Published: February 21, 2012
In celebration of half a century since its inception, the American Folk Art Museum really has something to crow about. Having survived a turbulent few years, the museum has most recently mounted the exhibition “Jubilation/Rumination: Life, Real and Imagined,” a panoramic look at its own spectacular collection. The nearly 100 objects on view are among the best objects that have been added to the museum’s collection over the last decade or so. They were selected by senior curator Stacy C. Hollander, who has been guiding the American Folk Art Museum’s collection for more than a quarter of a century.
“Jubilation/Rumination” is meant to herald the collection, to mark the museum’s return to its earlier site at Lincoln Square and to celebrate this unique museum’s continued survival and growth. “It is an exciting time for us,” declares Hollander.
In examining the most recent additions to the museum collections, American and international, “Jubilation/Rumination” pushes the definition of folk art beyond its previous borders. These relatively recent acquisitions serve to widen the scope of the collection as ideas about folk art have changed.
The American Folk Art Museum at the half century embodies a very different collection of folk art than it did at its inception. Early in the museum’s history, objects were arranged by category, such as painting, sculpture, textiles. Entering its fifth decade, the museum rethought the arrangement and reconfigured the collection, giving consideration to history and culture. Today, the objects flow, one artwork into another, playing on their respective visual resonances.
Over the course of the museum’s 50 years, ideas about folk art and the self-taught artists who create it have evolved. Viewed originally as standalone objects of material culture or as historical or ethnographic artifacts, folk art in the early Twenty-First Century is seen in the context of community, culture and the spiritual. While some objects are purely functional and others sheer fantasy, each is authentic and rooted the artist’s heritage and influences.
“Jubilation/Rumination” explores the confluence of the actual and the imagined in the art on view. Artworks known or assumed previously to be fantasies are, on second thought, grounded in reality. Conversely, some works that appear to be based on the actual are, in fact, expressive of an alternate reality. Dream sequences or otherwise, fact or fancy, each is driven by the basic human impulse to make art.
The exhibition is an exploration of the continuum of exuberant creativity †from the colonial period to the present †but without the constraints of a time frame or geographic tethering. It also addresses the ever-diminishing yet perennial subject of the boundaries between folk and fine.
Hollander points out that while self-taught artists do not have to subscribe to rules, even their early work reveals some connection to the academic, however indirect. At the same time, many contemporary artists look to folk art for inspiration.
Asked what she hopes visitors take away from “Jubilation/Rumination,” Hollander says it is her wish that they are overwhelmed by the significance of these works that still occupy a small corner of the art world. Of the exhibit she says simply, “It is my serenade to the collection. I love each and every piece on view.”
In “Cow Jump over the Mone,” Georgia artist Nellie Mae Rowe depicts herself as part human, part cow flying over the moon. The exuberant work is drawn from the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” in which “the cow jumped over the moon” and “the dish ran away with the spoon.” Created in 1978, it expresses Rowe’s ability to imagine herself airborne, untethered, through a vibrant sky of color and complex pattern. Giving free rein to the imagination, it calls on the suspension of disbelief that lurks in many minds.
Rowe was also a sculptor: she made dolls who resided in her “playhouse,” as she described her home. Autobiographical, they also served as companions for the deeply spiritual artist.
Iowa farmhands Grace and Clarence Woolsey used what they could find to express their creativity. They collected bottle caps and made expressive figures from them, such as the five on view depicting animals they would have seen on a farm and other creatures from their imaginations. They began creating the figures in 1961, making some 200 until lack of public response discouraged them.
An elegant birdcage of Peruvian mahogany and whalebone was made around 1860 by Nantucket seaman Joseph W. Clapp. Its careful craftsmanship and fine design suggest an exceptionally competent maker who gave significant thought to its creation. Clapp carved whalebone finials, a water cup and a seed cup for the cage, perhaps as his shipmates engaged in scrimshandering during long whaling voyages. After Clapp retired from whaling, he created a bird sanctuary in Peru, returning to Nantucket where he was seen around town with his pets in their cages.
The sea also inspired the maker of two carved cherrywood miniature figureheads, one a woman with a trumpet that resembles a Gabriel figure, the other a mermaid with a stylized tail. They were found in a house in Salem, Mass., and are thought to have been made by a skilled carver for his own pleasure or as a gift. Figureheads are one of the few elements on a ship that are purely decorative, although they were originally intended to intimidate the enemy or evoke beneficent spirits, and as such allowed the carver great freedom.
Archangel Gabriel weathervanes, such as the one on view, were most frequently seen in on church steeples in the Northeast. Gabriel, in biblical tradition, is the divine herald and interpreter of dreams. In Christian tradition he foretells the Millennium, the second coming of Christ, which was a highly prophesied and discussed event in the 1840s when the vane was made. This particular vane was given in 1963 by Adele Earnest, a founder of the museum, and is emblematic of the museum.
Religion and his Gullah traditions inspired St Helena Island, S.C., artist Sam Doyle. His painting on louvers, “I’ll Go Down,” is an image of the crucifixion.
Marino Auriti designed and built a 1:200 scale architectural model of the seven-story palace that he envisioned as a repository of the greatest achievements of mankind past, present and future. The structure, which Auriti patented, is based on classical concepts and decorated with messages such as “Forgive the First Time” and “Do Not Abuse Generosity.” The model itself stands 11 feet tall; the palace would have been 136 stories tall. The construction is an expression of his philosophy entwined with the artist’s love of architecture.
A carved wood self-portrait by Joseph Garlock depicting the artist with a white dinosaur suggests isolation and introspection. Garlock, who was a fruit seller at one time and later a commuter bus driver, began painting and carving only after he retired, and created hundreds of paintings, carvings and assemblages from whatever material was available.
The unmistakably detailed work of the Mexican-born Martín Ramírez is represented in “Jubilation/Rumination” by three works made late in his life when he was confined to a California psychiatric hospital. One, “Reina/Madonna,” is one of about a dozen Madonna images, perhaps based on an Eighteenth Century Madonna painting in the town of his birth. Another, “Church Collage,” depicts the oldest Mormon Church temple in St George, Utah, and evokes the church of his birthplace. Both images are expressive of his yearning for the culture of his birth, of which religion was a large part, his isolation and alienation. The image of the church is framed by his columns in distinctive looping and curving lines with superimposed text recounting the history of the Mormon Church.
The third image on view is, like the other two, of one of his favorite themes. Trains track endlessly in and out of tunnels, behind columns, always out of reach.
“Jubilation/Rumination” remains on view through September 19. The American Folk Art Museum is at 2 Lincoln Square (Columbus Avenue at 66th Street). For information, www.folkartmuseum.org or 212-595-9533.
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