Throughout the year, the work of Bessemer, Alabama born artist Ronald Lockett has been touring the country. The exhibition, Fever Within, is the first major retrospective of Lockett’s work. Lockett used the discarded tin scraps and steel that littered his post-industrial environment and transformed them into monumental works of beauty. His works express both his personal struggles as a socially neglected black male and as an HIV victim. They also passionately portray his empathetic reactions to even broader socio-political themes and historical events. Currently, Fever Within is on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to the Lockett retrospective, The High is showcasing works of Lockett’s artistic peers and family members in an exhibit titled Forging Connections: Ronald Lockett’s Alabama Contemporaries. The exhibit is exclusive to the High and features works by the late Thornton Dial Sr., his son Richard Dial, Lonnie Holley, and Joe Minter. Many of these works are on display for the first time.
The coupling of Lockett’s art with an installation of artists from his own community helps “connect the dots and see the bigger picture of a larger artistic movement and moment that needs to be acknowledged by art history,” says Katherine Jentleson, curator of the High’s folk and self-taught art department. This movement is what Jentleson’s colleague and Fever Within organizing curator, Bernie Herman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, calls the Birmingham-Bessemer school.
The ideas generated by this movement could not have come to fruition if not for the post-industrial landscapes of Birmingham and Bessemer. All of these artists took full advantage of the scrap metal terrain that served as a backdrop to the artists’ collective experience. These artists extracted from their material surroundings to express the psychological and social conditions that mirror the basic elements of the material: discarded, rusted, and left for dead. By showing Forging Connections in tandem with A Fever Within, viewers not only gain insight into a rich artistic movement and community, but also into the environment that shaped these artists’ lives and works; creating a blend of person and place.
Lonnie Holley’s “Broken But Still Strong” presents to us a direct snapshot of this environment. He fuses a rusted, broken down bicycle with a cement mixer, using a broken motor to link the two seemingly dead objects. The picture given to us is not one that is abstract. We can imagine objects like neglected bicycles or cement mixers lying around anywhere.
What Holley brings forth from the merging of outwardly simple, mundane, dead objects is the wealth of life that permeates and shines throughout—the wealth of humanity, beauty, and resilience that exist within a landscape that appears to have had its life sucked out by abandonment and rejection. Objects that were once used for transport still carry. They carry the imbued strength within the ability to uncover the sublime in what seems like the most unlikely of places—in rust and neglect.
One of the exhibit’s central sculptures is by the recently deceased Thornton Dial Sr.. Dial Sr. passed away in January of this year at the age of 87. He was Lockett’s older cousin and mentor, and was a pioneering force of the Birmingham-Bessemer movement.
Dial Sr.’s “Having Nothing is Having Everything” encapsulates the value that lies beneath the surface of wrongly perceived junk. In addition to structural materials like steel and wire, Dial Sr. makes use of tossed away objects like coat hangers, roller skates, old backpacks, hubcaps, and crutches—all objects that at one point in time supported or transported human beings and the commodities they carried.
When we look at the way Dial Sr. assembles these objects with the structural scenery, it’s almost as if we are looking at an entire community within a post-industrial city. We see the people who drive day in and day out, we see the children gliding through the town on skates, we remember that those hangers once held clothes that all donned the backs of real people with real experiences. While the steel may be cold and harsh, and the wire an imprisoning force—there is a bird atop the scraps—there is the warmth of the soul that soars beyond any ruthless social condition. These materials and objects are far from nothing. They are the fabric and framework for humanity.
Richard Dial’s “Back to Back” could not show us a clearer melding of person and place. Dial infuses the figures of human beings into welded steel. When viewing his final product we see a piece that demonstrates the nature of the reflexive and reflective intermix of human and habitat. This statement is expressed by bringing purpose to “Back to Back,” which is in fact a table. It undoubtedly shapes its environment as a feature piece whose form is intertwined with its function.
The figures portrayed are linked together within their world in solidarity, each one supporting the other with equal weight. There is a sense of connectivity between the two figures that refuses to be dismantled. Dial is able to illuminate the bond between him and his community. This bond is one that is both existential and aesthetic. It is a bond supported by the experience of social neglect, the strength to overcome, and the medium through which artistic statements are expressed.
By observing the intricacies of the skilled craftsmanship in the light of the context of its construction, the subtlety of “Back to Back” reveals where form and meaning intersect. Dial’s exploration of form, function, and purposeful recovery and restoration takes us on a journey that begins with the raw simplicity of everyday steel. With further observation, the piece gradually reveals the more complex role of object within its environment and how each mutually shapes the other’s meaning. This journey of artistic exploration ends by revealing a statement about art and environment’s coexistence, which expresses the impact of community and unity on the inspiration and construction of art.
Both Fever Within and Forging Connections “challenges the notion that an artistic school is necessarily rooted in an academic tradition or a bustling cultural metropolis like Paris or New York”, says Jentleson. These installations completely disassemble and deconstruct our rigid definitions of what it is to be a community of artists. “Forging Connections demystifies the notion that being self-taught means you are an isolate,” Jentleson adds. While these artists may have been isolated from society at large, they are now getting their deserved recognition and inclusion. The works of the Alabama Contemporaries help to redefine our collective idea of where art resides, and as a result, we are inspired to redefine how we perceive the origins of art.
Fever Within and Forging Connections are on display at the High Museum through January 8th.