Art & Soul

Purvis Young, known for his fiery mixed-media paintings of Overtown crowds and streaming boat people, recently visited the Bass Museum, where his works are included in Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present. Young headed straight for the selections from the permanent collection located on the museum's first-floor gallery, where he was accompanied by Bass director Diane Camber.

"Oh, that's Ruby," he promptly told Camber, referring to the paintings The Holy Family With Saint Anne and The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom, credited to the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens's studio. The Overtown artist, who began drawing while serving time in prison for armed robbery in the early Sixties, spent the better part of his Bass visit studying the museum's sixteenth-century European tableaux, sculpture, and tapestries, and chatting with the director about his interest in art books -- especially those on oriental painting and prints, which he often peruses at the downtown public library.

Young and the other 75 artists included in this exhibition, which originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art, are commonly called outsiders: ex-cons, grandmothers, preachers, farmers, factory workers, psychiatric patients, and the homeless. They are people with little more than grade-school educations who began to make art to pass the time, or because God -- or their conscience -- told them to, or because they simply felt a need to do so. Fire and brimstone, fertile fields, prejudice, patriotism, and daydreams vivify their paintings, sculptures, and objects in this splendid show, which crackles with visceral creativity.

Tasmanian Tiger No. 2, by William Hawkins, greets visitors at the entrance to the museum's main gallery. The late Hawkins, a Kentucky native who had been a construction worker and farmer before taking up art, worked with semi-enamel paint on Masonite board to make his fiercely gestural paintings, nine of which are included here. He created his wild, prehistoric-looking tiger with dripping brush strokes and splashes of paint, then glued on a pair of black-and-white plastic eyes from a stuffed animal. Nearby stand Charlie Lucas's commanding horse and cow sculptures, welded together from rusty strips of junk metal. Lucas, who worked as a shrimper in Miami for a spell before returning to his home in rural Alabama, makes his figures life-size and meticulously detailed -- these convey such spirit that they look as if they might bolt from the gallery. Here also are two pieces by Texas welder David Strickland: Big Bird, a pelican-like fowl fashioned from aluminum stove pipe, iron pieces, and chain; and Case Alien, an imaginary being made from tractor parts, farm tools, and other castoffs. More whimsical than Lucas's organic sculptures, Strickland's are exceptional for their ingenious use of materials.

The show continues in another gallery on the first floor and throughout the entire second floor of the museum. It includes work by several names popular among collectors of outsider art, names that also might be familiar to some museumgoers. There are various pieces of preacher Howard Finster's "sacred art" A graphic paintings packed with text illustrating Finster's wry view of American life and the hereafter. One such work, Hell Is a Hell of a Place, shows sinners at play in a field of flames, while text at the top of the painting reminds viewers that "You don't hafto go to Hell." In Finster's Coca-Cola #1123, a large tin cutout of a Coca-Cola bottle has been decorated with figures slurping soda, while at its top he has included the following tidbit of advice: "Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow ye may die."

Purvis Young characteristically takes a more somber look at life around him in works using paint and crayon on discarded wood, waste paper, cardboard, and other materials. His Peoples and Boats is particularly powerful: Young draws groups of writhing figures on a background of actual customs documents (presumably from the Port of Miami) framed by rough wooden boards. Also present are works by the former slave Bill Traylor, who late in his life lived destitute on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. His simple, shadow-like drawings on scrap paper emotionally depict his memories of farm work and his observations of city people. Thornton Dial, Sr.'s, abstract expressionist paintings comment on race, social issues, and sexuality.

Among the other exceptional works are Sam Doyle's portraits of African-American heroes painted on tin; Ralph Griffin's gnarly tree-root sculptures; the limestone figures, animals, and buildings carved by William Edmondson (the first black artist to have a solo show at New York City's Museum of Modern Art, in 1937); Mary T. Smith's savage figurative paintings; and landscapes of Southern cities by both Jimmy Lee Sudduth and William Hawkins.

These unschooled artists traditionally have been categorized as folk artists, and some might still call them so. But with the exception of one rather standard quilt, the works in "Passionate Visions of the American South" do not serve the functional purpose ascribed to folk art, nor do they follow the formal conventions of American craft. While the term "outsider art" lends the work a marginal mystique, it is also deceptive, as it creates a stereotype of the artists as unwitting idiot savants, talented in spite of themselves. Whether, as in Young's case, they take a knowing interest in art history or not, one has only to look to the extraordinary expression, the perceptive messages, and the skillful and inventive use of materials in the works to realize that these artists know exactly what they are doing. What most characterizes them as a group is that they have been able to work in an environment that is free from the intimidation of critical rhetoric and fashion, and thus they have not been afraid to experiment with "nontraditional" materials or "unsophisticated" ideas.

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