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Equality and Materiality: Katherine Jentleson’s Vision for The High’s Folk and Self-Taught Art Collection

Since 1994 the High has developed one of the most established collections of folk and self-taught art in the country. In January of 2015, Katherine Jentleson was appointed to the position of Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA. Jentleson’s interest in self- taught art began during her time as an art journalist in New York where she came across works of self-taught artists by renowned figures such as Thornton Dial.

The High Museum’s Katherine Jentleson High

The High Museum’s Katherine Jentleson

Jentleson was inspired by what she sees as “A part of American art history that is relatively unknown,” and artists that “represent cultural histories of America that are often underrepresented in literature and the visual arts.” These were artists who were rarely discussed in art academies—many of whom were marginalized due to institutional racism and the socio-economic state that follows. Jentleson became interested by “not only the work, but also what these artists represented about democracy and egalitarianism.”

Folk Art at the High: A Cut Above

The work that Jentleson displays to the public at the High Museum takes the discourse of equality beyond just the historical and the social and moves into medium and material. This is especially true with the exhibition “A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection” on view through October 30. In March of 2016, scholar Gordon W. Bailey donated 47 pieces by a multitude of folk and self-taught artists to the High (including works by Thornton Dial Jr., Leroy Almon, and Bessie Harvey). With the generous gift of Bailey, Jentleson has been given the opportunity to construct her own distinct vision regarding perceptions that surround self-taught art and what it means to be an artist in general through this exhibition.

Jentleson says that an exhibition like “A Cut Above”, “brings out how artists can have such different responses to a single medium, but that medium to me is an incredibly democratic medium too. Wood is something that is equal. It’s everywhere and you can find it as a kind of scrap that’s floating in a creek, or on a forest floor, or in a lumber pile.”

The group of self-taught artists showcased in “A Cut Above” are ones that make use of a discarded and overlooked medium that surrounds us all—a medium that can be transformed from pure, raw, seemingly faceless nature into something wholly unique to the individual artist. We are able to see that distinct human voices can speak through and arise out of materials that are themselves naturally equal to all of us.

One key section of the exhibit features three pieces (Thornton Dial Jr.’s “Crucifixion, Raymond Coins’ “Dog”, and O.L. Samuel’s “Charlie Mae”) which are arranged according to their materiality to create what Jentleson calls a “spectrum of artifice and nature.” The triptych of pieces which make use of both wood and artificial materials are displayed in a triangular fashion, in a manner that shows the multitude of ways in which these artists speak through the wood and the degrees to which the medium can be transfigured according to each artist’s respective visions.

Thornton Dial, Jr. (American, born 1953), Crucifixion, 1980s, hubcap, paint, barbed wire, metals and wood, 50 x 48 x 18 inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2016.31.

Thornton Dial, Jr. (American, born 1953), “Crucifixion,” 1980s, hubcap, paint, barbed wire, metals and wood, 50 x 48 x 18 inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2016.31.

At the very top we see Dial Jr.’s “Crucifixion”. Dial Jr. depicts the crucifixion scene using a variety of found wood and various metals. The bodies of Christ and the thieves that flank him are built using scrap metal, while the cross is made of wood. Dial Jr. transforms the wood into a crucifix, but the wood isn’t used in a way that would make us question the materiality. The Coins and Samuel pieces, though, extract from and toy more with the overall appearance of the medium.

Raymond Coins (American, 1904-1998), Dog, 1980s, wood and paint. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey.

Raymond Coins (American, 1904-1998), “Dog,” 1980s, wood and paint. Gift of Gordon
W. Bailey.

Placed in the bottom right corner of the display is Coins’ “Dog”. Coins created the piece strictly from wood and paint. Its foundation is a part of a cedar tree that’s been flipped upside down and the branches now act as the legs and tail of a dog. Jentleson says of Coins’ use of the medium that, “You kind of can get back to what its original form was, but it’s a little bit more removed, a little bit more artifice. The artist’s hand is involved here in terms of transforming the wood.”

O.L. Samuels (American, born 1931), Charlie Mae, late 1980s, wood, paint, glitter, plastic, rope and artificial hair. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey.

O.L. Samuels (American, born 1931), “Charlie Mae,” late 1980s, wood, paint, glitter, plastic, rope and artificial hair. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey.

Here the transformation is clear. Unlike “Crucifixion” and “Dog”, Samuel birthed from wood a figure that has little natural semblance to the material from which the subject matter came. Of Samuel’s “Charlie Mae” Jentleson says the piece “could not be more transformed… in terms of the artifice, it’s artifice to the nth degree. There’s glitter and paint everywhere, covering every surface.”

In all three works, the different levels of transmutation are astounding in their uniqueness. We are able to see the myriad ways the artists have manifested their own singular visions within the universal medium of wood. “A Cut Above” demonstrates how art and beauty exists above and below the surface of materials we take for granted as mundane. The recovery of these neglected raw materials represents a rediscovery of the beauty that exists in what we often discard.

Fever Within the High

The idea that art is recovered and revealed rather than manufactured expands beyond just the natural medium of wood. This October, Jentleson will bring to the High “Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett”. “Fever Within” is the first major retrospective of Lockett’s work. Lockett used many discarded and found materials like scrap metal that could be found lying about or taken from abandoned buildings. His subject matter often deals with the marginalized and disenfranchised people in the grips of socio-economic and racial strife, and Lockett’s themes are far from losing their potency of relevance.

Ronald Lockett (American, 1965-1998), Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die, 1996, wood, enamel, graphite, tin, found materials and industrial sealing compound on wood. Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photograph by Stephen Pitken/Pitken Studio. Jentleson High

Ronald Lockett (American, 1965-1998), “Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die,” 1996, wood, enamel, graphite, tin, found materials and industrial sealing compound on wood. Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photograph by Stephen Pitken/Pitken Studio.

Jentleson believes “Fever Within” can reveal that Lockett is very much a voice of our contemporary times despite his death of HIV related causes in 1998. “It’s so eerily resonant with what’s going on in the world today,” says Jentleson. “His work was about the lack of mobility for young African American men, and the way that that’s creating these intense social and political fault lines in our country today.” Today we live in a country that is rife with extreme racial tension due to widespread police violence, and Lockett’s imagery—though made twenty years earlier—is the sort that doesn’t seem foreign or far away in the least.

Ronald Lockett (American, 1965-1998), Traps, ca. 1992, cut tin, found steel, nails, branches, plastic netting and wood stain mounted on fiberboard. Collection of Tinwood LLC. Photograph by Stephen Pitken/Pitken Studio. Jentleson High

Ronald Lockett (American, 1965-1998), “Traps,” ca. 1992, cut tin, found steel, nails, branches, plastic netting and wood stain mounted on fiberboard. Collection of Tinwood LLC. Photograph by Stephen Pitken/Pitken Studio.

Many of Lockett’s works make use of imagery such as entrapped animals, which speaks strongly to the way in which many of the voiceless are kept silent by their immediate surroundings. In “Traps”, the imagery of the confined deer—brought forth to us through a juxtaposition of materials such as discarded steel and tree branches—show us both the sorts of equality inherent in the beauty of material, and the stripped equality of the disenfranchised that Jentleson wishes to have shine through the work.

Jentleson has managed to show us the voices of marginalized artists who used everyday, found and discarded material—both natural and artificial—to express their own unique visions of beauty and of the harsh social conditions within which they found themselves. What Jentleson brings to us through her selections are the inherent equalities in everything. “What I’m really hoping people will take away from the galleries is the notion that there is not one way to be an artist.” We see the equality of medium and of its infinite potential for unique artistic vision, of proper place in history, and of the people who are socially denied equality altogether. Jentleson’s work contributes to the High’s position as a place that redefines the way we perceive ‘high art’, and a place that demands us to listen to the voices of the socially neglected that can be heard loud and clear through materials that are just as discarded as the ones who use them to speak.

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