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Essay: Shows at Barbara Archer, Mason Murer again raise the question, “Just what is folk art?”

Bernard Gore: " Daniel in the Lions Den" Polychromed carved wood
Bernard Gore's "Daniel in the Lion's Den," made of polychromed carved wood.

The annual national meeting of the Folk Art Society of America, beginning October 11 in Atlanta, has provided an impetus for a couple of local galleries to mount independent surveys of folk art. These in turn allow us to consider again a few of the distinctive features of this art as a category, and an odd category it is, too.

“Pure Folk,” at Barbara Archer Gallery through November 10, illustrates the oddness. Folk art apparently includes, for example, the social outsider, the self-taught artist who is highly educated in some other academic discipline and the artmaker who is self-taught in both art and education.

Then there are those who are taught their trade, but not in art school. Folk potters such as the Meaders family are one example (a Reggie Meaders jug is in the “Pure Folk” show), and the one closest to the 19th-century itinerant painters, craftsmen and assorted others outside the fine-art category to whom the label “folk art” was first applied.

This conceptual spread is why such categories as “visionary folk artist,” “outsider artist,” “self-taught artist” and the more neutral “vernacular artist” have been invented. None of them apply to the whole field, and some of them apply to bodies of work that scarcely qualify as folk art, since they have been produced by idiosyncratic art school graduates who may be outsiders but aren’t exactly “folk.”

The “Pure Folk” show illustrates this, because it includes everyone from Beverly Buchanan and George Lowe at the formally educated and urban end of the spectrum to R.A. Miller and Mose Tolliver at the differently educated and rural end. The Canadian-themed art of Scott Griffin and the architectural fantasias of Robert Lindsay Walker illustrate utterly different degrees of outsiderdom, a condition that has nothing to do with incarceration or mental illness, as Colin Wilson’s book “The Outsider” established many years ago. (The show, it seems, contains no examples of prison art or other institutionalized artists, although it includes a number of artists who are outside the mainstream even when they practice mainstream professions.)

The cult of biography plagues the field of folk art, so it’s good that Archer’s show offers no biographical information on the walls. We’re forced to look at the works without knowing anything except that something about them makes them “folk.” We can also see that it is superb art, even if the aesthetic varies from the baroque excess of anonymous tramp art to the economical drawing style of Ernest Lee’s “Rabbit,” which seems to owe something to the lineage of Charles Schulz’s Snoopy.

An untitled architectural drawing by Robert Lindsay Walker, in ballpoint pen and marker on paper.

Comic strips show up more directly and unambiguously in the pencil cartoons of David Maris, one of the two fresh discoveries in this show. John Beadles, the other introduction, is Maris’ opposite in every respect except the tendency to crowd as much visual information as possible into his work. His figure-filled ceramics are stunningly original.

Mr. Imagination, the internationally recognized visionary artist who died in Atlanta in May, is honored with a small memorial display that includes a “Miniature Throne” that’s almost a replica of the full-scale one on which he seated gallery visitors at his opening last year, and a bottle cap hat like the one that also crowned selected gallery-goers.

Archer also offers a survey of the drawings of Benjamin Jones, whose style and personal isolation from the art world have often led less attentive viewers to assume that he must be a folk artist. His status somewhere between insider and outsider — perhaps anthropologist Paul Rabinow’s category of “besider” should be considered here — makes for an intriguing juxtaposition.

Brian Steel's "Eric," from "Impaired Perceptions."

The quite different juxtaposition, at Mason Murer Fine Art through November 3, of Brian Charles Steel’s exhibition of photographs of social outsiders (which demands a separate review) with a small show of folk and outsider art is similarly thought-provoking, though the subject is too unwieldy to fit into a short essay. It requires, in any case, considerable prior knowledge of artists’ biographies to understand the implications of putting a couple of 1990 works by urban and self-taught Purvis Young next to vintage atmospheric portraiture by Sybil Gibson and the spirit writing of quintessential rural visionary J.B. Murry. Add to the mix the wooden bas-relief religious art of Bernard Gore, a previously unknown creator whose elaborate portrayals of biblical narratives have astonished more than a few seasoned viewers. Gore’s recent appearance on the scene is a reminder that folk art, whatever it is, is far from dying out and that major makers continue to emerge alongside lesser figures.

The vexed question of whether vernacular artists should be considered alongside art-school-educated ones — and all the more vexed because products of art schools can become legitimate outsider artists — remains vexed. In part this may be because of the unimaginable conceptual confusion involved in lumping together so many different types of non-art-school artists, from illiterate inventors of mystical machines (don’t ask) to Polish scientists who practice traditional paper-cutting techniques (included in an Arts Festival of Atlanta folk art show a couple of decades back).

Thornton Dial is the most famous vernacular artist to have entered decisively into the world of contemporary art, as his upcoming exhibition at the High Museum of Art reminds us. But it would be an interesting exercise to decide which artists in the Barbara Archer exhibition also have a claim to contemporary status, other than Ronald Lockett, whose “Wolves” would be a strikingly sophisticated work of art in any context. 

George Lowe's "#17," in watercolor and pen on paper.

We could assume that the naive portraiture of John Michael Denney on display at Barbara Archer is not contemporary art, if only it didn’t resemble so much the self-conscious “bad painting” that formed a whole movement a quarter-century or so ago. But even if we bracket the work that looks contemporary because so many contemporary artists have learned lessons from the styles of folk artists, the point of division might be difficult.

Is conceptual intent the only meaningful dividing line? Do we really have to know biography in order to tell what’s folk and outsider art and what isn’t? How does it come to be that we would value the productions of some famously anonymous folk artists differently if they turned out to be an art student’s discards, just as it makes all the difference in the world if an Old Master painting is by Botticelli or only from the studio of Botticelli?

Just asking.

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