A JUST PLAIN AMAZING SHOW OF FOLK STYLES
Society has a new unwritten motto, “If you don’t have it, flaunt it anyway.” The urge to hype is so pervasive that any phenomenon arriving without hyperbolic banners fluttering in flatulent air makes one automatically assume there must be something wrong. A cookie stand opening without searchlights? Unthinkable. An art exhibition without superlatives? Fishy.
Yet the Oakland Museum has quietly put together a compendium of California art that will certainly stand among the most significant things of its kind ever done. It is called “Cat and a Ball on a Waterfall” after the title of one of its pictures and represents 200 years of California folk painting and sculpture. On view through Aug. 3 it is, at a very minimum, a risible chaos of creativity which packs the special exhibitions gallery with everything from the entire side of a house painted with new-wave palms to a life-size camel that is clearly crocked to its hump.
No one needs any further excuse to see this astonishing sleeper than the evidence of whacked-out inspiration involved in, say, Jim Colclough’s “Birth of the Siamese Triplets” or Joseph Cholagian’s rickety toy assemblages like “Metropolitan Thoware” (Tower to you and me). You just love the way Colclough deals with the anatomical intricacies of giving birth. He just sticks a trap-door in the lady’s tummy and, bingo, triplets.
The show is a kick in your bib overalls. Everybody is just hunkered down next to the road telling outrageous stories, laughing at the cars going by and spitting just for the fun of it. Just in case, however, you are the kind that just is not happy unless you are thinking, this exhibition is gonna get your brain cranked up. You’re gonna change your mind about folk art.
Everybody knows folk art doesn’t evolve. Like the birth-and-death cycle of ordinary life, its style is universal and changeless.
Wrong. The earliest works on view are a set of “Stations of the Cross” by California Mission Indians that look for all the world like late medieval illuminations. An anonymous 19th-Century portrait of a black sailor picks up the period’s love of trompe l’oeil . Why, that swabbie’s eyes follow you right around the room.
Later we get a spate of the sort of pictures that set most people’s notions of folk painting as sweet and naive and stiff. There is that in “Birds of California” by Smith of Visalia or Felix Angel Mathews’ “Mare Island and Vallejo.” Their patriotism is as sincere as the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and just as dingy. But they are also clearly in tangent relation to James Audubon and the Manifest Destiny landscapes of Church or Bierstadt. They were, in their way, contemporary artists.
No, no. Folk art is always about then . It is modest and nostalgic and nice . It remembers Christmas at grandma’s, sleigh bells in the snow and silhouette trees covered with little red crab apples.
Paints preserve us. It’s the Grandma Moses Syndrome.
First. Folk artists are not modest. Up front it takes a hunk of chutzpah to say to yourself, “I don’t know how to make no art but I am a-gonna do it anyhow.”
John Ehn is so modest that in a life-size self-portrait bust he depicts himself as a combination of Lincoln and Buffalo Bill. Folk artists in general are so shy that they do not shirk to transform whole little-town blocks into bumptious fantasies that may not please the neighbors, if there are any. Simon Rodia did not recoil from imposing his vision on Watts nor did Calvin and Ruby Black shrink from plopping Possum Trot down in Yermo. From Duke Cahill’s lacy, rusting assemblage filigrees in Sacramento to Lito Damonte’s “Hubcap Ranch” in Pope Valley we learn that what we love about folk artists is that they launch magnificent egos into unexpected surroundings from Sun Valley to Eureka.
They may be the only people around who flaunt their nothing and turn it into something.
Second. Good folk art is not nice. While overworld artists deal in complex paradoxes, ironies and allusions fostered by training in art history and the inbreeding of the art scene, folkies are shrewd and down to the witty-gritty. Folk artists are candid in ways most housebroken burghers fear to be. There is a gargantuan Male Mystique in Louis Monza’s “Revelation” where a young Adonis is surrounded by more adoring females than Paris ever had to judge. It is an admission of self-love whose frankness is only balanced by the paranoid disillusionment of Carlos Cortez Coyle’s “The Transformation,” where Eve herself is the serpent of evil carrying her twin calling cards of “Divorce” and “Alimony” whilst entwining a poor chump in her coils. We squirm and then chuckle with recognition. Everybody feels that way. Nobody admits it.
Third. Folk artists are not about then . Find a timelier political satire than John Abduljaami’s “Reagan and His Cabinet” and you get a nice red apple. The artist gives us politicians without TV makeup--blotched with venality.
Folk artists tend to deal with such universal themes that they seem timeless, but that has not prevented the form from evolving on a track often running parallel to the mainstream. One inescapably notices the surreal overtones in Morton Riddle’s haunted dolls or the assemblage-funk qualities in Robert Gilkerson.
Present conditions in the overworld art sphere tend to push folk art and gallery art ever closer together. Minority movements in art found their greatest creative support in, say, women’s quilts and the admirable achievements of black folk artists.
Such gallery artists as Jim Lawrence and Viola Frey use folk style in making of sophisticated work. Neo-Expressionists’ awkwardness is very close to a folk art grown evermore expressionistic in a mad world.
The Oakland show includes artists like Peter Allegaert, whose ability to deal with pictorial volumes and subtle lighting situations make one wonder momentarily if this guy is a ringer.
You can still tell the difference and hal-ay-loo-yuh.
Everybody knows folk artists, art bricoleurs who transform commonplace materials by finding unexpected uses for them. Give a squint over here, Cal. This potato looks just like Eleanor Roosevelt. Folkies tend to excel in sculpture because their inventiveness is a result of struggle and compromise with materials that have their own expressive wavelengths. If they make an innocently poor choice--like the tin cans that make up the genre figures of John Newmarker--the results can be corny and toy-like.
Folkies don’t tame media like the professional artist, they come to an understanding with it. This quality of accommodation gives the work a natural classicism and a beguiling dignity. John Roeder’s painted concrete sculpture of a black couple under an umbrella has the grave charm of some African art. Stylistically folk art often looks like primitive art made in response to industrialized civilization.
The form, as much as it solicits affection, has its limits, especially in naive painting which is often predictable and oddly over-calculated. So much said, along comes a visionary like Peter Mason Bond. His “Holiday” transforms an ordinary walk in the park into a Utopian vision full of temples and windmills, gilded barques trailed by swans and sweet mermaids.
We like folk art because the best of it shows the triumph of ordinary people over an impossible set of limitations. These citizens literally cannot make art and they do it anyway. They are authentically inspirational. In fact, you’ll have to excuse me. There’s some old scrap wood out in the shed I have just been dying to whittle into a Statue of Liberty for San Pedro harbor.