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Nashville Scene Homemade Beauty

Books about folk art reveal the broad range of expression in this oft-misunderstood, ill-defined genre

By Diann Blakely

MARCH 20, 2000:  America continues to be obsessed with folk or "outsider" art, much of which is created below the Mason-Dixon line. This obsession raises as many questions--about authenticity, consumerism, race, regional difference, and cultural politics--as the art itself. To varying degrees, such questions are addressed in several recent books that reveal the breadth of this hard-to-define genre, which encompasses everything from sculpture to drawing to photography.

These questions aren't, however, explored in the book likely to be of most interest to local readers: The Art of William Edmondson (University Press of Mississippi/The Cheekwood Museum of Art, $60 cloth, $30 paper). Instead, the book's essays insist on narrow answers that betray their origins in scholarly agendas rather than in Edmondson himself. Robert Farris Thompson's view of the Nashville sculptor, who has been called "the greatest folk carver of the 20th century," achieves the best balance until Thompson tilts toward a false dichotomy: "There is a Euro-American mainstream. There is an Afro-Atlantic mainstream. Edmondson's forte was to sail boats in both streams."

It's more generous and more precise to say that Edmondson conjoins the two streams in his work. In the case of his statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, the sculptor draws equally upon the actual and the archetypal: "Eleanor" surrounds its figure with a suggestion of the luxuriant, fur-collared coat the First Lady wore on her 1934 trip to Nashville, and yet the pose replicates one seen in Kongo art, as Thompson points out: arms akimbo, hands planted firmly on her hips. "Ready to meet the challenge" or "ready for confrontation," Thompson translates, alerting readers to the origin of the now stereotypical image of the sassy black woman.

Despite their problems, Thompson's essay and one or two others provide ample introduction to the sculptures themselves, which The Art of William Edmondson reproduces beautifully. Nashvillians have a chance to see these sculptures in person at Cheekwood through Apr. 23, but even those who've only seen them in the catalog will recognize their power--one that bears comparison to that of a slightly older artist from Alabama, Bill Traylor. Deep Blues (Yale University Press, $50 cloth, $29.95 paper) is a welcome catalogue of works by Traylor, who was born into slavery and began drawing only after moving from the plantation to Montgomery in his 80s. Traylor lived on the city's inhospitable streets and frequently used cast-off cardboard as the surface for his drawings, which are as hard-edged, frenetic, profane, uncanny, and disturbing as Edmondson's sculptures are modulated, serene, biblical, familiar, and consoling. The titles Traylor bestowed on some of his drawings are downright scary: "Man Kicking Woman," "One-Legged Man With Airplane," "Ferocious Cat," etc.

Like Edmondson, Traylor had his chroniclers: Charles Shannon's portrait of the artist--eyes glancing furtively between his tall, shabby hat and straggly gray beard--mirrors the voodoo elegance of Traylor's masterpieces. Additionally, Swiss-born journalist Annemarie Schwartenbach used her camera to document rural and urban milieus in the same region of Alabama at the very time Traylor began to draw. The work of both photographers, which unshowily introduces the artist in this excellent catalogue, itself bears comparison to Walker Evans'.

The essays in Deep Blues both illuminate the context in which Traylor performed his magic on cardboard while also pointing up the difficulties of making transracial commentary about his art. Josef Helfenstein's essay, which discusses Shannon's photographs of Traylor at work, reveals links between the two Alabamians and Virginia-born painter Robert Gwathmey and Memphis photographer William Eggleston. "The contrast between Traylor's concentrated involvement in an activity that is his own," Helfenstein points out, "and the sleepy waiting and seemingly apathetic observation of the other inhabitants of the sidewalk could not be greater. The only 'action' that competes with him are the trademarks visible in the Coca Cola advertising signs."

Indeed, the flat brightness of such signs, and also the irony of their appearance in poverty-stricken small towns, characterizes both Eggleston's work and Gwathmey's, the latter of which is newly collected in an eponymously titled book (UNC Press, $49.95 cloth, $29.95 paper). Yet Gwathmey, a Social Realist in his art and a practicing Marxist in his life, also drew upon his white European heritage: Daumier and Millet provided models for the engagé artist, and Van Gogh and Matisse were doubtless sources for his love of vivid colors, often juxtaposed. The artist cited his native region, nonetheless, as the origin for the two-dimensionality that he favored in his paintings: In the Virginia tidewater, he explained, "you see everything in silhouette...[w]hereas in some other part of the land, the Piedmont or the mountains, you would have, we'll say, a backdrop of landscape, a mountain as it were."

Fields, roads, and trees appear as backdrops themselves in Gwathmey's paintings, which are often credited as being the first by a white American painter to depict African Americans with dignity and without sentimentality. Michael Kammen's biographical essays detail what is only hinted at in the Traylor book: Men like Charles Shannon and Gwathmey were despised by much of the population, the former receiving KKK threats while the latter spent many years under FBI surveillance. Later, Gwathmey came under fire from civil rights leaders in the SCLC for depicting black people in servile labor, despite the fact that the artist's paintings are nearly always "integrated," showing the shared plight that sharecroppers of both races suffered.

Eggleston, the first color photographer to be given a show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, isn't often associated with Social Realists or Southern folk artists. Moreover, in the revealing interview that prefaces his 1998 Hasselblad Award catalogue (Scalo, $42.50), Eggleston says that he doesn't particularly like being referred to as a Southerner. Which is understandable: Labels too often allow critics, viewers, and/or readers to duck the difficult task of engaging an artist on his or her own terms. Still, Eggleston's best subjects are as Southern as Graceland--scenes of which he has photographed brilliantly. Furthermore, he was one of the first to exploit the "folk art" genre of photography: the snapshot.

Today there's an entire school of "snapshot photography." But Eggleston was taking pictures of the everyday South--"photographing democratically," he says--long before most; and the Hasselblad catalogue indicates that his "war with the obvious" continues with more wins than losses. Nonetheless, the tension of the book's best plates, which nearly snap and waver on the page, dissipates when the photographer wanders too far from home, as Thomas Weski points out in his helpful introduction. Eggleston's pictures of the Berlin Wall, for example, are accomplished but far from expressing the aesthetic and psychological claustrophobia of one of the book's opening plates: a mirrored wall at Graceland that bears an unctuous oil portrait of Presley.

The cover photograph of Eggleston's previous book, Ancient and Modern, depicts a violently tacky graveside ornament--such ornaments comprise an entire subgenre of Southern folk art. The red, white, and blue satin marker, a simulacrum of the American flag, stands jacklighted by the photographer's flash. The shiny fabric glares so brightly, in fact, that it takes a moment to notice the affixed bouquet of blood-colored roses. That moment is a victory in Eggleston's war with the obvious, and so is the next moment, when the viewer connects the photograph with its title--"Memphis, 1983"--and another layer of meaning comes into focus: Eggleston's photograph somehow vibrates painfully and angrily with Martin Luther King's assassination.

"Blue Heart," the cover photo for William K. Greiner's The Reposed (LSU, $39.95) announces both Eggleston's influence and the pupil's departure from it. While Greiner's "snapshot" aesthetic clearly links him to Eggleston, and while he has created an entire book out of graveside tributes, the Louisianan emphasizes something different: the tender, loyal, and sometimes clumsy gestures that seek to assuage the pains of violence, mortality, and the resolute pastness of the past. And he does so with a gentle but unmuddied palette of blues, pinks, yellows, whites, and greens, colors in abundance in tropical New Orleans as well as in the suburbs and small towns that make up the surrounding bayou country.

Steven Maklansky's introduction to The Reposed implies the importance of exploring Greiner's work as a whole, yet "Blue Heart" still works as a synecdoche for the 62 photographs collected here: The cerulean floral marker is gaudy and in-your-face, but the photograph itself is neither obvious nor kitschy. Greiner isn't aiming for cheap satire. Instead, his work's detail asks us to take a second, slower look; in "Blue Heart" we discover the heartbreakingly delicate blue-gray plastic vine draped across the flowers and the sharp, marmoreal edges of aboveground tombs. In that moment the essence of Southern folk art is revealed: Its stylizations and eccentricities transcend both irony and sentimentality, locating between these poles the beauty of the sincerely homemade--in all its hues.

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