at the School of the Art Institute

Betty Rymer Gallery

The inspiration for folk art is always a source of contention among art historians, scholars, and critics. Each new “self-taught” artist creates a new crop of theories, and each elaborate new theory carries the baggage of condescension toward these “outsider” artists, whose “grass-roots” work is glorified on one level and looked down on from another but is always carefully distinguished from “fine” art. Even the terms used to describe these artists are pejorative: they’re “untutored” or “untrained,” because they have no art degrees. No one does more than touch upon the fact that the process of making the work might itself teach the artists a great deal. Instead of theorizing so much about the impetus for the work, academicians might profitably concentrate more on the work itself.

A case in point is the exhibit, open through May 22, at the School of the Art Institute’s Betty Rymer Gallery, “Local Visions: Folk Art From Northeast Kentucky.” The accompanying catalog, by exhibit curator Adrian Swain (head of the Folk Art Collection at Morehead State University in Kentucky, which sponsored this traveling exhibit), includes a lengthy essay–in fact, the bulk of the catalog–exploring what might have inspired these artists. Biographies of the artists, in fine print, stress their folksy roots. End of catalog. Nowhere is the work itself examined, even superficially. The illustrations in the catalog and the free brochure available at the exhibit do not identify the works by title, only by the artist’s name. The catalog does list the works by title and artist, but there’s no way to match up the title with the illustration. With over 100 pieces in the exhibit, by 16 artists, this can be problematic.

The exhibit itself is an eloquent amalgam of whimsical humor, intense religious feeling, and poignant depiction of nature. I’m surprised that Jesse Helms’s wrath hasn’t descended upon these particular artists: maybe a third of these 100 works feature figures with prominently exposed genitalia, women’s breasts jutting out jauntily, men’s penises protuberantly erect. Most of the nudes, however, are merely little whittled figurines–and if they’re not depicting Adam and Eve, they’re little red devils or sinners on their way to or already in hell.

Hell is very prominent in the apocalyptic work of Ronald and Jessie Cooper, a husband and wife whose religion has helped them survive some major traumas, according to the catalog. Both artists create horror vacui sculptures, full of closely painted scenes like those in the Persian miniatures the term was originated to describe. Especially in Jessie Cooper’s work, every didactic square inch is covered with sinners frying and angelic God-fearing citizens in white choir robes being rewarded by a vision of heaven or entrance into it. A video that’s part of the exhibit, Local Voices, shows interviews with each artist, and Jessie Cooper talks about how seeing a piece of furniture makes her want to paint it–how the object seems to crave scenes of deification.

Sure enough, on exhibit are two pieces that illustrate this compulsion: In the Shadow of Death, a miniature table whose message is anything but nice, and Sea of Galilee, a large, functional black table with drawers and a shelf at the bottom. In the Shadow of Death, belying its quaintly miniaturized size, has a deathbed scene painted at the center of the tabletop; surrounding it are scenes from the dying soul’s life. Sea of Galilee, whose predominant painted color is an evocative blue green, is similarly covered inside and out with scenes of sin. Even more obvious is Jessie Cooper’s My Dream, an opened crate with little three-dimensional devils and people inside. Messages are scrawled everywhere here, too–and often they show a sense of humor: “Here come some new ones,” the devils say to each other. You laugh–you can almost see the relish on their placid wooden faces. To balance the scales, on the outside Cooper has painted idyllic scenes of the saved and the message “Give your heart to God now.”

A cabinet Cooper herself has titled Hell but is mislabeled Hell Cabinet in the exhibit (a carelessness typical of the attitude with which titles have been treated) is probably the most ambitious of her pieces. Inside the cabinet, filling the top of the open space, is a big animal skull painted red; below it are two little devil figures presiding over the sinners, who are both black and white. Their thoughts are externalized in the mesages that appear on the inside of the cabinet: “Here forever our Hell Home,” “Stop and think about your soul,” “Sure looks bad down there,” “Hell is dangers.” On the outside, once again, are painted pastoral scenes of religious salvation; Jesus in a long white robe is a frequent feature. What saves these pieces from mere didacticism is their characteristic humor and the individual humanity in the figures: one of the messages about hell’s dangers is “It just feels like we are in space.” And Jessie Cooper–like her husband–uses materials cleverly: Caverns of Hell employs an actual animal skull as “canvas” for the troubling messages, for the most direct ashes-to-ashes moral possible.

Ronald Cooper’s style is similar to his wife’s, though his pieces are usually painted on less functional objects and an even stronger vein of tongue-in-cheek humor runs through the heavy-handed messages. His little red devils in The Cabinet of Truth come complete with tiny pitchforks. His figures also have a strong humanity and individuality. Below the white-robed Jesus figure on top of the cabinet are painted scenes called “The Rooms of Sin,” and these concrete depictions of real-life evils are what give this piece its vitality: portraits of the Child Abuser, the Thief, the Prostitute, and the Drunkard.

Ronald Cooper’s sense of humor also shows in the title to another piece and its captions. Hot Bucket features devils popping out of an open metal pail. Skeletons and lewd naked women are painted all around the outside; they say things like “I not having any fun,” “Men don’t pay any attention to me here,” “I was a bad girl,” “No one liked me on earth or here.” Phrases like the latter bring the little painted pictures alive, possibly providing an excuse for the sinner’s initial lapse but also warning us that sinning won’t make it any better or easier down there. The Jaws of Hell is a box with painted devils everywhere as well as little three-dimensional devils like jutting teeth. A Wall of Hell features a row of devil people lined up like so many bricks; the messages here are slier: “I’ll have fun watching you all burn,” “On earth I did everything that felt good,” and the eternal warning/proclamation “I’m bad.”

“Junior” Lewis’s Devil Head, on the other hand, is larger than life–the head is over two feet tall. It offers a close-up, much more gory look at sin. This black-and-white-striped head, with pointed red horns made of hooks, has blood ghoulishly dripping not only from its mouth but also from its eyes: death will reap its toll in blood. Even the figure in his Infinity Man, though at first glance it seems a serene, stolidly planted human being, has a skeletal air, with its white face and black eyes like gaping holes. The three black sails on his sleek black Devil Boat bear three devils painted in blood red. Strangely enough, though, these red and black “banners” recall Kabuki theater, which adds to the ghoulish message a certain serenity.

In Carl McKenzie’s carved Devil Family, all four figures sport the same thin, red horns as in “Junior” Lewis’s Devil Head, but their horns aren’t hooks angled up to resemble animal horns–they poke up at an angle, more like the antennae we associate with aliens than anything else. These parents and their two children, dressed alike in stippled clothes, seem normal enough at first glance–apart from the horns–but closer inspection reveals that the little boy is carrying a bundle of kindling wood, his sister a huge book of matches. Their blank stares suddenly seem insidiously emotionless, considering what we take to be their pyromaniac natures. The pitchforks in the children’s hands and in the man’s are another reminder of punishment to come, as is the chain the father is trailing from his other hand. Is it attaching him to his hellish bonds, or is he about to imprison someone else with it? And what is the woman going to do with the shovel–hit someone over the head, or bury incriminating evidence?

McKenzie’s Noah’s Ark and two works on Garden of Eden themes are perhaps the most interesting pieces in the exhibit. Noah’s Ark is a dense, sculptural work: a flattened box filled with a jumble of flattened figures. A man and a woman are its central focus, however, and there’s a snake on either side of them–perhaps to remind us that though Noah and his family were saved, there is still evil lurking in the world and our souls. This Noah and his wife are farmers: each stands on a pig that serves as a base, and each pig has an animal on its head. Ingeniously, even other animals, like mice and deer, have pig snouts or other piglike characteristics. Because there’s open space below the frame of the box, the two cardinals on top of the construction look as if they’re really about to fly.

Cardinals also appear in McKenzie’s 1985 Garden of Eden, but they’re much smaller and poised inside the tree branches, which all have square-topped apples at their tips. There’s a cow at Adam’s feet, a sow at Eve’s. Both humans have an apple in each hand and white hair, to represent the fact that wisdom–and sin–have already been acquired. A snake runs the length of the base on which they stand. McKenzie’s 1982 Adam and Eve is simpler. The two flattened figures face toward each other slightly–they don’t directly confront each other as they do in Garden of Eden. The tree between them looks more like a branch–it’s more symbolic than representational of the Tree of Knowledge. The square-tipped apples are tiny, as are the apples in the hands of Adam and Eve. Their fingernails here are not polished a decadent red, and their hair is still black to match their eyebrows. The serpent snakes its way between Eve’s feet and in front of Adam. This seems to be a freeze-frame right before the moment of truth: Adam and Eve are about to partake of the apple.

Earnest Patton also makes use of snakes in his sculpture: his Snake Lady (possibly an Eve figure, but possibly any old seductress) has a serpent in each hand and one running between her legs. The artist himself, in his Self Portrait, carries a snake in one hand, a pocketknife in the other; the red clothespin poking out of his blue shirt pocket provides a comic and human touch. It may be no accident he’s placed this work next to Snake Lady; to the other side of Self Portrait is Birthing Scene, in which a nude woman lies flat and a doctor and nurse stand over her. This birth isn’t either laborious or joyous, just an everyday occurrence, a natural part of life, as the bland expressions on all their faces make clear.

What’s exemplary in this exhibit, aside from the whimsical sense of humor, is the pervasive unceremonious inspiration from nature. Some of the animals, because of their abstracted, sleek lines, resemble African sculpture: Garland Adkins’s glistening black horses and Linvel Barker’s unfinished wood pieces, like Sitting Cat. But all of these artists have an uncanny way of capturing the motions and poses of animals, no doubt through lengthy close observation. You can almost sense water or grass beneath the horse’s muzzle. You can almost see the cat’s tail twitching back and forth nervously or waving contentedly. Calvin Cooper’s Spotted Cat (humorously sporting a mouselike head) is virtually caught midleap; Cooper’s Buffalo has the firm stance you would expect from such a sizable beast.

Minnie Adkins’s Black Cat is the spitting image of every cat we’ve seen with its tail straight up in the air, front paws outstretched while it leans back to yawn. Her Black Dog has a chastised canine’s drooping snout. Her proud Hen is particularly noteworthy for its clever use of materials. For Black Cat, she’d left only the wood of the feet unpainted to suggest white paws, but in Hen, though she’s painted the crown red and the beak yellow, she’s left the rest–the “feathers”–bare. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that work the best. The chips in the bare wood even make the hen’s feathers look ruffled.

Minnie Adkins doesn’t stop at pets in her portrayal of nature. Her Tiger, however decorative its precisely striped body, has a vicious snarl, with rows of teeth very much in evidence. No matter how cute her felines may look, they’re dangerous creatures. Her Possum With Babies also has a dual nature. Its rapacious jaws and tail sticking out aggressively are balanced by its motherly nature: the two baby possums dangle upside down from her tail.

It’s obvious that these artists have influenced each other. Any other such group would be called a school or a movement, but the printed materials accompanying this exhibit concentrate on the “cultural context”: the conditions under which the artists live “isolate,” the ways in which collectors have influenced the quantity and quality of their work, and the reasons they produce the work they do. As if a “folk” artist’s inspiration would be any easier to trace than that of an artist with an MFA. The fact that one of the artists, Minnie Adkins, has nurtured and inspired the others makes her a “rural impresario” to the curator; in any other context, she would most likely be called a mentor.

It also seems contradictory to talk continually about artists creating in isolation when they have obviously worked under each other’s influence. Some of them are married, and many were originally inspired by Edgar Tolson (from Campton in eastern Kentucky), whose national success served as material as well as aesthetic inspiration. Grandma Moses creating on her own is one thing, but a community of artists is another.

The catalog duly notes the artists’ occupations, with an underlying note of condescension that these blue-collar workers could produce anything resembling art–as if “serious” artists don’t regularly take on second jobs to keep life and limb together. Given the uncertain regional economy, it’s not surprising that some of these artists have had other employment for many years; Ronald and Jessie Cooper run a store, for instance. The artists are constantly referred to as “unschooled,” and presented as if they have had no access to the world at large. The introduction to the catalog stresses that mass communication and progress are slow in the hills, and implies that by not attending college and art classes, these people have had no way to learn about art. Yet prominently displayed in the photo of Earnest Patton is a large-screen TV with Big Bird’s image on it. It could just as easily have been van Gogh, Picasso, or Georgia O’Keeffe.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Talis Bergmanis.