You Without Me, Me Without You:1 Thomas J. Lax & Glenn Ligon
James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues (ed. Jonathan Berger)
80 WSE, 2015
80 WSE, 2015
Thomas J. Lax: I wanted to start with something that links your work with [James ‘Son Ford’] Thomas’s work, a fundamental thing even though it might not be immediately evident: feeling. I would argue that you both share an interest not only in communicating feeling, but in the capacity to do so—how and sometimes even whether one can relate to others through emotion. As I look at Thomas’s work, I feel both a connection to and a distance from the place in which he made it, its stakes and meaning in that time and place. What do you feel when you look at the work and try to come to an understanding of its context?
Glenn Ligon: Emotions have been a big part of my practice, guiding not only my own choices regarding subjects addressed in the work but also crucial to the way viewers engage with the work. For example, my text paintings are often seen as frustrating because they thwart one’s ability to read them. I see that frustration as part of the point: difficult texts should produce difficult objects. Thomas’s work interests me in regard to feelings because of his ongoing confrontation with issues around death. Considering his objects were made for the community around him, which was a poor southern community with limited access to medical care, that worked backbreaking or menial jobs, was denied access to basic civil rights and protections, etc., issues around mortality were certainly omnipresent. Also, the fact that he worked on and off in funeral homes signals that he was intimately connected with death and dying. He got control of all that through the objects he made. His immediate community collected these objects, displaying them in their homes and putting them in windows for their neighbors to see. I find it fascinating to consider his work in relationship to gargoyles on churches—used as a way to ward off evil—and I always wondered if that was a secondary function his work had for people: as a means to ward off something as well as embrace it. It’s a very strange thing, if you think about it, to make an ashtray in the shape of a human skull. I also want to think about the skulls in relationship to the portrait heads. The heads don’t seem generic. They feel like an archive of the people around him, commissioned, in some cases, by the very people who are their subjects. If you’re sculpting someone you know you have a different relationship to the object than if you’re sculpting what he calls “futures”, ideas that come to him in dreams. Or maybe you don’t? Maybe the two things are mixed together?
TJL: As you’re describing it, I’m realizing that the way Thomas moves between different ideas of time has a relationship to how he is picturing the community in which he lived, which I would broadly define as a commitment to heterogeneity. On the one hand, he articulates “the past” through the unconscious and personal sphere of dreams and spirituality, and through the haunting sensibility that we see in the skulls. On the other hand, Thomas makes use of history in monumental or quasi-monumental terms through the busts of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. In effect, he is putting very different aesthetic strategies towards historicization on the same plane, bringing together genres of fantasy and realism that are often presumed to be sepa - rate from one another. For example, we might consider his color palette, which alternately appears to be observational but also pictures a world that’s not what one sees before oneself. Sometimes, he paints the busts’ complexions brown or black, and at others he paints them red or leaves them the color of the clay. Likewise, he sometimes paints his quail true to life in blues and browns, while he gives others that same shade of red. One could also think of this range in terms of the scale of the works. All of the animals and humans are not so much bigger or smaller than they are in real life but they’re not quite to actual scale. There are these different ways in which the real and imaginary are conjoined which speaks to their role as things in the way you’re de - scribing them. Whether they correspond to the color or size in which they exist in the real world, they continue to bear a relationship to what we experience around us everyday. They are objects that are used for a range of both everyday and symbolic functions, whether they’re decorative things as they are sometimes described or they have a kind of spiritual capacity or simply have the capacity to describe or portray the people around him, as you’re describing them now.
GL: It’s interesting to think about the teeth he puts in his skulls, which are either dentures or real teeth, as a point of interplay between the everyday and symbolic. In one of the interviews I read he says initially he used corn kernels for teeth but corn implanted in clay would often sprout. So he made a change in the work by starting to use real teeth, which speaks to the play between the fantastic aspects of his practice and the more observational, realist ones. But again, I’m fixated on the question of what does it mean to have one of these skulls in one’s front window or to use them as ashtrays? There’s a story Thomas tells about when he was a boy and made a skull for his grandfather. His grandfather said, ‘Boy, you get this thing out of my house and don’t bring another one in here. I already can’t rest at night for spooks now.’2 The notion of spooks being present—the supernatural accepted as part of life—is embodied in these objects but also these objects he’s making are sculptures to be sold.
TJL: As you’re talking about the kind of technical and material innovations and the environment and ecology from which he’s pulling and into which his works are placed, I’m also thinking about the clay itself, which might ask us to consider the question of land in certain ways. I’m curious about the question of place or the significance of land in terms of the materials that he’s using and what that might speak to in terms of the history of the Mississippi Delta. He’s working in the Cotton Belt, the region where cotton was the main cash crop during and immediately after slavery. It’s the birthplace of the blues post-Reconstruction.3 And it’s flanked on either side by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, bodies of water that not only delineate and characterize this region but also are important to the clay Thomas is using.4
GL:You reminded me of the scene in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) when Patsey is making a corncob doll for herself at the side of the fields. Nobody is going to give her art materials so she makes this incredible object with what’s around her. It’s a beautiful scene of interiority in the film—Patsey asserting her personhood in contradiction to her status as property. Thomas lives in a very poor community, nobody is giving him art materials, so he has to work with what’s around him and the gumbo clay is all around him so he literally is making the artwork out of the environment. I think it’s metaphorically very poignant. It’s almost biblical as well, his making things out of clay, and ironic, since a lot of his production is skulls. He talks about how we’re all going to go back to this clay in the end so our mortality is embodied in the material itself. The need to be inventive with what was at hand is something my mother, one of 11 children growing up on a farm in rural South Carolina, used to talk about all the time. She had a very similar biography to Thomas and developed a rich interior life because of her circumstances. She also shared that interior life with the folks around her. That’s what’s amazing about seeing some of the documentary films on Thomas. We often imagine artists as being separated from their communities by temperament or other factors. It’s the myth of the lone genius. It’s clear, however, when you look at the footage that he’s making music and sculptures within a nurturing community. In one of the films his son is helping him put teeth in a clay skull and hollowing out the head to make it into an ashtray. In another scene Thomas is playing in a juke joint and a young kid is playing on the drums as backup. Everyone that you’ve seen previously in the film is there, dancing and socializing. Making art is a community practice. At the same time Thomas says he’s proud of making objects other people can’t make. That’s why I talked about his sense of innovation. He’s really interested in moving his practice forward and his practice distinguishes himself from other people yet it’s embedded in this very specific kind of milieu.
TJL: I agree with you about the importance of Thomas’s relationship to a collective of people who helped make and give meaning to his work. I came to know his work through a show I made and that he was included in called When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South (2014) at The Studio Museum in Harlem. The show included work by artists named under the categories of ‘folk’ or ‘outsider’ art—taxonomies that have historically denied both the sense of innovation or social relation that you’ve described so fully in his work. This included a wide range of artists who were from or had made work in the Mississippi Delta, like Ralph Lemon and Theaster Gates. What are the other kinds of communities that he’s in some ways placed within and what are the communities you might place him within or think about him in relationship to, whether they were conscious and intentional on his part or not?
GL: Well, I think one of the things your show made clear was there were affinities between works of art - ists that may have not been directly in touch with one another but certainly worked within a tradition and innovated based on that tradition. Tradition is a kind of community, although Thomas’s increasing fame over time certainly influenced or changed the trajectory of his work and his relationship to that community. In one interview he talks about wanting to make a full size clay figure, which is technically difficult given the materials he is using. The desire to learn more, to increase his skills, to be in dialogue with other artists, is important to him. When he visits Yale University he’s really inter - ested in talking to people in the sculpture department to figure out how to further the possibilities for his work. I don’t want to lead us in a debate about the authentic and the non-authentic based on his fame and access but the wider dissemination of his work opened up some possibilities for him in terms of broadening the repertoire of his sculptures. Influence is a curious question. Playing music is inherently social, you’re collaborating with people as you play, whereas the sculptural practice is, perhaps, a bit more solitary, even though it is clear that he made work in the context of a community. It is interesting, then, to think about certain themes that reoccur in his work that also appear in the work of other artists. That’s more your area of expertise.
TJL: As you’re describing the relationship between these different aspects of his ways of working, object making and performance, the term “the repertoire of sculptures,” which is a heading I’m borrowing from Ferris’s writings on Thomas,5 seems generative in the way it brings different aspects of his practice in relation. It acknowledges the ways the sculptures and the performances existed through reiteration. They are both concerned with taking and innovating on existing forms, be they songs, birds, or neighbors, and in rendering them again and again. Both of them are reiterative practices that take and then expand a set of available ideas.
GL: Yes, when he talks about music he says that there’s nothing new. He says all blues songs are about a woman that has left a man behind; all blues songs are all varia - tions on that theme. Whether that’s true or not is another question but I think it’s relevant in light of this notion of expanding on a given repertoire.
TJL: Let’s talk more about the gender and sexual dimensions of the work as we’re now looking at a scene from a juke joint from Ferris’ film. There are these different ways in which we have access to spaces that, from the point of view of the eye that’s filming here, we might not have access to from our historic and personal positions, that offers a certain vantage point on a set of gender dynamics. What are some of the things that strike you as you watch?
GL: Well, there’s a fascinating scene where there are a group of men playing for each other. They’re filmed in a house and they are playing and dancing for one another. I’ve never seen that on film before. In a way, it goes against what Thomas says about the blues being about heterosexual desire. What does it mean for these men to dance for one another? It’s not a question I can really answer. The discourse around the blues is often very much about heterosexuality. We know that there are lots of queer voices in the blues but it’s rare to see queer - ness or homosocial bonding enacted. How do you think homosociality influences what he makes?
TJL: I think in terms of what you’re describing, what’s so great about it to me is the way we can understand this moment through a language of erotics and desire without any interest in inquiring about what kind of sexual encounter happened because it’s the sexuality of friendship and the sexuality of performance and music making that carries the real charge and sense of sexual possibility. It’s full instantiation through this form of touch and intimacy and the projection of another person and situation through song and narration, but also a projection through what’s happening then and there that feels so appealing as a viewer. In our moment where the liberatory dimension of sexuality has been reduced to sexual identity and acts that stabilize the ever chaotic everyday expe - riences of curiosity and lust into categories like ‘husband,’ it’s particularly exciting to look at the unknowability of the sexual encounters in these homes as having a charge in our time.
GL: When I saw the shots of the juke joint I was struck by the way that people were dancing in it. A women is often filmed dancing alone and a male partner might join her for a time, dancing behind her while somebody else comes to dance in front of her. It’s very fluid in terms of how people interact with one another in what is a very compressed physical space. Also there’s the young boy on the drums playing with the band so it’s not like it’s a space only for adults. There’s an integration of all generations in that site.
TJL: You’re right! The kind of cohabitation you’re describing brings people named by very different age and genders together in a way that doesn’t take away gender and doesn’t take away age but literally creates a space for people to be side by side or front to back, all in the same plane in a way that doesn’t necessarily ascribe to the existing social hierarchies of gender or age. That these anticipated moments of encounter already exist in many other kinds of social spaces feels like the same kind of logic that exists in the objects and in their installation here. We are standing looking at this mise en scène of multiple forms of plant life and of nonhuman and human animal life together that in some ways would never be seen totally together exactly in this way, but at the same time is very much in keeping with certain kinds of African American narrative and spiritual traditions in which these critters might all exist in the same field or in the same plane. There’s a kind of queerness to the ecology, and when I use the word ‘queerness’ here I’m thinking of somebody like the physicist Karen Barad who writes about nature’s queer performativity.6 When she talks about queerness she certainly doesn’t mean the way similar kinds of atoms come together or even attempt to describe a set of relations we would call sexual at first glance. Rather, she’s thinking about queerness as a way of questioning identity and binaries, including the distinction of nature and culture. If culture is not an extension or a product of a natural phenomena, and likewise, if the natural world exists far beyond the ways that culture might describe it in lan - guage, the radically different things that co-exist in the world might be understood to act in closer proximity to one another. In looking at this plane of action and seeing categories of life that are historically differentiated from one another and hierarchized placed on the same level is a similar life world or social space as the one that we see in the juke joint. I think we can say that if both existed in Thomas’s time in how these things would be shown, as you were describing it, imagining looking at people’s windows and literally seeing all of these things one against one another. I think what’s so great about this show is you similarly have that very heterotopic worldview.
GL: Exactly. Also, I think it goes back to what we were saying earlier about the notion of spooks and the realm of the supernatural being incorporated into the every day. In the exhibition, skulls are next to animals, which are next to portraits of people, which are next to men in coffins, etcetera. All of those things are mixed together. At the same time Thomas acknowledged that things have shifted culturally. He talks about how people don’t have time for spooks anymore. There’s acknowledgment of changes in society and he adopts a fluid, dynamic relationship to those changes.
TJL: As you’re describing the passage of time or the way in which Thomas’s own strategies are informed by change and isolating or marking or reacting to those changes in the work, I am curious about the kind of institutional framing of his work in posterity. Thomas meets the folklorist William Ferris in the late 1960s, and William and Josette Ferris make the film, Sonny Ford, Delta Artist in 1969. He’s then included in Jane Livingston and John Beardsley’s exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. in 1982. From that show, which certain local black artists question because of the Corcoran’s previous lack of interest in their work,7 Thomas’s work enters into a different dialogue around national identity, traveling to perform and sing for Nancy Reagan, as we see in the other film on view. We’ve spoken of the community of people who are more immediate and received the work more directly at its moment of production by showing the work, giving it different kinds of life force. Let’s talk about questions of power, generally speaking, and more specifically what it means for us to see this work and look at this work here in New York in terms of other things that are happening in 2015.
GL: In one film you see him at home with his ten kids talking about what has obviously been a very hard life. The artwork is part of the thing that keeps him going spiritually and economically. In another film you see him at a folk art exhibition in Washington in ’82, with Nancy Reagan enthusiastically greeting him. One wonders if she would have welcomed other black artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat or Adrian Piper in such a fashion? One could use that footage as a springboard to dive into questions about black authenticity and the valorization of this notion of authenticity around folk art. I think we’re beyond those questions now or I think scholars like you or Lynne Cooke have tried to unhinge those questions from the discussion of the work. We can also talk about archives and collections of folk or outsider artists and how they shape our reception of the work through the kinds of narratives they construct and the categories of knowledge they create because of the artists they collect. The whole notion of a category called ‘black folk art’ or ‘outsider art’ as a construction through which this work is viewed is relatively new and so that certainly has an influence on the way, in 2015, people approach this work. Also, in some of the reviews of the show the narrative around the artist’s life is so focused on suffering you would think that’s the only legitimate lens through which the work can be seen, which is perhaps a reflection of where we are at in terms of the discussion around black lives in our culture. The work is seen as a kind of resistance to oppression and suffering, which I am not saying it isn’t, but that narrative leaves out whole areas like joy or a regard for the spiritual or all the other things that we’ve been talking about.
TJL: And there are other categories, well there are certain categories that maybe we would be happy to see go and other categories that I imagine would need to expand out. For example, I think we’re both committed to something called ‘black art’. Even if what we might necessarily imagine under that name is different than in 1982. I wonder, what is the place of somebody like Thomas in that kind of a category?
GL: Right. Well, I think it reminds us that … I’m censoring myself.
TJL: No! You don’t need to censor yourself!
GL: It reminds us that black art doesn’t always come out of elite grad schools, you know?
GL: The range of possibilities for what black art can be is a continuum that includes many different kinds of practices. But I also want to think about—since we talked about the role of the emotion in the work—of Thomas as a figure for whom the emotional qualities of the work are forefront and unabashedly so. I want to recuperate that as a productive place for artists to be working from, against a prohibition on feeling or the emotional. I want to see it as a place of connection between audience and viewer.
TJL: Is there something about that prohibition that feels like the kind of repression or censorship of certain things black?
GL: Well, yes, because often we are told black people are emotional, quote end quote, and that’s all we are, you know? So one wants to resist that notion but at the same time one doesn’t want to throw out this very productive space in which to work within. When I walked into the gallery and saw the line up of portrait heads staring at me, with their eyes following me around the room, they remind me of my grandmother’s house and the portraits of Jesus and Martin Luther King she had on her walls, portraits whose gazes followed you around. Even though they were commercially produced pictures they made the people portrayed seem present and emotionally available. Love was what was important and I think that the work Thomas makes shows a love for black people.
TJL: In the most nicely directed straightforward terms. One of the other things about his work that I’m curious to talk about is their status as commodities. Because what’s interesting, as you were describing some of the implications of belonging in terms of where things go and how the juxtaposition of one thing vis à vis another thing that its life is surrounded with in a collection, is the question of juxtaposition. How does the placement of one of these works in a folklife center versus in a collection of a museum of art shift an object’s status not only from an artifact to an artwork, but from a religious vessel to a commodity—two different kinds of fetish objects? The reason I want to go back to the market is because in some ways Thomas embraced the market very early on and as a child starts selling his work. Even some of the notions of the authenticity of an ‘outsider’ artist that you mentioned earlier, necessitate an individual to be working outside a system of economic valuation, his narrative doesn’t quite allow for in the way he is very self-consciously positioning himself. Even his own name, taking on “Ford” or that Ferris photograph in the Project Space of the gallery of Thomas wearing the graphic shirt with the Maytag logo printed in varying sizes and forms, there’s an alignment, self-fashioning or positioning in relationship to a particular American economy that is not against or contra the market, specific kinds of forms of branding or commoditization but actually is a kind of active negotiation or navigation of that.
GL: He’s very canny in some ways. When he’s making the sculptures he says if he’s making them for himself he might just grab any color that’s available but when he’s making them for other people there’s much more of a consideration of what colors to use and how to construct the piece. It fascinates me that in this show there are few busts of Abraham Lincoln but there are lots of busts of George Washington. Black people of my parents’ generation and earlier didn’t have George Washington in their houses but they did have Lincoln. George Washington busts seem to be targeted towards a different audience. And when you look at the George Washington figures often they seem the same. They have the same red slapped on their face and the same cotton wool wigs. So he knows what will sell but I would claim he has a different working method and intent when he makes the portrait figures, which are much more individuated. I think part of this is that he’s a musician and if you are a musician you have to know your audience. You can’t go play music that people don’t want to hear. That just doesn’t pay. I think there’s an understanding of that within the musical realm but there’s also an understanding of that within the artistic realm, too. It’s interesting to consider this in relationship to this question of the market because, as you said, he makes objects to sell from a very early age. He’s aware that his sculptures are merchandise. He’s selling them to friends and making them for friends, but also selling them to a wider audience, and his awareness of all those different kinds of ways that the work is going to be distributed is really fascinating. What do you make of the coffins?
TJL: Should we go look at those?
GL: The ones that have his name on them particularly intrigued me. I couldn’t tell if the objects were portraits of him or just had his signature. Or maybe they’re both. There are a number of them that are signed.
TJL: Do you remember what the material is? It’s still clay?
GL: Yeah, I think it’s still gumbo clay.
TJL: And then the kind of rivets on it are the…
GL: I don’t know, it looks just like … it’s definitely painted so it looks just like wire that’s been painted.
TJL: Which implies that they’re moveable.
GL: I wouldn’t move it on that wire but they are representations of handles on coffins for pallbearers. He says he struggled with the form of these works. Even though he was employed in funeral homes he says he hadn’t figured out a satisfactory sculptural form for the caskets, which is interesting given he’s around caskets all the time. He doesn’t talk about caskets as “futures,” an image that comes to him in a dream. He says if you don’t have the image in your mind you can’t make the work. But the casket is a preexisting image so maybe that’s his difficulty with it.
TJL: I guess the difficulty in some ways becomes a kind of placeholder and maybe his own handwriting, his own name, becomes a juncture point between the observational quality of what he’s seeing and the kind of eventuality of something that can’t yet be pictured, in other words death. His own name becomes at once both of the things that you are describing.
GL: Yeah. And it is the caskets where you mostly see signatures.
TJL: And then the other figures that are installed here.
GL: There’s one sculpture of a man eating watermelon, which is very close to a stereotypical image, but in his hands it seems specific. It’s not like a caricature of a black person eating watermelon, it’s just a black person eating a watermelon.
TJL: I think you’re completely right, Glenn. And this one, similarly, has some of the trappings; the coal-black skin and obviously the redder-than-red watermelon.
GL: But I don’t know. It still seems specific to me. It’s somebody he knew. If you look at the other sculpture, they’re clearly different figures. It’s not like a reproduction of a stereotype.
TJL: There’s something about the figures that are here shown alongside the coffins that are different kinds of portraits of self-making. I’m thinking of the men who are on the tree trunks, and I don’t know if they are necessarily self portraits, but they feel similarly like the portraits of himself within a set of relationships that produce the kinds of things that then we see.
GL: Actually, his skulls feel more like self-portraits to me. But that’s another question. It’s funny, the men on the logs. The everydayness of them is interesting to me.
TJL: I guess I’m thinking of these in another kind of cycle. Presumably the coffins would be made from wood, so in a way these logs are in the same loop as the coffins. As we see the logger sitting on the logs holding his axe, he’s a kind of double for the coffin-maker. There’s an analogy between artmaking and craftsmanship, which emphasizes the physical process of making his art works as things in the world.
GL: Right. Yeah, this guy sitting on this log has an axe so it’s not just a log that’s fallen, it’s a log that’s been chopped and presumably chopped for a kind of use. Thomas talks about how we’re all going to end up in the clay. Everything is related to that somehow. Portraiture, a man sitting on the log that he’s chopped down, a coffin that is going to be made of that wood he has chopped. They are all part of a piece.
TJL: And there’s a similar way in which the watermelons function, too, within a life cycle. The life cycle is experienced through the banality of consumption and digestion. It goes back to what you were saying about the experience of joy or pleasure.
GL: It’s also funny that these figures appear amongst rows of his sculptures of the coffins. It’s this joyous part of life and then death as part of life, too.
This conversation between Thomas Lax and Glenn Ligon took place at 80WSE Gallery on July 20, 2015 on the occasion of the exhibition.
1. “I don’t care who it is… they got to go direct where I’m going, that’s down in the clay and that ain’t going to be too long. Do you want me to tell you the truth? You can’t do without me, and I can’t do without you.” James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, Sonny Ford, Delta Artist, Dir. William and Josette Ferris, 1969.
2. William R. Ferris, “The Devil and His Blues: James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas.” Southern Cultures 15, no. 3 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 5–20.
3. For more on the relationship of the blues to post-Reconstruction politics in the Mississippi Delta, see Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: Race, Power, and the Blues in the Mississippi Delta (London and New York: Verso, 1998).
4. Gumbo clay not only has cavities that allow it to hold water; it is used in agriculture so that soil handlesoil handles water more effectively. See “Heavy Clay Soil’s Remedy May be ‘Popcorn’ Shale Gravel,” K-State Research and Extension, Kansas State University, January 30, 2009. http:// www.ksre. ksu.edu/ News/story/ clay_soil013009. aspx Accessed August 18, 2015.
5. William R. Ferris, “Vision in AfroAmerican Folk Art: The Sculpture of James Thomas,” in Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 110–139.
6. Karen Barad, “Nature’s Queer Performativity,” in Kvinder, Kønog forskning/ Women, Gender and Research (Copenhagen, 2012), No. 1 - 2, pp. 25 -53.
7. In reviewing the reception of Black Folk Art in America, Beardsley says, “We were also criticized for using the terminology ‘black art’ and this is perhaps best illustrated by a visit Dorothy Gilliam paid to the exhibition. She was then writing for The Washington Post and married to the painter Sam Gilliam. Before the show opened, she came and challenged us by saying “Why are you showing the art of the these naive, self-taught people, instead of academicallytrained black artists? Aren’t you deriding black culture by saying it’s folksy and downhome instead of honoring educated and academicallytrained black artists?” Beardsley, John, “Re-viewing Contexts for Folk and Outsider Art,” Curators