at Jean Albano Gallery, through July 20
Mose Tolliver: Early Works
at Intuit, through September 14
By Fred Camper
Sometimes art that results from years of training and dedicated searching can seem less vital than pictures dashed off by an untrained painter. Two current shows of paintings by two artists reveal different approaches to using imagery derived from nature–schooled and unschooled. Both shows reminded me of one of the attractions of work by self-taught artists–at its best, it doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever seen before.
This is not to diminish the elegance and honesty of Jim Waid’s nine paintings at Jean Albano. Yet while they give numerous pleasures, these often stunning meditations on natural forms were like many works I’ve seen before. On the other hand, Mose Tolliver’s 62 paintings at Intuit–all from the rarely exhibited collection of the Kansas Grassroots Art Association–are startling in their boldness, looking almost as if they had come from some parallel world. Tolliver’s exhibit is one of the strongest shows of the year.
Waid’s lush paintings have the look of imagined gardens. At times his brightly colored shapes suggest specific plants or animals, though more often Waid paints dense clusters of curves and dots that evoke the regenerating qualities of nature. Curved patterns cluster in groups, as if they were reproducing in patches or herds. These teeming, tapestrylike canvases feel throbbing and alive, and their forms seem to be forever altering themselves, evolving.
In Blackbird, a group of orange-and-purple daubs lead upward to similarly shaped white brush strokes; to the right, green leaflike bands bleed into red ones. This isn’t a snapshot of an abstract garden–it’s a record of the way this garden might change over time, growing and decaying. A round jumble of circles sits alongside a large black orb with concentric circles created by scraping away paint to reveal the bright color underneath. Waid juxtaposes dense areas of forms built on top of each other and those made by scraping paint away. The mixing of accretion and erosion mirrors not only the diversity of natural forms but of natural processes as well.
“Fundamental organic forces interest me a lot,” says Waid, a 53-year-old Oklahoman who’s lived in Tucson for nearly three decades. “The Sonoran desert is one of the most amazing surrealistic landscapes you can imagine. I also look at a lot of scientific imagery all the way down to electron microscope images.” Waid acknowledges a variety of art sources–Goya, the surrealists, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, Kandinsky, the abstract expressionists, Charles Burchfield, and Rauschenberg, as well as Chinese brush painting, art from Africa and New Guinea, and Islamic art. Perhaps as a result his pictures seem almost too eclectic–all these influences come together a bit too easily. But what gives these paintings their particular strength is the way Waid mixes sophisticated structures common to past art and very different forms that draw their organizational principles from nature.
Stone Lily is relatively monochromatic, dominated by tans and browns, and employs a kind of traditional perspective. Plantlike shapes in the foreground are interspersed with dark teardrops that look a little like paving tiles and grow smaller as they move upward, leading to another pattern that also suggests depth. Yet instead of finding a vanishing point near the top of the painting, we see a dense cluster of organic pinkish shapes, its endlessly regenerating imagery covering an art-historical convention. Similarly, Waid’s shapes seem to evolve from each other, suggesting natural growth at the same time that they draw on the repetition-with-variation theme found in much abstract art. The curves of the white flower petals in Stone Lily echo each other in an almost musical fashion, but they lack the perfection of a painting by Stuart Davis, who made every shape as though it were the only possible form for its position. There’s a strength in Waid’s messiness, though; these pictures retain an incompleteness that allows Waid to evoke nature’s imprecise and evolving forms rather than striving for formal perfection.
Waid has called his paintings “contemplative objects.” They still, however, rely on traditional techniques to achieve their effects. Leaf Hopper is grounded by a two-lane blacktop that curves into the bottom of the picture. Waid calls it “a path into the image,” but the line down its middle made it hard for me to see it as one of his ambiguously suggestive shapes. If it’s a road, then the huge blue grasshopperlike figure above it and the larger butterfly shape above that form a monumental vision of a miraculous nature filling every corner of the world. Indeed, despite differences in color and form, the picture’s curves and arcs seem to grow out of each other. The arcs that fill much of the large butterfly’s wings, made by scraping away dark paint, reveal a pattern of colors continued from adjacent areas. This effect, which occurs in many of Waid’s scrapings, gives one a sense of interpenetrating colors and patterns, mirroring both the visual appearance of and the ecological relations within a dense patch of plants.
However much he takes from nature, Waid draws equally from art. His exotic jungles seem to grow out of the conventions of Western painting–figure and ground, repetition and variation, symmetry and imbalance–which he then subverts in order to make something lusher and more marvelous. This is not a new tactic; it dates back at least to impressionism and such later artists as Redon and van Gogh. Viewing Waid’s calculations is good preparation for experiencing the utter otherness of Mose Tolliver.
Tolliver, 77, was a tenant farmer and gardener in and around Montgomery, Alabama, where he still lives, before working as a shipping clerk in a furniture factory. While at the factory, Tolliver’s legs were crushed by a load of marble, ending his employment about 25 years ago. By one account, Tolliver began to paint after the company’s owner took him to an art exhibit, and he started hanging his completed works from trees in his yard. His inclusion in a 1982 exhibit called “Black Folk Art in America” at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery made his reputation and helped create a market for his work, causing Tolliver to increase his output and to paint in collaboration with family members. The current exhibit consists of pre-1982 works, which are generally regarded as his most consistently fine.
Like Waid, Tolliver’s interested in nature–we see a variety of plants and animals as well as human figures. But it’s also clear that these works are not painted with reference to any artistic tradition. Tolliver doesn’t start with Waid’s painterly assumptions that space that needs to be covered or altered to achieve something visionary. Instead Tolliver’s paintings are visionary from the start. They create their own world, presenting their way of seeing not as some addition to nature–giant insects placed over a landscape–but rather as a sui generis vision.
Tolliver works very fast–he once said that if a painting took him more than an hour he wouldn’t do it–applying house paint and other materials to rough wooden panels. His works have little of the subtle, carefully wrought internal complexity of Waid’s pictures. Tolliver’s art isn’t concerned with spatial relations–it’s a direct expression of raw vision. There’s not a ruled straight edge to be found, and the curves aren’t as musical as Waid’s lines. The unifying force is Tolliver’s extraordinary color sense. In most of his pictures, the pale colors all seem to be shades of each other–strange mixtures of pinks and grays and browns that seem like points on a vast continuum.
An untitled work showing several figures and a “tree of life” (an icon that recurs in a few Tolliver paintings) has a quality that distinguishes much of the best outsider work: it looks almost befuddlingly original, its aesthetics and iconography at once vividly alive and difficult to limn. The branches that spread out from the central tree divide the upper part of the picture into zones, but the figures found there are not confined to these divisions–two large birds and a child seem to float in their own spaces in front of the tree. Below are more animals–or are they chairs? Hints of a grid organization suggest secret glyphs, but the shapes constantly burst out of their apparent categories–they float, they step forward, they become something else. If there’s a system here, it’s locked within Tolliver’s mind.
His animals look almost human. A large bird, seen in profile, has its wings raised as if they were arms. The branches of a tree and several curved lines of color echo its upward motion. The bird reaches both toward the human and plant worlds.
Tolliver’s animism is at its strongest in pictures like Woman With Fish Shape. Like most of his women, this one is anatomically a bit strange; though apparently clothed, her breasts hang pendulously, and her pubic hair is visible around the area of her belly button. She faces forward while her feet point sideways. These multiple directions hardly amount to cubism, but they do distance her from photographic representation and the conventions of figure painting. Yet she’s presented as utterly natural. Her pubic area is echoed not only by the hair on her head, but by the trees and grass of the background and by the textured surface of the fish. It’s not that Tolliver simply paints everything the same way. Her shape is very different from the fish. Yet underlying the common surfaces is the feeling that all living things, from grass to humans, are fundamentally linked. To this end, Tolliver makes a point related to Waid’s aesthetics of interdependence, but Tolliver presents this notion as simply the natural state of the world.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Woman With Fish Shape” by Mose Tolliver and “Leaf Hopper” by Jim Waid.