The Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett, at the American Museum of Folk Art is a show that demands your attention, on many levels. The work is astounding. But it may require you to linger and dig a bit beneath the surface. If you do, you will be rewarded.
Lockett lived and worked his entire life (1965-1998) in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama. A satellite of Birmingham, (which was once a center of iron and steel production, as well as the civil rights movement) this area both engaged in the fight for equal rights and endured the repercussions of the deindustrialisation of the South, as factories closed and jobs became scarce. Lockett would have heard the stories of his family and neighbors who had worked in the fields and factories or participated in the protests. And he was connected to the larger world through TV, which he liked to watch. These personal interactions and more distant events combined to shape his work.
Though Lockett’s career lasted only a decade, his output was prolific. (The late artist Thornton Dial was his cousin and mentor.) Working mostly with found materials, especially tin, wood and chicken wire, as well as non-traditional materials such as industrial sealing compound and enamel, he created deeply personal works of hidden beauty, even though they touch on themes of individual and societal suffering and loss.
A recurring motif throughout his work is the stag, whose body is always surrounded by wire. Lockett also references many historical events, such as Jesse Owen’s victories in the1936 Olympics, the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, using them to point to the contemporary suffering of African Americans.
The front space of the exhibit showcases Lockett’s paintings, some of which have historical titles – Hiroshima, Holocaust – or titles of more localized suffering, such as his Homeless canvases. In all these works, his imagery is allusive, rather than realistic: set against a stark, featureless background of one color, or large blocks of three or four colors, are people (or skeletal images) who are drifting or falling. Their lack of defining features gives them a universal, everyman quality. (His Hiroshima series has no people, only swirls of smoke). In this area you’ll also find Civil Rights Marchers, a powerful painting in swirling grays, white and red with embedded objects, which read almost as an aftermath. (Two other pictures also from 1988 which use the same colors, materials and techniques, but have environmental themes, Poison River and Out of Ashes, are in another section.)
The rest of the show focuses on Lockett’s larger scale (about 4’ x 4’) works of found materials, which he took from buildings that had belonged to the Dial family. Most time, Lockett uses the materials as he’s found them – lots of wood, rusting tin sheets layered over each other or with metal grills – sometimes he’s painted over them with iron-oxide based paint, industrial sealing compound and enamel.
In some cases the image is not readily accessible – it may be made from strips of tin that blend in with their background, or it may be found in the negative space, outlined in nail heads or in holes. It’s worth spending time with these multi-layered works; I found the wall labels helpful in understanding them. His depiction of the runner Jesse Owens is especially moving.
There are a few pieces in which Lockett painted over his metal surfaces with bright colors, evoking quilts: I especially liked his homage to Princess Diana (England’s Rose) , and the one to the garden of his great grandmother, Sarah Dial Lockett (Sarah Lockett’s Roses). He spent many hours in her house, and the influence of her quilts is evinced by Lockett’s use of blocks of color, and his layering of materials.
Environmental degradation is another theme that is important to Lockett, and in this exhibit you’ll also find several collages and paintings that address this issue
My favorite work is at the end of the show (or maybe it’s the beginning); on paper which has seemingly been washed over in black ink, is the collaged image of a deer, outlined in white, staring straight ahead. Even though the stag is a recurring motif in Lockett’s work, there is something very specific about this one – it just seemed to grab me. I’ve posted more pictures on my Instagram feed.
I attended a talk by author and professor Deborah McDowell, who grew up in Pipe Shop. Although she never met Lockett, she certainly understood the context of his art. In her talk, Prof. McDowell made several points which were helpful to me in understanding Lockett’s work. Below is my summary of her remarks.
When looking at Lockett’s art, we must think about emotion and affect. Too often, African American artists are viewed only through historical and socio economic lenses. An emotional response should not be viewed as insincere – after all, Rothko invoked emotions when speaking of his work, and how his work provoked them.
Our understanding of the civil rights era comes through photos of violence – sneering dogs, horses, troopers, clubs – or pictures of the spirit of triumphalism. These images have claimed and cannibalized history, leaving out the experiences the historians didn’t see. The civil rights era also coincided with the deindustrialization of the South – we need to consider the larger context of this era and look at its casualties. As people were gaining their rights, there were no jobs for them. Even though he was born too late to participate in the Civil Rights era, Ronald Lockett was embedded in kin networks and would have heard all the stories, especially as he interacted with older people.
Remembering is re-membering: taking the remains and putting them back together.
Ronal Lockett was preoccupied with using the remains and converting them into something new; his work is saturated with grief, loss and mourning. He found resonances of suffering in historical events. The titles of his works – Hiroshima, Oklahoma, Driven From My Homeland – convey these themes and reflect his engagement with history and also the local, human, personal plane. Some of his work makes references to mass graves; a mass grave was discovered when the US Pipe factory was built – the bodies were disinterred and re-buried somewhere else.
Prof. McDowell also read from her 1997 book Leaving Pipe Shop, Memories of Kin , which recounts her years growing up in Pipe Shop (1950’s and ’60’s), as well as her return there to investigate her father’s death. I’m about half-way through the book, and even though I grew up in New York City, McDowell’s use of local dialogue and specific imagery creates a very intimate portrait of life in a close-knit Southern community which resonated with me. This memoir also brings to life people who were part of the civil rights struggle, who may not have made the front pages, but whose support and participation were essential to its success.
Concurrent with The Fever Within is the exhibition Once Something Has Lived it Can Never Really Die, which mixes ten of Ronald Lockett’s works with some eighty small and portable works imbued with protective qualities and powers, made by a wide range of artists situated outside the mainstream. There are some lovely amulets, plugs and pendants in the shapes of seals, polar bears and wales crafted from walrus ivory during the 18th and 19th centuries by peoples of the Thule Culture. One display of Brazilian votive offings consists of wooden carvings of hands, feet, heads, torsos, and a few complete figures, which were made with express wishes for recovery, marriage, good harvest or other important life events. There’s a wonderful recreation of Noah’s Ark – in the back is a crank that animates the animals. I especially liked the work of Melvin Way, a contemporary artist whose small scale drawings (ballpoint pen on paper and scotch tape) are filled with mathematical formulas.
The Museum will be hosting other events around this exhibition, the next one being at 6:30 on August 9th, when Director Camille A. Brown will perform an excerpt from her 2014 Bessie Award–Winning production Mr. TOL E. RAncE and will speak about shared cultural themes and issues of race that are common to her and Ronald Lockett. More information here
On August 18th, filmmaker David Seehausen will introduce several short documentary films he has made about African American self-taught artists from the South, and will dialogue with artist and filmmaker Scott Ogden. More information here
Both exhibits continue until September 18th.