, most recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.2 But the majority of Lockett’s work remains at the Soul Grown Deep Foundation, established by Atlanta-based William Arnett, who met Lockett through his cousin Thornton Dial Sr. in the late 1980s.
Lockett’s institutional presence is impressive by some standards, but it is easily eclipsed by that of many other self-taught artists. Dial, for instance, has headlined three museum shows over the past five years alone, and his work can be found in more than a dozen permanent collections. Although Dial’s rise might be exceptional in its magnitude, there are other southern self-taught African Americans, such as Lonnie Holley or Royal Robertson, who were creating art at the same time as Lockett and have also achieved broader visibility than him to date. What if the reconsideration of Lockett occasioned by this exhibition and catalogue was used not simply to rehearse Lockett’s comparative institutional scarcity— which is related to the timing of his “discovery” as well as the marked underrepresentation of African American and self-taught artists in museum collections and exhibitions3—but instead to trace the contours of Lockett’s prior exhibition history and imagine the kinds of affinities and differences that might have been made available had Lockett been shown in relation to his peers?
In this essay, we examine Lockett’s position within the category of black vernacular art that has emerged and evolved over the last two decades of the twentieth century and then make an argument for the resonance of his work in the pluralistic field of the contemporary. After we demonstrate how Lockett’s visibility has thus far depended on successive exhibitions and discursive frameworks devoted to black vernacular art, we resituate Lockett’s work in relation to contemporary art of its time that dealt with the AIDS crisis that claimed Lockett’s life, proposing a series of curatorial fabulations in which we juxtapose Lockett’s work with exhibitions that occurred and artistic communities that worked in New York during his most active period.4 Our intention is to think collaboratively between two interpretive vantage points—Katherine Jentleson’s academic study of the reception history of self-taught artists and Thomas J. Lax’s methodology as a curator of contemporary art. Through the combination of our approaches and shared conclusions about the possibility for curating Lockett in contemporary contexts without having his identification as a black vernacular artist struck from the record, we balance institutional history—something that is often denied self-taught artists as a strategy that preserves an ahistorical dimension of outsiderness—with a forwardlooking curatorial perspective that disrupts the potentially self-fulfilling cycle of institutional exclusion, stereotyping, and marginalization.
Act I. From a Vernacular View
The American art world’s interest in the work of selftaught artists goes back nearly a century, to the populist, cultural patrimony–seeking period that unfolded in this country between the wars.5 But when collectors like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Albert C. Barnes began buying the paintings of untrained Americans in the 1930s, they were mostly interested in artists from the Northeast, a region that was widely promoted as the nation’s richest cultural reservoir. Although widespread enthusiasm for self-taught artists—and specifically those of African descent—did not emerge until the last two decades of the twentieth century, there were many preludes to this shift in institutional interest. In 1937 sculptor William Edmondson became the first black artist to have a show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and in 1964 his legacy—never forgotten in his hometown of Nashville— was revived again in New York when the Stony Point Folk Art Gallery devoted an exhibition to him.6 Minnie Evans also counted major breakthroughs in the postwar era: in the early 1960s her visionary drawings of an antediluvian world were exhibited at the Little Gallery in Wilmington, North Carolina, and several years later photographer Nina Howell Starr organized a show of her work at two Manhattan churches—an important antecedent to her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975.7
These and many other events index the strong undertow of interest that began to swell around the work of untrained African American artists in the postwar period. But the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 1982 show Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980 is generally regarded as the watershed moment that brought the flood.8 This highly visible exhibition, which traveled to six American cities, included almost four hundred works of art created by twenty self-taught artists, nineteen of whom were from the South.9 Through what art historian Colin Rhodes has called a “vertical invasion” of the canon, the Black Folk Art exhibition generated unprecedented demand for the work of African American self-taught artists that exceeded the exhibition’s actual roster.10 Leroy Almon Sr., a bas-relief carver who was not in the show but apprenticed with one of its stars, Elijah Pierce, recalls the new audience he encountered when he returned from Ohio to his hometown of Tallapoosa, Georgia, in 1982: “There’s a family of people looking for black folk art—they’ll find you, wherever you are,” he said.11 For Philadelphia collector Jill Bonovitz, enthusiasm for black folk art was indeed a family affair; the show influenced her mother, Janet Fleischer of Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, as well as the personal collection she was building with her husband, Sheldon, which the couple has since partially pledged to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.12 Black Folk Art may have inspired a new generation of collectors, but it also drew from seventy-eight lenders— an indication that “a small, quiet army had been at work” gathering this material under the radar for decades.13
Lockett was too late for the Black Folk Art show, as his art did not begin circulating beyond Bessemer and Birmingham until the late 1980s. His work was not shown in an art museum until 1993, which coincided with the beginning of a second wave of black vernacular art shows that took place in Winston-Salem, Atlanta, and New York throughout the 1990s and were markedly different from their Corcoran predecessor. Moreover, the lag between the art world’s knowledge of Lockett’s work and its appearance in a museum setting is indicative of the dual consequences of Black Folk Art, which was received as both groundbreaking and problematic. The exhibition’s most pointed and enduring criticism came from the folklorist Eugene Metcalf Jr., who argued that the curators, Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, wrongly categorized their object as folk art. As the charged title of his essay, “Black Art, Folk Art, and Social Control,” suggests, Metcalf saw the consequences of this miscategorization as highly hegemonic, insofar as classifying the objects in the show as folk art “relegates black art to categories in which it is undervalued and misunderstood” and “perpetuates the social stereotypes that afflict black artists in particlar and black people in general.”14 Metcalf ’s critique also dovetailed with a broader objection to the art world’s insistence on viewing objects as formal entities stripped of their cultural context. Just months after his article was published, scholars and critics unleashed a much more explosive firestorm on MoMA’s 1984 show Primitivism in 20th Century Art, which considered the influence of African, Native American, Oceanic, and South American art on European and Euro-American art. Just as Beardsley and Livingston were criticized for failing to find the right terms and interpretive frameworks for their material, Primitivism curator William Rubin was lambasted for missing the opportunity to interrogate perishing binaries like “Western/non-Western” and revise MoMA’s linear, Euro-centric narrative of modernism.15
Black Folk Art, Primitivism, and their respective critical fallout signaled the paradigm shifts that materialized in the 1980s and early 1990s, a period in which Marxist, postcolonial, and critical race theory nurtured a new consciousness of the elite, white, and Western bias that had been dominant in disciplines like art history. Amid these revisions from the left—and aggressive attempts to police culture from the right—curators who ventured into realms fraught with race, class, and sexuality were taking major risks. Therefore, as much as Black Folk Art gave shape to an emerging field, it did so by creating a climate of cautiousness that bounded and frustrated the reception of up-and-coming black vernacular artists like Lockett. Of course, African American self-taught artists did not disappear from the institutional landscape in the years following Black Folk Art. Artists whose profiles were raised by the Corcoran show, such as Sister Gertrude Morgan and Sam Doyle, enjoyed solo exhibitions in subsequent decades at mainstream institutions, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art. Also during this period, the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.,16 and the Milwaukee Art Museum acquisitioned folk and selftaught art from field-defining collectors like Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. and Michael and Julie Hall that included some pieces by black vernacular artists.17 However, museums avoided exhibitions that addressed black vernacular art in a categorical way for nearly a decade.
Lockett thus came of age as an artist at a moment when institutional willingness to grapple with how to address black vernacular art as a field was in retreat. His first appearance in an art museum finally occurred in 1993, when curators Tom Patterson and Brooke Davis Anderson opened Àshe: Improvisation and Recycling in African-American Visionary Art at Winston-Salem State University’s Diggs Art Gallery, an event that indexed a second wave of institutional interest.18 In his insightful catalogue essay, Patterson contextualized Àshe as descending from but breaking away from previous art world interventions with self-taught artists: “Now that we’re well into the ’90s and some of its novelty has worn off,” he wrote, “the art world is in the process of reassessing and refining its view of this nonmainstream art, struggling with some of the difficult questions that surround it, and recognizing distinctions and common traits among the artists and their works that had earlier gone ignored.”19 The exhibition, which took its name from the Yoruba word that roughly translates to “the power to make things happen,” included Lockett’s Traps (Golden Bird) and Tree of Life (from 1990 and 1992, respectively) among the nearly one hundred works on view.20 However, Lockett’s work did not get a major billing in Àshe; artists like Lonnie Holley and Bessie Harvey, whose work was attracting attention from numerous curators at the time, had many more pieces in the show. The exhibition catalogue featured Holley on the cover; inside Lockett’s work was barely mentioned, and Traps (Golden Bird) received only a black-and-white reproduction.
Holley remained a dominating figure in terms of the sheer quantity of work in an even larger exhibition of African American vernacular art, Souls Grown Deep, in Atlanta three years later. For this exhibition, a sprawling show of more than five hundred works from Arnett’s collection, Holley transformed the entrance to City Hall East, one of the exhibition’s two venues, into what cutural critic Thomas McEvilley described as a “grottolike entrance to an under-world of neglected cultural treasure.”21 Beyond Holley’s mixed-media installation, which resembled the yard show of his soon-to-be-demolished Birmingham property, several of Lockett’s works were on view, including six works from the Oklahoma series. This exhibition revealed the stylistic breadth of Lockett’s practice, as it included both figurative works like Instinct for Survival and his more recent collaged metal abstractions.
This was the first time that paintings from Lockett’s series based on the Oklahoma City bombing were shown. Although the eerie resonance between Lockett’s monuments to the 1995 tragedy and the bombing that would take place that July in the Olympic Centennial Park received no comment in the press, the exhibition inspired many admiring reviews. The Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight preferred Souls Grown Deep to the High’s official contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, Rings: Five Passions in World Art, lauding the former for expanding on the “groundbreaking display of black American folk art that traveled the United States in the early 1980s.”22
Months before Souls Grown Deep debuted in Atlanta, The Dial Family: A Celebration of African American SelfTaught Artists opened at the Sidney Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College in Manhattan, marking Lockett’s first art museum appearance north of the Mason-Dixon Line. When this show was reprised in an expanded format as Bearing Witness: African American Vernacular Art of the South a year later at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Arnett brought Lockett and four other artists to New York to see the show.23 It was not the first time Lockett had seen his artwork on display, as Arnett had invited him to previous events in Atlanta, but the experience had a significant impact on the artist. “It just opened his eyes to bigger things,” Arnett recalls.24
Just as Black Folk Art benefited from groundwork laid in preceding decades, this second wave of group shows exclusively devoted to black vernacular artists did not materialize out of a vacuum.25 However, the tight succession of exhibitions—four in four years—as well as the critical acclaim many of them received marked a level of art world interest that had not been seen since Black Folk Art.26 Yet the venues for these shows—university museums, a research center, and a municipal building—were strikingly different from an art world inner sanctum represented by the Corcoran. Although all museums share a pedagogical mission, a study conducted by the University of Chicago in 2012 concluded that campus museums are typically more “experimental and innovative” because their direct accountability to an institution of higher learning “allows greater freedom of expression and lets campus museums be more daring in their exhibition and program choices.”27 In addition to their liberating ties to academic inquiry, which allowed them to revise the controversial category of black folk art, the venues for Àshe and Bearing Witness also possess specific allegiances to the study of black culture in the United States: the Schomburg Center has been devoted to the exhibition and study of the social and cultural achievements of African diasporic peoples for nearly a century, while the Diggs Art Gallery is the university museum of a historically black university.28
In addition to a shift in institutional stewards—from the canonical Corcoran to academic and alternative venues like the Diggs and Atlanta’s City Hall East—the second wave of black vernacular art exhibitions that debuted Lockett’s work introduced revisions to terminology and an expansion of discourse. Patterson demonstrated that he had absorbed the lessons of Black Folk Art, writing that the artists in Àshe “can’t be described as ‘folk’ artists according to the strict definition of that term outlined by folklorists and other academic specialists” and offering “visionary” as an alternative.29 By contrast, the organizers of Souls Grown Deep and Bearing Witness favored “vernacular” for their subtitles, a pivot that left critics unconvinced and even pessimistic. Thomas McEvilley suggested that the term “vernacular” was guilty of perpetuating “the classical modernist distinction between high and low arts.”30 Michael Kimmelman doubted its ability to “catch on because it lacks the ring of avant-garde rebellion that ‘outsider’ had.”31 Almost twenty years later, we continue to circle within this interminable loop of labeling, criticism, and relabeling.32 The attempts of curators in the 1990s to use more apt terms may not have produced a clear heir to “folk,” but they represented an underlying effort to approach their material more critically than their 1982 predecessors had. Patterson, for instance, clearly laid out the criteria for selecting the artists in Àshe, which, apart from race and lack of art school training, included their use of recycled materials—a practice he relates to the survival of West African traditions on U.S. soil. Although the scholar Regenia Perry had addressed this practice in the Black Folk Art catalogue, by the late 1980s black vernacular artists’ adaptations of African traditions had become a widely circulated assertion thanks to Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson and his followers. Many essays in Souls Grown Deep, the two-volume book by William and Paul Arnett that followed the 1996 exhibition, bear the mark of this Africanizing discourse, although the art is the real star in these hefty productions, which continue to serve as an unparalleled record of the breadth and depth of southern African American vernacular art.33
In addition to generating new interpretive frameworks and visual resources, the shows that emerged in the late 1990s renewed debate about the boundaries between insiders and outsiders. The notion that a self-taught artist could “out-modern the moderns” goes back to Henri Rousseau and, in this country, to interwar period artists like John T. Hailstalk, an African American elevator repairman whose paintings were shown in a Manhattan gallery in 1928.34 But the degree to which self-taught artists cause a reckoning with mainstream definitions of art has reached a new magnitude in recent decades, as contemporary artists further the aesthetic anarchy set in motion by the overthrow of academic authority more than a century and a half ago. Arthur C. Danto saw how the resurgence of “outsider art” in exhibitions including Bearing Witness was a test case for the Institutional Theory of Art that he and other philosophers had been developing since the 1960s, which holds that art is defined not by any essential characteristics but rather by the decision of societally empowered institutions and their discourse to promote it as such.35 What astounded Danto about his visit to Bearing Witness was the lack of difference between what black vernacular artists were doing and what could be found in the studios of aspiring contemporary artists in premier art schools across the country. After reflecting on how he could imagine Lockett’s Homeless People as the output of a Rhode Island School of Design student, Danto added, “In fact, there was probably not a single work in the Schomburg show that could not have been painted by an art-world artist, with academic credentials, rather than by an artist defined as an outsider.”36 Danto further developed his explanation for this “treachery of visual sameness” three years later in his catalogue essay for Testimony, which was poignantly and prematurely titled “The End of the Outsider.”37 Danto may have been in advance of the field in sounding outsider’s death knell, but he presciently predicted the ubiquity of self-taught artists in contemporary art venues that has unfolded in the 2000s.38 Although Lockett has yet to be integrated into the contemporary mainstream, the widening knowledge of his art is bound to inspire new curatorial attention, as solo exhibitions like this one strongly assert an artist’s canonical status and give expansive views of his or her work not afforded by group shows. The denouement of Lockett’s institutional triumph is yet to come and, we hope, will continue not only in the context of black vernacular art but also in a specific realm of contemporary art to be discussed in part II of this essay.
Act II. Toward a Contemporary Context
Ronald Lockett’s concerns are the stuff of the everyday and its disintegration. Through the roughly 250 works he made over a ten-year period, he actively developed a visual and material language for art making to intervene in social life’s most basic and urgent questions—the kind of inquiries that, in broad strokes, describe the stakes of contemporary art writ large. Consider Lockett’s commitment to thinking through the relationship of the industrialized, built world to the natural environment: in reusing scrap building materials and discarded signage as the supports for his depictions of figures and landscapes, he treated his materials and illusionistic image-making as contingent upon one another. Consider also his concern with notions of historical dispossession, which he understood in both grand historical and ecological terms (e.g., the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, environmental degradation) and deeply personal terms (the death of his great-aunt Sarah Dial Lockett, or his awareness of his own mortality).
Throughout his work, Lockett addressed a central contradiction of his life: his desire for freedom and the impediments to his own self-articulation. In understanding the personal stakes of this challenge, we were drawn to the reliance on muted biographical details in the existing accounts and literature on his work. We had heard about his shyness and softness, characteristics that were projected onto his symbolic figures, including his representations of trapped deer.39 We knew of his HIV diagnosis and the fact that he eventually died of AIDS. Through our own projection, we identified with his narrative of social alienation and, as queer subjects, wanted to break through the gossip and circumspection about who Lockett was to name them as filled with innuendo and homophobia. Yet rather than claiming him as our own, we in fact recognized in him a resistance to be known and thus claimed, both during his life and now. In the absence of locating a true Lockett, might it be his own illegibility that shared an affinity with us in ways that mirror how artists have proposed a link between unknowability and queerness, if we understand “queerness” not as an identification or even a set of sexual practices but, rather, as a buffer against stable narratives of identity and cultural representation?40
In seeking to situate Lockett’s life and the work that ensued from it, we were immediately drawn to contextualize him within the New York artistic community that organized around issues of representation and AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s, around the same time he was actively working in Alabama. We struggled to fit him into a dialogue of petition and protest, wondering how a cultural struggle led by interlocking communities of lesbian and gay practitioners in an urban context could be considered alongside the work of an artist working in a specific community of other artists (Thornton Dial, his sons, and Sarah Dial Lockett) in postindustrial Alabama. What would a shared topos in which Lockett might be considered alongside the cultural politics of AIDS activism of his time look like?
Following this line of inquiry, we put works that have little historic or personal affiliation with one another in dialogue, effectively curating fictional encounters to ask whether the process of situating Lockett in relationship to his contemporaries working in a different cultural context can open up shared strategies. Might we be able to locate a common articulation of loss in the face of an epidemic, a heightened relationship to sentiment and feeling, or a political project rendered in its full aesthetic terms? Insofar as we attempt to find traction in comparing works that have no historic relationship to one another beyond their contemporaneity and their relationship to the AIDS crisis, we also acknowledge the limitations of such an approach. Indeed, it risks falling into the trap of pseudomorphism on a social level, in which one thing looking like another or grappling with similar content is privileged over artistic intent or social context. Because we believe that canonical revisionism is ambivalent at best, the task of looking at incommensurable things beside one another can in fact redouble the acts of historic closure they rally against, reproducing the inequitable relations that caused one work to be favored by history at the other’s expense. Despite these risks, there is a productive force in these experiments in comparison if one looks through both similarity and difference. Because of the potential errors of this kind of work, we will favor Lockett’s work in our story in the hopes that even if the reader is unconvinced by the context in which we attempt to place him, we will at least have offered another method by which to explore his contribution.
The 1997 work Sarah Lockett’s Roses is an assemblage of red, orange, white, tan, and black rectangular pieces of metal. Affixed to each of the more than two dozen panels is a metal rose, made of the same colored material as its support and affixed to its support with nails. The title of the work references the artist’s greataunt, whose front yard in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer contained roses and lilies. Sarah Lockett, a quilt maker and gardener, died in 1995 at the age of 105. The work carries several memorial functions: named after the elder Lockett, its depiction of flowers represents this classic object of mourning, and in its overlapping application of metal pieces, its construction also pays homage to the artist’s great-aunt’s quilt-making practice.
Now consider Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Alice B. Toklas’ and Gertrude Stein’s Grave, Paris) (1992), a series of photographs depicting the flowers that appear below the grave of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris. Stein and Toklas—famed modernist art collectors, writers, a lesbian couple, and longtime residents of Paris—were buried together and share one headstone; one of their names is engraved on either side. In photographing the flowers rather than the identifying gravestone, Gonzalez-Torres reveals the significance of the images to the viewer only through the work’s title. In this way, he triangulates himself and the viewer, both inserting himself and us into their private lives and rendering this public memorial intimate and on the viewer’s scale. Four images were recently included in the exhibition Macho Man Tell It to My Heart: Collected by Julie Ault, organized by artist and curator Julie Ault at Artists Space in New York.41 Installed on the white field of the gallery wall, the juxtaposition of images feels happenstance, much like a group of friends or plants scattered in a garden or gallery. Their provenance, made legible in the gallery’s accompanying floor plan, indicates a network and chain of possession: “Gift of the artist to Julie Ault, 1993; Collection of Roni Horn; Collection of Jim Hodges Collection of Danh Vo; Acquired by Julie Ault by descent, 1996; Gift of Julie Ault to Danh Vo, 2009.”
While the depiction of flowers is a long-standing subject in the history of Western art, codified within the stilllife genre since the late sixteenth century, the meaning of Lockett’s and Gonzalez-Torres’s works are defined by their respective contexts. While they share a memorial and mourning function, Lockett’s works were made in homage to his great-aunt, while Gonzalez-Torres’s are a link between multiple generations of artists and collectors. Whereas Vo’s acquisition of Gonzalez-Torres’s depiction of Toklas and Stein’s grave brackets concerns across three generations of artists, Lockett’s layering and assemblage pay homage to the structure of his greataunt’s quilt-making practice. Both are citational, coded through different logics but structured through intergenerational relationships between a set of practitioners. Finally, what we are looking at in both works is a kind of garden, with cyclical time and labor implied therein. The space of the garden is a cypher for everyday acts of care and preservation, with all the power and influence such considerations carry with them. In My Garden (Book), for example, Jamaica Kincaid describes a process of unwittingly constructing a garden in her yard that resembles a map of the Caribbean. She writes, “I marveled at the way the garden for me is an exercise in memory, a way of remembering my own immediate past, a way of getting to a past that is my own (the Caribbean Sea) and the past as it is indirectly related to me (the conquest of Mexico and its surroundings).”42 Kincaid’s garden, like Lockett’s and Gonzalez-Torres’s, is representational, but their representations are not figurative; instead they rely on codes and decoys. Much as Kincaid’s garden depicts the Caribbean not through the intention of picturing this place, but as an act of remembrance, Lockett’s and Gonzalez-Torres’s flowers are objects that memorialize others through the ongoing and personal negotiation of memory.
Are You a Boy or a Girl?
Ronald Lockett’s 1995 work Fever Within is made up of two recycled metal panels stacked vertically and nailed to a recycled wood support. The figure depicted is nude, with legs crossed and arms extended back. While the punchwork detail that distinguishes the figure from its ground underlines the figure’s chest, its line work does not clearly identify the chest as breasts or pectorals, leaving the figure’s identify as either male or female open-ended. Lockett made this work by nailing strips of salvaged metal siding to recycled plywood. It is one of multiple iterations done at the same time, the others of which also depict a single figure whose femininity is more pronounced. Constructed after he and his girlfriend had both been diagnosed with HIV, the image can be read, in light of the title, as a portrait of her, of him, or of a figure meant to stand in for their composite. A second piece of siding divides the figure from the lower half of the panel. It is the only component that sculpturally divides the three-dimensional plane of the work, and it appears to be a bed or carpet on which the subject rests. The figures themselves emerge from the tan ground, distinguished through the browns that make up their form. Not only do they lack clear marks of gender identification, but they are also built from the same material as the support. As a silhouette, the subject’s particularities of face, character, and identity remain unknown.
Active between 1991 and 1995 and since 2007, fierce pussy work as a collective of queer women dedicated to making public art and taking direct action to address lesbian identity and visibility.43 Emerging out of the members’ engagements with AIDS activism, the collective mined modest and readily available resources, including old typewriters, found photographs, its members’ baby pictures, and the printing supplies and equipment accessible in their day jobs. Many of their low-tech, lowbudget, and ubiquitous wheat-pasted posters and crackand-peel stickers could be found throughout New York City in the early 1990s.
In 2009, at the invitation of curators Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace, fierce pussy reconvened for a residency and exhibition at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, and then subsequently at White Columns in New York City. During their residency, artists Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Zoe Leonard, and Carrie Yamaoka worked with students to develop visual material addressing issues of gender and sexuality at Harvard and beyond, and ultimately made two exhibitions, one at each location. The Boston iteration of the show included wheat-pasted photocopied posters sited in several bathrooms that reproduced the collective’s signature image of grade school class photo over a list of derogatory terms for lesbians with the following text written above and below the image: “Are you a boy or a girl?” At once questioning the viewer and the young students in the image, the statement’s direct address sites the classroom as an early gender-disciplinary institution. It also turns a taunt used against genderqueer children into an open-ended prompt viewers can answer for themselves.
Lockett’s Fever Within and fierce pussy’s recent installations share several formal qualities. Both directly relate to architecture and the built environment. Lockett uses metal siding from three locations in Bessemer for his sculpture’s support; fierce pussy’s work is facilitated by the building walls they use to make interventions in public space. Lockett created multiple versions of Fever Within, each unique in its treatment, whereas fierce pussy’s investment in the multiple as a low-cost, easily reproducible material makes its political use expressly agitprop, operating directly within the public sphere. Yet both of their projects offer articulations of gender in ways that embrace illegibility. While potentially adding to the number of representations of women living with HIV to the metaphorical image bank, they more fundamentally question the need to depict people living with AIDS in cogent representational forms. Neither offers up an image of a subject, instead leaving their identity— gender and otherwise—for the viewer to fill in.
Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die
Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die, from 1996, is among the last of Lockett’s Traps series. It consists of two vertical sheets of rusted, deteriorated, grime-blackened metal onto which he has placed a painting of a buck’s head and torso. Throughout his work, he returned to images of traps and depictions of deer. Often using scraps of chain-link fence or netting, the artist applied paint to the material after the construction of the composition. Lockett’s use of deer, does, and bucks has been read in relationship to ideals of love and vulnerability. For example, Bernard L. Herman describes the untitled image of two deer as “at once a commentary on the protective nature of companionate love, the limits of freedom, the struggle to escape, and in the skeletal and fleshed out creature, the sense of mortality.”44 Love—its aspirations and impossibilities—are at once an attempt to reach beyond the self and a recognition of our ultimate total solitude.
Once Something Has Lived resembles both Lockett’s A Place in Time and Rebirth in its use of wire and the appearance of the buck. The skeletal form that appears against a black background in Rebirth appears in A Place in Time in a passage in its upper right quadrant. The animal in Rebirth emerges from another landscape demarcated by a stark shift in color palette from green to black which suggests that time is cyclical and enacts the title’s reincarnation. On the other hand, its appearance in A Place in Time suggests a sense of immanence in which each moment is unitary and ephemeral.
From 1987 to 1989, the artists collaborative Group Material (which at the time consisted of Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres) organized Democracy: A Project by Group Material at Dia in its SoHo location. Over the course of more than two years, the artists conceived and directed a series of events that included planning sessions, private roundtable discussions, four exhibitions, and several “town meetings” open to the public. Resulting from a suggestion by Yvonne Rainer, and running parallel to Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here, Group Material’s Democracy explored democratic processes and ideals in the United States through specific issues of public education, politics and elections, cultural participation, and the AIDS crisis.
The third of these exhibitions, which hinged on notions of cultural participation, considered debates around racial distinctions in the art world as well as the status of outsider art as its point of departure. In looking at the installation shot from the exhibition, one can see Bessie Harvey’s work placed beneath bags of chips situated serially on a horizon line by Group Material, and in a sight line shared by Cindy Sherman’s Untitled (film still).45 During the run of the exhibition, the collaborative organized a roundtable that included Robert Farris Thompson, who commented:
One thing we should realize is that the black studies in the visual arts now is so powerful that many don’t need us. They’re doing it without us. Also, we should address the situation of the visionary painters and sculptors in their seventies, eighties, and nineties—groups beyond race and class. I refer to black men and women who are over seventy who respond to a spiritual imperative when they become painters. This leads me to talk about black “yardshows,” so-called environments (a phrase museums use). This art form is a challenge, by the sheer audacity of turning lawns into yard-shows. Who gives a damn about 57th Street or Soho; black visionaries have their own art projections, some yard-shows seem ritually enacted.46
How would Lockett’s work have figured into this debate? Was there a place for him in the Group Material show—between the third exhibition, on cultural participation, and the fourth, which dealt with the AIDS crisis? Could his work have lived comfortably sandwiched between Sherman and Harvey? What is more challenging is the fact that the kinds of interventions Thompson was staging and grappling with recur today. These statements are as urgent now as they were in 1990, a testament both to their speakers’ prescience and the amnesia of our moment. Julie Ault’s 2013 exhibition, which reconsidered her collecting practices during and through the impact of Group Material, and fierce pussy’s 2011 reinterpretation of their own work and its contemporary reception and valence demonstrate a commitment to an interrelated set of questions about the relationship of outsiderness to political struggles for racial and sexual identification. Even if Lockett himself was not included in any of these exhibitions, his understanding of time as at once cyclical and immanent is perhaps an allegory that we can use after the fact to situate him within a current debate around inclusion that is marked by these very stakes. Articulating this repetition outside of a New York art world, it demonstrates that centers of knowledge production and cultural negotiation can occur in a variety of homes and locations.
Conclusion: Broadening Cultural Possibilities
In her essay “How to Install Art as a Feminist,” curator Helen Molesworth grapples with curatorial models that acknowledge the historical absences of women artists. While the academy has been able to incorporate women into its canon, hire female professors, and create coursework on feminist art practices, she argues, museums have yet to come to terms with how they should address the fact of historical absence. Although she has made exhibitions and given interpretative language to the work of female artists, she asks, “Is it really as simple as reinserting them into a chronological narrative that hitherto hasn’t accounted for them? The chronological purist in me loves the idea, but I fear it is the nonfeminist in me that desires such a pat formulation: a broken story required by insisting that these artists occupy their rightful places in a grand narrative.”
She goes on to question whether this corrective insertion is really enough: “Is it a revolution of the deepest order to insert women artists back into rooms that have been structured by their very absence? What would it mean to take this absence as the very historical condition under which the work of women artists is both produced and understood?”47 While curatorial work involves situating artists in the time and place in which they lived and worked—a methodology art histories that attend to the social have emphasized—it is also the responsibility of institutions to narrate the history of the reception of artworks, even if that history is one of exclusion, absence, and belated arrival. Resituating Lockett’s work through the above pairings brings his art into a context other than the black vernacular, which was how his art was first contextualized in the 1990s, but it does not purport to seamlessly integrate Lockett into the “grand narrative” that Molesworth bucks against. Rather than recuperative insertions based only on an extrinsic desire to revise the institutional exclusion of an underrepresented artist, these pairings are structured by deep readings of the works themselves, which uncover common strategies and experiences among artists who, despite differences in training, geography, gender, and race, share a desire to engage in the world around them by picturing it, by refusing to do so, and—in the space in between—by grappling with the transience of lives lived with state abandonment conditioned by AIDS.
Our intent has not been to “liberate” Lockett from the evolving but nonetheless segregated field of black vernacular art, a move that would only further privilege the contemporary as a high altar to which all artists must ascend. In their critique of this assumption, Colin Rhodes and Bernard L. Herman have shown how when an “outsider” artist becomes a “contemporary” artist—a conversion they term the “contemporary turn”—the art world is merely reconsolidating its power by “granting an authority on the margins and then populating it with proxy selves.”48 Moreover, group shows of African American self-taught artists are still productive and eyeopening, materializing most recently in Soul Stirring: African American Self-Taught Artists from the South and Our Faith Affirmed: Works from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection, at the California African American Museum and the University of Mississippi Museum, respectively.49 At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in March 2014, curator John Beardsley owned up to the epistemological shortcomings of his show Black Folk Art, but emphasized that the erosion of categories we are experiencing today may leave “everything equal but incompletely understood.” In the face of the threat of dehistoricization that rendering everything contemporary represents, Beardsley, Herman, and Rhodes all recommend allowing artists to maintain a multiplicity of identities and categorical allegiances. In other words, there does not need to be “The End of the Outsider” in order for Lockett to be considered a contemporary artist. Thus this essay not only documents Lockett’s historical membership in the field of black vernacular art, but also shows how his work can, in hindsight, find communion with the urban, queer, and feminist contemporaries that he never met. There is no way to know how Lockett would have preferred to have his works displayed once they left his home and the space afforded by Bessemer, and even if we could identify his intention, there remains a gap, as with any artist, between the place of their production and the site of their reception. In lieu of a recovered ambition, however, we find solace in the fact that the stakes of his project are still as vital today as they were in the moment of their original creation.
1. David Ebony and Kate Wodell, “Southern Visions,” Art in America 91, no. 7 (July 2003): 26–27.
2. Additionally, two of Lockett’s works have recently been identified at the Rockford Art Museum in Rockford, Illinois. His work is also privately owned by pioneering collectors and advocates like Ronald and June Shelp and Gordon W. Bailey.
3. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial survey of American art has been a popular sample for examining the gender, racial, and regional biases of the contemporary art world. The artist activist group Guerrilla Girls, for instance, tracked the demographics of the biennials throughout the 1990s in the piece Traditional Values and Quality Return to the Whitey Museum (1995). They recorded that in 1991, 89.7 percent of the artists chosen for the biennial were white (http://hyperallergic.com /93821/the-depressing-stats-of-the-2014-whitney-biennial/). However, because museum exhibitions and acquisitions are dynamic, metrics of the white majority in American institutions are constantly changing and always biased by the chosen sample. For an in-depth examination of the presence of black artists in American museums through case studies that span the twentieth century, see Bridget R. Cooks, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).
4. This essay’s title echoes cultural and literary critic Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts.” In that essay Hartman builds on the work of black artists and writers including Stan Douglas and M. NourbeSe Philip to propose “critical fabulation” as a method of reading and narrativizing missing elements in the archive of her subject. She writes, “By playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view, I have attempted to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done.” While our object of study is different in temporal scope and power relations from Hartman’s writing of the captive girl in the archive of slavery, we borrow Hartman’s narrative strategy of writing through imagination and reconstitution in the space of loss. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 11.
5. “Art world” is defined here not as a static, monolithic entity, but rather a dynamic, pluralistic network of actors: artists, curators, collectors, dealers, scholars, and anyone else who is capable of conferring “the status of candidate for appreciation” through institutional contexts like exhibitions, books, collections, and other means of elevating objects to the status of Art. George Dickie, “Defining Art,” American Philosophical Quarterly 6, no. 3 (1 July 1969): 253–56.
6. This show took place at the Willard Gallery on Seventy-Second Street in Manhattan and had an important domino effect: it inspired the folk art collector and dealer Edmund J. Fuller to begin researching Edmondson’s life, and in 1973 he published the first monograph on the artist. Additionally, Stony Point Folk Art Gallery was cofounded by Adele Earnest, who was also one of the founders of the Museum of Early American Folk Art (MEAFA, now AFAM), and MEAFA held another Edmondson show in 1965.
7. Nina Howell Starr, Minnie Evans (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1975).
8. Curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan has characterized this galvanizing event as follows: “The Corcoran’s project issued a clarion call, refreshing or recruiting collectors, dealers and scholars, inciting head-over-heels efforts to discover new artists, creating a market, and inspiring the contemporary art world to reexamine its assumptions and priorities.” Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, “From the Sahara of the Bozart to the Shoe That Rode the Howling Tornado: Collecting Folk Art in the South,” in Let It Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection (Atlanta: High Museum of Art; distributed by University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 52.
10. Bernard L. Herman and Colin Rhodes, “Canons, Collections and the Contemporary Turn in Outsider Art: A Conversation,” in “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, ed. Ann Percy and Cara Zimmerman (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2013), 246.
11. Chuck Rosenak and Jan Rosenak, eds., “Leroy Almon,” Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), 30.
12. Jill Bonovitz remembers of the Corcoran show, “That was when we really saw this material, and both of us were excited by it.” Cara Zimmerman and Darielle Mason, “Resonances: A Discussion on Collecting with Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz,” in Percy and Zimmerman, “Great and Mighty Things,” 18.
13. Hartigan, “From the Sahara of the Bozart,” 52. Lenders to the show included individuals like William Arnett and Chuck and Jan Rosenak, galleries such as the Phyllis Kind Gallery, and institutions like MEAFA and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford, Mississippi.
14. Eugene W. Metcalf Jr., “Black Art, Folk Art, and Social Control,” Winterthur Portfolio 18, no. 4 (1983): 281.
15. James Clifford, Hal Foster, Hilton Kramer, Thomas McEvilley, Gil Perry, and others have offered important critiques of Primitivism.
16. The National Museum of American Art is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).
17. It should be noted that the work of James Hampton, a self-taught African American artist working in Washington, D.C., entered the collection of SAAM and, prior to that, the National Collection of Fine Arts, in 1970, decades before the collections of Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. or the Rosenaks. Hampton’s sprawling altarpiece, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, c. 1950–64, remains the showstopper of SAAM’s folk and self-taught art galleries.
18. Prior to this exhibition, Lockett’s work was shown in group shows at three nonmuseum venues: the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta (1989), New York’s Ricco Maresca Gallery (1991), and the Alabama State Council on the Arts (1991).
19. Tom Patterson, Àshe: Improvisation and Recycling in African-American Visionary Art (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University, 1993), 6.
20. Ibid., 12. Patterson learned of the Yoruba word/concept àshe through the work of Robert Farris Thompson.
21. Thomas McEvilley, “The Missing Tradition,” Art in America 85, no. 5 (May 1997): 83.
22. Christopher Knight, “Wins, Losses of Olympic Proportions; Art Review: Despite Two Triumphant Exceptions, Visual Components of the Cultural Olympiad Don’t Overcome Conceptual Hurdles,” Los Angeles Times, 4 July 1996, http://articles.latimes.com/1996-07-04/entertainment/ca-20925_1 _visual-arts.
23. The Dial Family and Bearing Witness were, like Testimony—the show discussed at the opening of this essay— drawn from the collection of the Shelps.
24. William Arnett, interview with the author, 25 June 2014.
25. Apart from the solo exhibitions noted previously, there were group exhibitions such as Baking in the Sun: Visionary Images from the South (1987–88) and Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic (1990), which included the work of black selftaught artists but were not devoted to them. An important antecedent to the second wave, the group exhibition Another Face of the Diamond: Pathways through the Black Atlantic South (1989), was devoted to self-taught artists of the African diaspora, although it was a gallery rather than a museum show and had an international scope. None of these exhibitions included Lockett’s work.
26. This renewed interest in black vernacular art occurred amid a larger proliferation of exhibitions on self-taught artists in the 1990s, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Parallel Visions to a series of collection-based shows drawn from the personal troves not only of the Rosenaks, Michael and Julie Hall, and Bert Hemphill, but also of T. Marshall Hahn, Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen, and Baron and Ellin Gordon, among others.
27. Tom Shapiro, Peter Linett, and Betty Farrell, Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century: A Conversation (Chicago: Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, 2012), 4.
28. In her introduction to the Àshe catalogue, former Diggs director Brooke Davis Anderson positioned the show as kicking off a “curatorial effort to periodically show art that celebrates all of the cultures of the African diaspora.” Tom Patterson and Brooke Davis Anderson, introduction to Àshe, 2.
29. Patterson, Àshe, 6–8.
30. McEvilley, “The Missing Tradition,” 85.
31. Michael Kimmelman, “By Whatever Name, Easier to Like,” New York Times, 14 February 1997, http://www.nytimes .com/1997/02/14/arts/by-whatever-name-easier-to-like.html.
32. Although social and racial difference are uniquely at play when it comes to hailing this subfield of art, frustration with insufficient terminology is not unique to the folk/self-taught /outsider/visionary field. As art historians Griselda Pollock and Fred Orton have argued, “The will to conjure up a movement, to produce an art historically coherent entity is all pervasive,” and it has led to other “lumpen” terms like impressionism and postimpressionism that we think of as organic but that are actually highly constructed and insufficient. Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock, “Les Données Bretonnantes: La Prairie de Représentation,” in Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), 54.
33. See William Arnett and Paul Arnett, eds., Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, vol. 1 (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2000), and vol. 2 (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2001).
34. Mary Ann Calo, “African American Art and Critical Discourse between World Wars,” American Quarterly 51, no. 3 (1999): 117.
35. Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” Journal of Philosophy 61, no. 19 (15 October 1964): 196.
36. Arthur C. Danto, “Art,” Nation 274, no. 16 (29 April 2002): 35.
37. Arthur C. Danto, “The End of the Outsider,” in Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South: The Ronald and June Shelp Collection (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002), 35–36.
38. Examples include the recent inclusion of Herbert Singleton and Lonnie Holley in Prospect.3 New Orleans or Judith Scott’s 2014 survey at the Brooklyn Museum.
39. In a 2014 interview between gallerist Barbara Archer and Bernard L. Herman, Archer describes Lockett’s demeanor. She says, “I remember him as someone who was extremely quiet, almost to the point of being shut down. Emotionally, intellectually, I guess perhaps physically—in every way, he was very close to being nonverbal. And so it was very difficult to know him. I think that anyone who knew him felt they knew him through his work and what he was trying to express because it was very hard to get anything from him personally.”
40. For more about the relationship between queerness and illegibility, see José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
41. Macho Man Tell It to My Heart: Collected by Julie Ault (2013) was an exhibition of works selected and extended from the collection of Julie Ault, a founding member of the artists’ collaborative Group Material (1979–96). The exhibition included a range of artists including Rev. Howard Finster, Felix GonzalezTorres, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, and others.
42. Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden (Book) (New York: Macmillan, 2011), 4.
43. In reference to the search for visibility, Carrie Yamaoka writes, “In retrospect, perhaps what we were saying was that we had not yet formulated the proper language to name ourselves; that the naming of us was inadequate, determined by the heteronormative, not by us.” Carrie Yamaoka, personal correspondence with the author, June 2015.
44. Bernard L. Herman, personal correspondence with the author, June 2014.
45. Also included were Rev. Howard Finster’s works.
46. Robert Farris Thompson, “Roundtable,” in Democracy: A Project by Group Material, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 1990), 182.
47. Helen Molesworth, “How to Install Art as a Feminist,” in Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, ed. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 504.
48. Herman and Rhodes, “Canons, Collections and the Contemporary Turn in Outsider Art,” 253. 49. The former show was curated by Gordon W. Bailey, featuring many works from his collection as well as the collections of Audrey Heckler, Monty Blanchard, and the High Museum of Art. The latter show, which was accompanied by a moving catalogue with essays by W. Ralph Eubanks, among others, marked Bailey’s major 2014 gift to the University of Mississippi Museum.