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Lonnie Holley’s Object Lessons

A brilliantly resourceful artist’s timely exhibition at Charleston, South Carolina’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is the latest development in a remarkable career

Like most solo exhibitions by widely known contemporary artists, Lonnie Holley’s “Something to Take My Place” was scheduled more than two years before it opened. But its timing and location turned out to be more appropriate than anyone could have predicted. The compelling show of Holley’s raggedly assertive, socially engaged sculptures was on view in the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, from late August into early October 2015. This placed it chronologically between two events destined to cast a long historical shadow in South Carolina and the rest of the nation–the massacre in one of Charleston’s oldest black churches on June 17, and a millennial flood that struck that city and much of the state in early October.

For 200 years Charleston was the main port of entry for enslaved Africans shipped to North America. The city was built by slaves. As the front line in the Confederate defense of institutionalized slavery, it was ground zero for the Civil War, site of the war’s first battle.

Although ostensibly abolished with the war’s end, slavery continued to exist in the U.S. in quasi-legal forms for decades. The history is detailed in Douglas Blackmon’s 2009 book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of African Americans from the Civil War to World War II. It’s also a frequent point of reference in Holley’s work. An African American artist whose reputation has steadily grown since the early 1980s, he sustained brutal firsthand experience of slave conditions postdating the Civil War by 100 years.

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Photo of Lonnie Holley by John Bentham, courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

Born in 1950 in Birmingham, Alabama–another American city known for its history of systematically oppressing blacks–Holley was kidnapped as a young child by a family acquaintance who swapped him to a brothel keeper in exchange for liquor. He spent much of his youth imprisoned in a juvenile-detention facility. Guards there beat and tortured him between extended periods of forced hard labor–treatment virtually identical to that routinely endured by slaves before the Emancipation.

Holley has recalled these ordeals in many interviews over the years, including videographer John David Reynolds’ “mini-documentary” commissioned by the Halsey. Reynolds’ 18-minute film was shown repeatedly as part of the exhibition, in a small screening room next to the gallery. (A link remains available here).

For most of his adult life Holley has distilled and referenced aspects of his harrowing life story in his art, which has continued to evolve and take new forms. He’s an artist compulsively on the move, physically and mentally. Acutely attentive and brilliantly resourceful, he seems to regard everything he sees, hears and thinks as potential fodder for his work. These aspects of his personality and his creative approach were foregrounded in his interactions with viewers during his week-long residency in Charleston in early September, and with the audience for his September 12 performance at the Charleston Music Hall, a short walk from the gallery.

Holley’s stage concerts represent a recent development. Music is a whole new medium to which he has quickly adapted, leading to an unprecedented expansion of his audience. While improvising on electronic keyboard instruments in a wide-open, free-form mode, he likewise conjures his idiosyncratically melodious vocals on the spot, out of the air. Two record albums of his music have been released on the Dust-to-Digital label. His Charleston concert–less than a week after his latest round of live shows in Europe–consisted of an extended solo performance followed by a collaboration with his opening acts, singing cellist Ben Sollee and Infinitkiss, an electronica group.

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Holley’s earliest works were sculptures he carved from blocks of heat-fused sand, a byproduct of Birmingham’s steel factories that was regularly discarded by the truckload and free for the taking. Most of these sculptures inventively combine sparely stylized figures with abstract shapes and forms. By the mid-1980s he was working with other scavenged objects and materials that he combined, manipulated and transformed in singular fashion. Holley has never taken his cues from the mainstream art world, and is unlikely to have known about the Dadaist sculptures for which Jean Dubuffet coined the term “assemblage,” but it remains a serviceable word for the art he makes from other people’s castoffs.

Something to Installation View. Photo by Rick Rhodes Photography, courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

“Something to Take My Place” Installation View. Photo by Rick Rhodes Photography, courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

For more than 10 years Holley installed most of his assemblages outdoors on the wooded two-acre plot of family land where he lived in a small house with his children, on the northeast side of Birmingham. He loosely anchored the pieces to the trees, implanted them in the ground or hung them on a fence alongside a public road, and he often interconnected them to each other. Also incorporated into the mix were some of the free-form figural-abstract paintings he’d begun to make. As these components accumulated to cover the property, the site developed into a dense, richly multifaceted yard show where one piece segued into another and all of them became increasingly fused and intertwined with the natural environment to form a dynamically organic whole, far greater and more meaningful than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately it bordered on Birmingham’s expanding airport, which acquired the property through condemnation proceedings in 1997, after a protracted legal battle. Holley was forced to salvage what he could from his immense outdoor installation and move it to land surrounding a large house he bought with the settlement funds in Harpersville, Alabama. By that time, his assemblages were being exhibited with greater frequency in museums and galleries, thanks largely to promotional efforts by Atlanta collector and patron William Arnett, arguably the staunchest and most persistent advocate for Holley and other African American vernacular artists in the South.

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I visited Holley’s Birmingham art environment several times in the late 1980s and early 1990s–an overwhelmingly immersive experience, especially during the summer months. As much as I appreciated the site’s creative chaos and constant mutability–and as grieved as I was by its destruction in the name of progress–I’ve observed that his work is well-served by cleanly neutral indoor art settings, which afford a much clearer view of the pieces as discrete entities, each with its own visual nuances and thematic associations. Such was certainly the case at the Halsey, where director-curator Mark Sloan assembled a strong, cohesive selection of 40 of Holley’s pieces, most from the Arnett Collection. About three-quarters of the work is relatively recent, made within the last 15 years. Otherwise the selection included several pieces from the 1990s and one from 1984.

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“Blood on the Rock Pile,” Concrete Chunks, Paint, and Metal Wire, 26″ x 18″ x 13″, 2003. Collection of William S. Arnett. Photo by John Bentham, courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

Recurring themes in the exhibition and in much of Holley’s work include suffering, endurance, survival, redemption and transformation. Some pieces refer directly to his personal struggles, and a number of them address the broader struggle for equality in a racist society. There are overt references to blood in the titles of several pieces, and in passages of red paint. A starkly effective example is Blood on the Rock Pile, consisting of five broken concrete rocks spattered and dripped with red and white paint, piled one atop the other and held in place by strands of wire tightly wound and twisted together. It memorializes Holley’s experience of being beaten bloody by sadistic guards and left for days afterwards outdoors on a pile of white rocks, as he recounts in the commissioned film. The rough resemblance to a makeshift tombstone is probably intentional, as he knows the experience could have killed him.

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“Three Shovels to Bury You,” Shovels, Wood, Cloth, Thread, and Metal Bedframe, 50″ x 62″ x 24″, 1998. Collection of William S. Arnett. Photo by John Bentham, courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

Black vernacular burial traditions, which play an important role in Holley’s art, are more specifically referenced in Three Shovels to Bury You, with its rusted shovel blades implanted atop the vertical bars of an old iron fence draped with shredded, soiled rags. They suggest a trio of graveyard sentinels, paying tribute by their presence to the dead and to the laborers who dig their graves.

Several cruciform pieces on exhibit allude to grave markers as well as to the Crucifixion and related themes of suffering and impending resurrection. Some of these works also comment on more topical issues, as exemplified by Satellite Cross, which addresses social inequalities amplified by lack of technological training and access.

"Changing My Walk (Honoring Andrew Young)," Wooden Chair and Shoes, 36 1/8" x 17" x 20", 2004. Collection of William S. Arnett. Photo by John Bentham courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

“Changing My Walk (Honoring Andrew Young),” Wooden Chair and Shoes, 36 1/8″ x 17″ x 20″, 2004. Collection of William S. Arnett. Photo by John Bentham courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

Both Changing My Walk (Honoring Andrew Young) and Blood on the Shoes of the Civil Rights Worker employ old shoes as emblems of the bold stand taken by leaders and foot-soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.

Another theme to which Holley has often returned is historical documentation and the maintenance of accurate, accessible records. He addresses this issue in the show’s earliest piece, the iconic Cutting Up Old Film (Don’t Edit the Wrong Thing Out), a rusted reel of old 16-millimeter film with a rusted pair of scissors attached the the center. He revisits the theme in a couple of the show’s more recent works–Weight on the Paperwork and Knowing a Tree that Keeps a Record.

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“Cutting up Old Film (Don’t Edit the Wrong Thing Out),” Film Reel, Scissors, 14 1/2″ x 14 1/2″ x 5″, 1984. William S. Arnett Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo by John Bentham, courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

Speaking of documentation, the Halsey has produced an impressive, 215-page catalog of the exhibition, illustrated with color reproductions of each piece that was shown and several of Holley’s other works. Also included are insightful essays by Sloan, Leslie Umberger and Bernard L. Herman. Each image is accompanied by Holley’s comments about the piece depicted, and the closing text is his extended narrative about his life, an epic story recorded and edited by Theodore Rosengarten. It’s an essential volume for anyone interested in Holley’s work and the broader fields of African American art and contemporary art. And it’s particularly important in view of the fact that the exhibition isn’t traveling to other venues–the art world’s loss.

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“Something to Take My Place” was beginning its final week at the Halsey on October 4, when much of South Carolina was flooded from torrential rains caused by a stalled offshore storm fed by moisture from a nearby hurricane. Rivers overflowed and washed away almost everything in their wake, disrupting ground-travel networks in the state for what’s projected to be months. Nineteen deaths in South Carolina were attributed to the flooding.

There were half that many casualties in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on June 17–nine dead, one wounded, all at the hands of one native-born white-supremacist terrorist.

For Americans whose memory reaches back more than 50 years, the Charleston massacre immediately brought to mind another racist mass murder in an urban black church, on a late-summer Sunday in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, Lonnie Holley’s hometown. Four girls attending Sunday school at the16th Street Baptist Church were killed that morning in the explosion of a dynamite bomb planted by local Ku Klux Klansmen.

Holley’s grandmother was a grave-digger, and he recalls that she helped dig the graves for the murdered girls. His memories of his grandmother and of that turbulent period of Birmingham’s history are particularly vivid because the church bombing occurred around the time he completed a three-year stint in the previously mentioned juvenile-detention center, and it was his grandmother who picked him up when he was released, leading eventually to a reunion with his mother and some of his siblings.

His memories related to the murdered girls are also bound up with his recollection of innocent children killed in another tragic incident about 15 years later. In that case it was a young niece and nephew who lost their lives in a house fire. His first pieces carved from steel-factory sandstone were the small tombstones he made to mark their graves, and in that sense it was their deaths that inspired him to become an artist. The Charleston exhibition–Holley’s first major show since 2004–was the latest significant development in the remarkable career that they sparked.
Fortunately, the recent flooding was far less severe in Charleston than it was in much of the state, thanks largely to the marshes that border and help drain the city. The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art escaped damage, and Holley’s exhibition was able to remain on view there through the originally scheduled Oct. 10 closing date.