Collected Visions: African American Self-Taught Artists

Figurative works, found materials, and anguished brush strokes unite the works of the new exhibition at the Rockford Art Museum, “Collected Visions.” While lives of struggle provide the backdrop for these works, it is the creative urge that pulsates though the show.

Much has been said about the “outsider art” of self-taught artists, but none of it properly describes the power of pieces created from everyday materials that “demand” to be made into expressions of life. None of it properly describes the artist’s obsession with exposing thoughts in raw and candid ways. It is always difficult to really understand others, but in viewing this exhibition, one comes away with a visceral empathy toward the circumscribed lives of these artists and a profound admiration for their creative momentum.

A tree root, complete with big, flat feet, anchors Bessie Harvey’s untitled assemblage (1987) into our memories. One figure climbs on the shoulders of her friend, lover or perhaps, an ancestor. With beads, breasts and dreadlocks, these people share the burdens of their lives as this piece twists and leans precariously–and menacingly. Art should never reveal itself easily, and some art never reveals itself completely. Years after its creation, I bet even Bessie Harvey is still gaining new understandings from her own piece.

A familiar size, shape and depth. A familiar “chrome” pattern. Theodore Hill’s pay phone is his direct link to God. “If You Need Me,” from the collection of Steve and Susan Pitkin, has a small, red-felt receiver attached by a cord to the mirrored, red and wooden phone. A hot line. “Pick up this phone if you need me tell me your troble I will make everything allright,” he writes. No dime is needed.

Anchored by soaring white buildings on the left, “Night Business,” by Thornton Dial, Sr., drops precariously and then steadily climbs toward the dark right side dominated by a church-like image. It is night, but not just any night. The dark sky possesses a panther with blood-red claws pushing on a steeple of the church. A woman prays inside. The imagery in this painting tells a compelling story, but it is the techniques that deliver the work that make you shiver. Carpet roping outlines each building with a thick border, giving the painting a third dimension. Layers of white-on-white, gray-on-gray or black-on-brown paint build up the surface and encapsulate the rope. What emotion Anselm Kiefer embodied in his post World War II German fields, Thornton Dial Sr., has created with an American city.

Pervise Young has expressively painted a large head looking down to the excited mass of people.(See image at right) The benevolent personage’s red chin directs your eye to the crowd. They are leaping and calling out. There is a railroad track. Did they labor over it? Have they travelled it? Which side do they live on? Then the red spot on his forehead brings your eye back to the main figure. Young’s design of this untitled painting holds everything together so firmly that all of these questions–and more—can’t put it asunder.

Many artists in this “Collective Visions” show have gone beyond the outsider artist label to be shown alongside formally trained artists. Their work, at first shown because of being self-taught, is now being exhibited despite being self-taught. Of particular note, Harvey’s work appeared in the 1995 Whitney Biennial in New York City, and Dial Sr., followed her in the Whitney 2000.

This exhibit was selected from the collection of Steve and Susan Pitkin and acquisitions from the collections of John and Diane Baisley and Jim Hager. These Rockford and Milwaukee-area collectors were influenced by Atlanta collector Bill Arnett, who has been one of the most active promoters of the self-taught genre. Artist and commercial photographer Steve Pitkin was first drawn to the style while photographing works from the Hagar collection at the Rockford Art Museum. His enthusiasm led him to Alabam, where he sought out Arnett and artist Lonnie Holley to learn more about the work that he had photographed.

Come and share his enthusiasm. Step back and absorb the paintings, assemblages and sculptures. See their raw power as these collectors did, and go home and create.

“Collected Visions” will continue at the Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main Street, 968-2787, through April 25. Museum hours are Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Sunday noon–5 p.m.

Susan Webb Tregay is an artist and writer new to the Rockford area. Her solo show is on display at Kortman’s Gallery, 107 N. Main St., Rockford, through Feb. 28.

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