Folk Art’s a Grab Bag, After All : Exhibit: Expert says the genre comprises a number of very different expressions, citing ‘The Cutting Edge’ at Laguna Art Museum as proof.


Weather vanes and whirligigs, graffiti, the Watts Towers, grave decorations, family portraits, American Indian war clubs, subway cars, Ukrainian dyed Easter eggs, taxidermy. What do these wildly disparate items have in common?

They’re all folk art, says Gene Metcalf, an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who spoke Thursday night at the Laguna Art Museum.

“Folk Art, to use art historian Lou Jones’ famous metaphor, is like a large circus tent which houses a number of very different acts,” Metcalf said. “The problem, though, is that the acts in this circus are so numerous and hopelessly varied they spill out of the rings, and even out of the tent. Each act has little or no relationship to the others in the show, and as an audience, we can’t tell what belongs in the tent or why it is there.”

Given this confusing situation, how can anyone talk about folk art intelligibly? There is a way, said Metcalf, who gave the last of four lectures at the museum in conjunction with “The Cutting Edge: Contemporary American Folk Art.”


The eclectic exhibit is a sort of “circus” itself, Metcalf said, with works by 72 artists that range from religiously inspired paintings by Howard Finster to traditional carvings by Felipe Archuleta to whimsical sculptures made with modern-day found objects by Gregorio Marzan.

Folk art is commonly thought of as work by untrained artists. But beyond that, what unifies all folk art is the concept of “other,” said Metcalf, who has written about the genre and recently helped curate a folk-art exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.

The word folk “is generally applied by an observer who didn’t originally make the object in question. . . . It is used by one group to describe the nature, activities or artifacts of others,” and represents a “distinction” between the observers’ art and that made by someone else, he said.

This idea of separateness, however, is what makes folk art so critical to contemporary Americans, Metcalf said. Using it to interpret the expression of others, “we then measure, critique and define the boundaries of our own circumstances.”


Developed by 19th-Century folklorists and anthropologists, the notion of folk was often applied to such communities as Native American groups, he said, “which seemed the antithesis of emerging competitive and materialist modern society.”

“Said to be communal rather than individualistic, in tune with natural landscape and the possessors of vital and rich spiritual values, these communities were thought to represent everything the modern world was not, and thus represented a contrast to, and measure of, modern conditions.”

Later, in the 1920s and ‘30s, when collectors began paying attention to works by white folk artists, the word folk was similarly used to emphasize contrast, said Metcalf, who showed slides to compare neoclassic paintings with weather vanes, whirligigs and duck decoys.

“If the accepted art of the academy, against which these modern artists were rebelling, was elite and monumental, folk art must be the simple and personal expression of the common man. If academic art was the product of professional education, then folk art must result from amateur inspiration. If academic art was to be found in museums and the homes of the wealthy, then folk art would be discovered on the roofs of barns and in front of stores.”


Works in the museum’s exhibit, organized by the Museum of American Folk in New York and culled from the collection of Chuck and Jan Rosenak, clearly serve as a mirror for the American experience, Metcalf said.

The show contains several examples of “outsider art” made by mental patients, jail inmates and others cut off from mainstream society, he said, citing “The Musicians,” a figurative crayon drawing by Martin Ramirez, “a mute, institutionalized schizophrenic.”

Then there are examples of what Metcalf calls communal or ethnographic art, such as Archuleta’s “relatively traditional” wood carving, “Bear with Fish In His Mouth.” These are usually objects made by members of a tightly knit community who have learned techniques passed down through generations.

The practice of isolating these two types of folk art--one epitomizing American individuality, the other affirming community values--reflects the “inclination of Americans to understand our experience in terms of two realms: the private, or individual; and the public, or community,” he said. Thus “folk art has helped firmly establish our modern American middle-class contradictory sense of self.”


For all the talk of separation from the mainstream, however, Metcalf advocates that folk art be viewed as artifacts made not only by pre-Industrial craftsmen, “little old ladies who paint on Sundays,” inmates or the mentally disturbed, but by “people like us, by folk-art collectors, museum curators, museum patrons and researchers,” because we learn about ourselves by studying it.

“By appropriating, redefining and understanding as folk art the artifacts originally made by others, we have effectively remade these things and now we use them for our own purposes as our objects. . . . When we look at (them) in the museum, we are also looking at ourselves.”

“The Cutting Edge: Contemporary American Folk Art,” through Aug. 18 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $1 to $2. Information: (714) 494-6531.