The exhibition “Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing,” on view at the American Folk Art Museum from April 15 through September 14, is the first devoted to the three-dimensional portraits carved by the elusive artist between 1847 and his death in 1851.
Ames’s sculpture has been written about, published and seen individually in group exhibitions, but this presentation is an opportunity to examine eight of his 12 known sculptures in an intimate, jewel-like installation. Although Ames’s oeuvre was small, this group of polychromed carvings in wood, on loan from public and private collections, represents some of the most beautiful and sensitive American sculptures of the mid-Nineteenth Century.
Ames (1823‱851) immortalized family members, neighbors and friends in the vicinity of Evans, Erie County, N.Y. Included in the artist’s small body of work are portraits of young men, women and children. Sensitively portrayed as either life-size bust-, waist- or full-length figures, they have few antecedents in early American folk sculpture because of the private nature of the portraits.
The life-size, full-length figure of Susan Ames, carved in 1849, depicts the artist’s niece, his brother Henry’s daughter. As in all his work, Ames accurately described details and texture of clothing and hair through precise carving and the application of paint. This sculpture moved west with the family and was recently rediscovered in the Boulder History Museum where it had been placed by a descendent in the 1960s.
One of the major works in the museum’s collection is the mysterious “Phrenological Head.” It was probably carved around 1850 during the time that Ames lived in the household of Dr Harvey B. Marvin, a physician and practitioner of alternative therapies.
The forthright “Head of a Boy” probably portrays one of the artist’s brothers. In the lifelike humanity of its gaze, the viewer gleans a sense of what the artist himself may have looked like. The direct simplicity of the presentation, without drapery, pedestal or flourishes, creates a dynamic and naturalistic engagement with the viewer in the tradition of Renaissance marble sculpture, rather than highly embellished portraits in wood in the ship carving tradition.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a number of public programs have been arranged. A symposium, “Talks in 3-D” on May 3 and a Saturday seminar, “A Curatorial Lecture and Tour” on May 17; and a lunchtime talk “Phrenology and Its Images” on May 21.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 45 West 53 Street. For information, 212-265-1040 or www.folkartmuseum.org .
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