Review: with “A Cut Above,” wooden sculptures cement African-American cultural achievements

Sulton Rogers (American, 1922-2003), "Wedding (Bride, Groom and Preacher)," 1980, wood and paint. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey. Image courtesy the High Museum of Art.
Sulton Rogers (American, 1922-2003), "Wedding (Bride, Groom and Preacher)," 1980, wood and paint. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey. Image courtesy the High Museum of Art.
Elijah Pierce(American, 1892-1984),Mr. and Mrs. Hank Aaron, 1974, wood and paint. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of Henry “Hank” and Billye Suber Aaron.
Elijah Pierce (American, 1892-1984), “Mr. and Mrs. Hank Aaron,” 1974, wood and paint. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of Henry “Hank” and Billye Suber Aaron.

After Hank Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run and surpassed Babe Ruth, who had held the record for 39 years, Ebony magazine photographed him and his wife Billye at their Atlanta home for the cover of their July 1974 issue. Pride shone through their smiles as they posed in matching yellow sweaters on their steps. It was a significant moment in American history, and in the 20th century, black newspapers and magazines served as a source of historical documentation, accounting for black achievement. Sculptor Elijah Pierce knew this and was inspired to create a wood carving of the magazine cover, he knew that he was playing a part in etching Aaron’s career highlight into the history books. He called the piece “Mr. and Mrs. Hank Aaron,” and it is one of more than 25 wood carvings and constructions included in the A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection exhibition at the High Museum. The exhibition, on display through October 30, is curator of folk and self-taught art Katherine Jentleson’s first planned show since joining the museum last year. The pieces on display are drawn from the artworks Bailey has donated to the museum over the past six years.

All of the sculptures within the exhibit are made from different types of wood, some smooth and some raw, varied in detail and intricacy — some are large and attention-grabbing, while others resemble children’s play toys. For example, Ralph Griffin’s “Wizard,” looks as if the artist found a tree stump and painted a wizard’s face and robe directly onto the raw bark, or rather, discovered a wizard within the wood. Without modification, Griffin painted the blue-haired wizard’s black face and green eyes and blue robe on the top of the wood and a blue robe is painted in the middle. However, Griffin’s deftness makes it hard to imagine this crude material as anything other than a finished statue.

Leroy Almon_Atlanta Olympics
Leroy Almon (American, 1938-1997), “Atlanta Olympics,” 1996, wood, paint and newspaper. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey.

On the other end of the spectrum are Tallapoosa, Georgia native Leroy Almon’s (1938-1997) works, which anchor the exhibition. There is a higher level of craftsmanship and detail in his pieces, particularly in the “Atlanta Olympics” wooden carving. Atlanta history and Georgia history are a focal point in the exhibit. In Almon’s piece, a clipping from the newspaper about the 1996 bombings next to a carving of Satan’s trident is affixed to the top left corner of the piece; on the top right are an angel wing and halo — juxtaposing good and evil. Almon’s work further documents the Olympics as the world’s equalizer, living proof that greatness comes from every nation. Nothing drives that point more than the hand carved into the center of the wooden board with each of the fingers painted different colors, intended to  represent different races coming together as one.

The religious themes that are undertones in “Atlanta Olympics” are prevalent throughout the rest of the collection. One of the most striking is Thornton Dial, Jr.’s “Crucifixion,” which depicts Jesus and the two thieves hanging on the crosses. The figures are represented by bent metal; the crown of thorns is made from barbed wire and a purple halo made from a Buick hubcap floats above Jesus’s head. The figures are nailed into smooth, chopped pieces of wood, which are painted red, blue and purple to represent blood.

This diverse collection of Southern, African-American wooden folk art is a rare find in a mainstream institution, and the pieces on display are as diverse as the techniques of the artists who created them. For those familiar with the art form the experience of seeing the pieces in a museum might outweigh the actual shock and awe value of the pieces. However, for people who are unfamiliar with African-American folk art, A Cut Above is a great introduction.  

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