Review of The Unfinished Business of Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Review of The Unfinished Business of Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South

The Unfinished Business of Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South
by Bernard L. Herman, Editor

The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2022

234 pp., illus. 68 col. Trade, $45; eBook, $29.95

ISBN: 978-1-4696-6852-9; ISBN: 978-1-4696-6853-6.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Mosher
September 2022

Bernard L. Herman is the George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s edited a fine exploration of artworks assembled by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which began with Atlanta collector William S. Arnett and serves to promote Black artists in the American south, mostly unappreciated beyond local circles until the Foundation’s promotion. Maxwell Anderson III, an experienced Museum Director and founding Board Member—not Black himself—was appointed the Foundation’s Director in 2016.

In the chapter, “The South Has Always Had Something to Say”, Elijah Heyward III points out that the sensibility of the artists in this book is not only racial, but regional.  Until reading this rich volume, my own understanding of African American art was rooted in northern artists of the industrial Midwest and northeast.  I’ve written in this publication of noted artist and educator Ashley Bryan (1926-2022), Ivy League Professor, Impressionist painter of the flowers in his garden and illustrator of joyous, colorful children’s books. Another of my teachers, Jon Onye Lockard (1932-2015) was rooted in Detroit and studied at Wayne State University and in Ontario before a long career as a painter, muralist, and educator. Tyree Guyton (1955—) was creator of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, a three-block installation of abandoned houses, auto parts and installations assembling various detritus of urban life in an ad-hoc manner comparable to the Set Setal artists of Dakar, Sénegal.

Even beyond his implied acceptance of a great city’s urban decay, Guyton was criticized by Jon Lockard, who thought no educated Black artist should be intentionally childish (as successful Europeans Paul Klee or Jean Dubuffet) in figuration or merely paint decorative color spots (like Yayoi Kusama or Damien Hirst), because Black artists in this century should influence the nation and world by displaying excellent technique, elegance, and clarity of content. Naiveté/childishness was a style that proved endearing to white patrons, like a mid-Michigan museum Director I knew who also served on the Project’s nonprofit Board set up by Guyton’s wife.

The artists in Bernard L. Herman’s book challenges us with a visual power despite some of their technical ignorance.  As a student I relished unschooled signage seen on travels in Central America: square tires on repair shops, bug-eyed children supposedly enjoying ice cream, etc.  Square shoes painted upon a Salvadorean shoe repair shop were as clunky as those purposely painted by Philip Guston in his final years. Yet local patrons knew what goods or services were being offered, so the visuals worked, did their job, suitably conveyed their messages.

This dialectic of sophisticated style and skillful use of historic art conventions and genres, as opposed to lived experience that’s given immediate form with materials at hand, is interrogated by Pamela J. Sachant in the chapter “Biography—Writing Lives; Art—Viewing Lives”. She contrasts the hardscrabble life motivating Ronald Lockett’s mixed media wall pieces like “Remembering Sarah Lockett” (ca. 1997), with prevarications of the prosperous French 19th c. painter J.L Gérome. She sees the Parisian hiding behind his skilled depiction of the myth of ancient artist Pygmalion embracing his come-to-life marble sculpture of a young woman. Other instances of non-academic biographical clarity she cites include a cement work by Billy Roper, and Eddie Arming’s “Man With a Great Fish” (1970). Lester Willis reinterprets melancholy figures from Picasso’s Blue Period in ballpoint pen, paint and glitter, and southern lives are revealed in his painting of a rich man with a cigar laughing at a poor man gnawing on a bone.

There is a simple, make-do, and in-your-face quality in the work of some of these painters as bracing as the best Punk rock. Thomas Samuel Doyle’s beheaded, blood-spurting yet grinning “Hopeing [sic] Boy”, apparently hardware store enamel paint upon tin, is both a visual scream and cackling laugh. Luster Willis depicts of the gutting of a hog in tempera (atop ballpoint pen) and glitter on paper, or fishermen with fish on poster board.

There’s a stark existentialist truth to Mary Smith’ “Here I Am 12345” (1985) and her 1988 self-portrait in dark blues, greens smeared from yellow on the brush, her horizontal frieze of faces “Do You No Me” (1982). Her untitled painting from 1987 has seemingly unfinished, vague faces in black and lemon yellow on a white ground.

Bernard L. Herman illustrates the concept of “unsettled things” with Purvis Young’s gestural sketches upon schoolbooks. Young enhances the ground of printed texts like Tim Rollins and K.O.S. in 1980s New York, and sometimes incorporated found work by children. “A connoisseurship of dysfunction speaks to critical acts that locate the art within regies of otherness built through assertions of identity.” Perceived dysfunction inscribes many such art objects around race, education, poverty, isolation incarceration, mental illness, religious believe, family structure and class, upon which compassionate yet voyeuristic viewers bestow a difficult validation in “a whiteness that bleaches everything” present. He teases out the contradictions in appreciation, the counter-values of the academic vs. the folk art and self-taught. In our media-saturated era, it’s hard to ascertain who likes what and why. Eurocentric traditions in cultural capitals (rich with capital) like Paris and New York have exalted oil paintings, yet the American south harbors its smoldering African traditions of ironwork and alternative human depiction.

There is a quiet sophistication to the work of the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a locality officially renamed Boykin in 1949. Nettie Young’s Bricklayer quilt in brown and tan corduroy strips resembles an inlaid wood pattern on a floor. There’s fractured symmetry in Lucy T. Pettaway’s 1976 Cat and Mice quilt, and a musical quality to Irene Williams’ 2004 Quilt (Lazy Gal/Housetop Variation). In discussing their aesthetic, Lucy Mingo contrasted pretty quilts containing patterns of a flower garden or monkey wrench—I had to look that up: a 9-patch assembly, in a tic tac toe grid of 9 blocks sewn together to make a single large block—with ugly quilt designs they call strip quilts, housetop, and pig-in-the-pen.

Yet it is the sculptors, whether educated or not, who create some of the most powerful work shown here, and it is not just the assertiveness of steel and iron and wood that carry them. Honoring the West African god of iron Shango, metal is often present for many of these sculptors are in the Birmingham-Bessemer circle of artists, inhabiting the south’s steelmaking centers. One is Lonnie Holley, his solid and weighty 2007 Balancing the Rock, or 2019’s What Was Beyond Us (The Ocean of Our Thoughts, a savvy & resonant assemblage of iron pot, black-painted globe, and handmade sailing-ship models. Hawkins Bolden’s Untitled (Ham Can), from the 1970s, is a mute but knowing mask reminiscent of those by Lark Allen III in his “From Africa to Eternity” exhibit at the Saginaw (MI) Art Museum in 2022. Bolden’s 1987 sculpture of stuffed pants upon a chair, with a galvanized pan pierced with two rows positioned above them to suggest a head in motion, eyes, and moth rotating. The chains imply a prisoner, while his 1986 work of stuffed jeans spread-eagled upon a bed frame resemble a curtain on a window . . . as well as a kicking, lynched man.

Celeste-Marie Bernier discusses Thornton Dial’s 2003 “Buddy Jake & the Power of the Mule”, a funk assemblage with string-haired scarecrow of a figure, leaning on a forked stick, and a near-vertical mule with sawblade spine and plow-handle hips and back legs.  It honors Buddy Jake, the artist’s “relative and mentor”, showing man as machine for agricultural labor, a manifestation of Dial’s avowed commitment to Black struggle against white supremacy and oppression. In his Introduction, Bernard L. Herman lets Dial speak about the meaning of the mule to his world, the history of labor and his sculpture “History Refused to Die” from 2004 and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This work adds okra stalks to woven wire holding back clothing. His “Freedom Cloth” of 2005 was inspired by the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend and looks like a flock of coat-hanger birds about to take freedom flight.  Or perhaps a dome, or a torso. Elijah Heyward situates Dial in the Black Arts Movement and its “Black Aesthetic”, which Heyward feels also reflected the experiences of his own grandfather.

Bessie Harvey’s grisly “Slaughter of the Innocents” sculpture from 1985 has bloody black heads with bulging bead eyes impaled upon a central spike. Its cartoony gore contrasts with her elegant “I Will Be a Witness” (1987) featuring a found branch-wood with an array of cowrie eyes, a bit of spray paint and a tiny doll-like Black female face within.

Joe Minter’s elegantly symmetrical sculpture “Freedom and Captivity” gives us a patriotic eagle above a birdcage, a dark brown face or iron mask of punishment, chains, a padlock, and handcuffs. His “Four Hundred Years of Chains and Shackles” (1990) is topped by a gear, hanging springs but also 35mm movie film reels, perhaps to show how Hollywood (think Gone with the Wind but also most television today) gives us explicitly or implicitly shackled representations of Black people. Minter has also created environmentally, constructing a complex called “African Village in America”, a walk-through park of installations near Birmingham, Alabama. Its “Slave Ship USA” is constructed out of scaffolding, there’s an Edmund Pettus Bridge replica with explanatory lettering upon it, the “Mass Grave of Two Cultures” walkway, and “The Price to Vote, the Price to Be Human (The Selma Motel)” which was completed in 1995. Pessimistically, Joe Minter says “There is no love in America for the African. . .. May the Lord have mercy on America.”

This nation blessed by mercy or not, Michael J. Bramwell’s chapter “Heard a Voice, Saw a Light” focuses on Black Vernacular representations and relationships to the Christian God. Whereas many Black Americans around us are churchgoers, perhaps it’s notable how few images of churches, baptism, Jesus, and the Crucifixion are among these; the spirituality Bramwell finds largely has African roots. Contradictions, complexities abound: Artist Joe Light has expressed his desire to “defeat Christianity,” yet one of his works incorporates implicitly patriotic scenic Americana placemats.

The subtle chapter I needed to read a couple times to appreciate is Sharon P. Holland’s “Put Honey in the Sky Where It Could Drip and Make the World Sweet”. She affirms Black Sexuality (should that be plural?), which I recall as part of a manifesto Jon Lockard presented to the National Council of Artists in the 1970s. She names Samuel Delaney’s essay on urban Gay life as one site of inspiration, like the travails of the mixed-race character Clytie in William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom, about seeking a home, a safe place, hidden in plain sight. She suggests we appreciate Doyle’s decapitated “Hopeing Boy” as “a whooping boy” who would be corporally punished in place of the white master’s (legitimate) son, and his bloody shirt akin to the livery on the iron jockeys in front of some retrograde owners’ houses. There’s one of those jockeys in front of the house of barkeep two blocks from us, but another house nearby has a row of six, every alternate one’s face painted white.

Holland writes that to best appreciate the artists’ “pan-Africanist, southern hemisphere identity” we should also draw from sexual studies, for “queerness does hold possibility as a scaffolding” for our appreciation.

Granted, there is explicit sexuality in Mose Tolliver’s “Moose Lady”, a 1987 goddess spread eagled as an Irish Sheela-Na-Gig, chocolate brown figures with inflamed orange genitals (is his a round Georgia peach?), or Georgia Spellers’ “Minnie and Her Friends” from 1987, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two orange-ish couples, nude with blackened genitals, in proximity suggesting an impending orgy or its aftermath, sprawled as comfortable together as folks in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Purvis Young appears among nude life-affirming pregnant women in a 2006 movie “Purvis of Overton”. Doyle’s 1970s “LeBe”, lettered like a sign-painter to read Le. Be. S.D. made me wonder if the two longhaired figures were lesbians, but Sachant says it may allude to the Lebe dance in Africa.  Of the two figures, the artist said “Them two lovers but they mens. We got plenty around here.” This is the only artwork explicitly tied to homosexuality, or sexual transgression—which in the south certainly included interracial—in any form. Some of these artists likely had prison experiences, same-sex companions, but if so, they’re not cited in this essay as directly informing the artworks.  Only from the Souls Grown Deep website did I learn of Ronald Lockett’s early death from AIDS, yet he thought—or said—he’d gotten it from his girlfriend.

I wonder how Holland would read the work of Douglas Macarthur Jones, a passionate African American artist active in San Francisco around 1980. The gruff man in dirty clothes would come in to draw in the Tenderloin District’s Central City Hospitality House, where I worked in its still-vibrant Arts Program, and create marker drawings of animal- (dog?  donkey?) headed policemen, their long black erections entering other male figures, the rest of the drawing covered with writing like a list of the US Presidents (including “Nixonson”) or the 50 States. When Jones would get up to leave, and I’d remind him he’d left his artwork, he’d snarl “You can wipe your ass with it for all I care”.  But I kept it and have a collection that was exhibited at San Francisco State University in 1982. As with many participants of the drop-in Arts Program, picture-making was his stress-reliever, therapeutic, momentary, and fugitive. Royal Robertson’s intense drawings like Mrs. Doeria (1986) are covered with narrative writing, much like those of Jones.

The Unfinished Business of Unsettled Things is rich in attentive essays that give context to otherwise distanced artworks. Herman’s book has introduced me to artists that I never knew before, some powerful, some gentle, some intentionally grotesque. They’re all worthy of consideration for they provoke thought about art, culture, communication, community, race and privilege, authenticity, and authority. And that’s a good thing.