Exhibitions

American Folk Art Museum
June 21 - September 18, 2016

Organized by the Ackland Art Museum, Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett is a groundbreaking retrospective of a passionately inspired and little-understood figure in twentieth-century American art.

Organized by the Ackland Art Museum, Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett is a groundbreaking retrospective of a passionately inspired and little-understood figure in twentieth-century American art. The first solo exhibition of Ronald Lockett’s art, Fever Within emphasizes the powerful themes the artist explored over the course of his career through about 50 of his works of art.

The exhibition, which will be presented in 2016-2017 in New York and Atlanta as well as in Chapel Hill, marks the first time that viewers will be able to gain insight into the full range of Lockett’s innovative and evocative paintings and assemblages.

Raised in Bessemer, Alabama, near Birmingham, Lockett (1965-1998) was profoundly influenced by other self-taught African American artists in his closely knit community, including his cousin Thornton Dial (1928-2016), who mentored and encouraged him. Through his art, Lockett explored events in twentieth-century history that he sought to better understand; among them are acts of large-scale violence and terrorism such as the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. He also grappled with emotionally-charged subjects such as racial and political tumult, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the unfulfilled promises of the Civil Rights Movement; environmental degradation; and religious faith.

In his final years, following his diagnosis with HIV/AIDS, his art explored mortality, salvation, and remembrance. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, by the time of his death at age 32, Lockett had produced an estimated 400 works of art created from a wide variety of found materials.

Fever Within is curated by Bernard L. Herman, George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Folklore at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in close collaboration with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization dedicated to documenting, researching, preserving, and exhibiting the work of vernacular African American artists of the American South.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 160-page book edited by Bernard L. Herman and published by The University of North Carolina Press. It includes 60 full-color plates of Lockett’s paintings and assemblages, as well as written contributions by Paul Arnett, Bernard L. Herman, Sharon Patricia Holland, Katherine L. Jentleson, Thomas J. Lax, and Colin Rhodes.

June 21 - September 18, 2016          American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
October 9, 2016 – January 8, 2017    High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
January 27 – April 9, 2017                Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, NC

80 Washington Square East Gallery, NYC
June 9 - August 7, 2015

Taking its title from folklorist William Ferris’s seminal text on Thomas’s work, The Devil and His Blues will be the first major institutional solo presentation of James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas’s sculpture to take place since the artist’s death in 1993.

Taking its title from folklorist William Ferris’s seminal text on Thomas’s work, The Devil and His Blues will be the first major institutional solo presentation of James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas’s sculpture to take place since the artist’s death in 1993. The exhibition will include 100 of his unfired clay objects in addition to two documentary films on his work: ‘Sonny Ford:’ Delta Artist, made by William Ferris in Leland, Mississippi in 1969 and JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: ARTIST made by filmmakers Jeffrey Wolf and Zach Wolf, using footage shot of Thomas in 1982 while exhibiting his work as part of the seminal touring exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, which has been edited on the occasion of this exhibition.

Widely celebrated as a major figure in the evolution of the Delta style of blues music, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas was born near Eden Mississippi in 1926, later moving to Leland, Mississippi, where he lived with his wife and children from 1961-1993. His formative years were spent frequenting the rural house parties known as ‘jook joints,’ where locals would spend their weekends listening to blues music, dancing, drinking, and gambling. The traveling musicians he was exposed to as a teenager, notably Elmore James and his bottleneck’ style of guitar playing, contributed greatly to his pursuit of music and the evolution of his unprecedented approach to songwriting and singing, which chronicled life in the Delta.

Thomas’s uncle Joe Cooper taught him to play guitar beginning at the age of eight and also taught him to sculpt the local ‘gumbo’ clay, from which Thomas initially made his own toys, resembling dogs, horses, and the numerous Ford model tractors that earned him the local nickname ‘Ford.’ He chose to keep this name throughout his professional career as homage to the place from which he came.

Thomas made sculptures regularly throughout his adult life, creating hundreds of unfired clay pieces from a repertoire of subjects, many of which date back to his youth. His birds, snakes, squirrels, and fish are all representative of Delta wildlife in addition to holding symbolic significance in the African-American folk spirituality known as ‘hoodoo,’ in which he believed. The skulls for which Thomas became known were first made as a mischievous ten-year-old, with the purpose of scaring his grandfather. After a ten-year period working as a gravedigger, from 1961-71, Thomas began making skulls again, this time with the aim of accurately representing the dead, often using real human teeth or dentures and a dull white paint he created to simulate the look of bones. He deemed these works inappropriate for children, yet also intended that they be used as utilitarian objects including pencil holders and ashtrays. After his time working as a gravedigger, while reflecting on his sculpture and the topic of death, Thomas stated, ‘We all end up in the clay.’

Numerous busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were made in part for their general popularity and subsequent sales and yet they also speak to the history of slavery and its residual oppressive policies, which Thomas faced throughout his lifetime. The cotton wigs that he created for each Washington bust reflect Thomas’s own history with cotton, which he picked with his grandfather to earn a living as a young man. As an adult, Thomas grew cotton as a sharecropper, requiring that he rent the land and buy overpriced supplies from its white owner, incurring tremendous debt that made earning a living impossible. Thomas’s sculpted quails reference the local ban that was placed on the right of African Americans to hunt them. Due to their high meat content, quails were reserved as a delicacy for hunting and consumption by white people only.

The bust portraits, which constitute the majority of Thomas’s creative output, portray numerous members of his community as well as imagined faces, often incorporating marbles as eyes, wigs, real human hair, found sunglasses, and jewelry that he fashioned as he became increasingly interested in the use of embellishments. Thomas also created a small number of miniature clay dioramas, often depicting full figures chopping wood, eating watermelon, playing music, or posed dead in coffins. These works reflect the scenes of daily life and death, which he observed.

Paradoxes of meaning and function are central to Thomas’s intent, imagination, and intuitive approach; the quotidian and the abject, beauty and ugliness, excess and austerity, significance and meaninglessness, commercial viability and histories of oppression, and documentation and spirituality often co-exist simultaneously in a given piece.

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues seeks to consider the entirety of Thomas's output in music and visual art as a remarkable document of American history: an epic autobiographical narrative, connecting mortality, nature, community, spirituality, and the culture of the region in which he lived.

Frist Center for the Visual Arts
May 25 - September 2, 2012

This exhibition explores parallels and intersections in the works of the world-famous Gee’s Bend quilters and the self-taught master of assemblage art, Thornton Dial.

This exhibition explores parallels and intersections in the works of the world-famous Gee’s Bend quilters and the self-taught master of assemblage art, Thornton Dial. Quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small rural community southwest of Selma, Ala., feature a sophisticated orchestration of color and eccentric quasi-geometric shapes composing what the New York Times has said are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” 

The 82-year-old Thornton Dial has earned international recognition as one of the most compelling and original voices of our time. Rich in allusion and metaphor, Dial’s dynamic assemblages weave together memories of his own life with reflections on universal experiences of struggle and triumph. He shares with the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend a debt to African American aesthetic traditions, most notably the cemetery constructions and yard art of the rural South, as well as an inventive approach to the reconstruction of found materials in the creation of an extraordinary visual poetry.

This exhibition has been organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Ackland Art Museum
March 30 – July 1, 2012

While most recognized for his large scale, multi-media assemblages, Thornton Dial’s drawings are his most prolific body of work, spanning from the early 1990s into the present.

While most recognized for his large scale, multi-media assemblages, Thornton Dial’s drawings are his most prolific body of work, spanning from the early 1990s into the present. Organized by the Ackland Art Museum, Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper will feature 50 of Dial’s earliest drawings from 1990-1991, a pivotal moment in his artistic career.

The Ackland Art Museum is well known for its extensive collection of works on paper and in particular, its outstanding collection of drawings, making it a natural venue in which to explore this less-known but highly significant portion of Dial’s oeuvre. The works in the exhibition – characterized by flowing lines, color washes, and images of women, fish, and tigers – provide a touchstone of Dial’s creative process.

A fully-illustrated book, Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, co-published by the Ackland Art Museum and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will be available. The book is edited by Bernard L. Herman, with contributions by Bernard L. Herman, Juan Logan, Glenn Hinson, Colin Rhodes, and Cara Zimmerman.

Indianapolis Museum of Art
February 25 - September 18, 2011

Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial highlights the artist’s significant contribution to the field of American art and shows how Dial’s work speaks to the most pressing issues of our time—including thewar in Iraq, 9/11, and

Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial highlights the artist’s significant contribution to the field of American art and shows how Dial’s work speaks to the most pressing issues of our time—including thewar in Iraq, 9/11, and social issues like racism and homelessness. The exhibition presents 70 of Dial’s large-scale paintings, drawings and found-object sculptures, including 25 works on view for the first time. Spanning twenty years of his work as an artist, it is the most extensive showing of his art ever mounted.

Karen Wilkin of the Wall Street Journal included Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial in her Best of Art 2011 alongside major shows of Degas, de Kooning, and the new Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of Hard Truths Wilkin writes:

“At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial honored an American original. The self-taught Mr. Dial, born in 1928 in rural Alabama, invented a personal, vernacular approach to collage: aggressively articulated, expressively—and beautifully—colored constructions incorporating a startling assortment of scavenged materials. Two decades of relief paintings, free-standing sculptures and drawings attested to Mr. Dial’s power. Their titles asserted deep convictions about ecology, civil rights, the role of women, and politics; their quirky materiality declared their affinity with the oddball objects in Southern ‘yard shows,’ but no special pleading was required for the art or its author. Whatever the works’ lineage or motivations, whatever Mr. Dial’s history, ‘Hard Truths’ was an impressive survey of first-rate works by a major artist. Period.”

"That Mr. Dial is a self-taught, fearless, ambitious African-American from the South is fascinating. His experience clearly informs what he does, but like the steepest slopes in the Tour de France bicycle race, his work is 'beyond category.' The only label required by his formidable collage-constructions is that of first-rate, powerful Art—with a capital 'A.' —The Wall Street Journal

"Rauschenberg once said, 'Art doesn't come out of art.' What he meant, and Dial would surely agree, is that it comes out of life. If anything, art is a word so contaminated these days by hype, misunderstanding and sales talk, it's tempting sometimes to think we should try doing without it. Until you remember that it's the one word spacious enough to contain what Dial does." —TIME Magazine

 

New Orleans Museum of Art: February 24 – May 20, 2012

Mint Museum, Charlotte: June 2 – September 30, 2012

High Museum of Art, Atlanta: November 3, 2012 – March 3, 2013

Museum of International Folk Art
November 16, 2007 – May 11, 2008

Gee’s Bend is a small rural community nestled into a curve in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, Alabama.

Gee’s Bend is a small rural community nestled into a curve in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, Alabama. Founded in antebellum times, it was the site of cotton plantations, primarily the lands of Joseph Gee and his relative Mark Pettway, who bought the Gee estate in 1850. After the Civil War, the freed slaves took the name Pettway, became tenant farmers for the Pettway family, and founded an all-black community nearly isolated from the surrounding world.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, making quilts was considered a domestic responsibility for women in Gee’s Bend. As young girls, many of the women trained or apprenticed in their craft with their mothers, female relatives, or friends; other quilters, however, have been virtually self-taught. Women with large families often made dozens upon dozens of quilts over the course of their lives. The women consider the process of “piecing” the quilt “top” to be highly personal. In Gee’s Bend, the top—the side that faces up on the bed—is always pieced by a quilter working alone and reflects a singular artistic vision. The subsequent process of “quilting” the quilt—sewing together the completed top, the batting (stuffing), and the back—is sometimes then performed communally, among small groups of women.

The women of Gee’s Bend developed a distinctive, bold, and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional African-American quilts, but with a geometric simplicity reminiscent of Amish quilts and modern art. Art critics worldwide have compared this geometric simplicity to the works of important artists such as Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. The New York Times called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

This exhibition puts the Gee’s Bend quilts in context by featuring the work of master quilt maker Mary Lee Bendolph and those she influenced, accompanied by the art of artists working in the found-object tradition who are part of her artistic sphere, including Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley. Also shown is another interpretation of the quilt, in which Mary Lee and her daughter-in-law, Louisiana Bendolph, made a series of fine art prints based on their quilt designs in 2005. Finally, a documentary film about the women of Gee’s Bend accompanies the exhibition.

 

Knoxville Museum of Art, July 10 – September 21, 2008

Loveland Museum & Gallery, CO, November 15, 2008 – February 8, 2009

Missouri Historical Society, April 12 – September 13, 2009

Berman Museum of World History, AL, October 2, 2009 – January 3, 2010

Flint Institute of Arts, MI, January 23 – April 18, 2010

 

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
June 4 – September 4, 2006

In 2002 the inaugural exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend documented the quiltmaking achievements of the African American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

In 2002 the inaugural exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend documented the quiltmaking achievements of the African American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Presented at thirteen major museums around the United States,the show prompted an outpouring of popular interest and international critical acclaim. Expanding upon that initial exhibition and its accompanying publications, Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt offers a deeper look into the women and their art, and a more focused investigation into the nature and inspirations—and future—of the Gee’s Bend quilt tradition.

“…The women of Gee’s Bend are unanimously agreed to have shattered artistic boundaries. Their bold, vibrant designs are as radically different from orthodox quilt patterns as Picasso was from anyone who preceded him.”—The Times of London

“This is a show that everyone who cares about art in this country will find something to feel good about, because the women quilters of Gee’s Bend have somehow managed to touch in their work practically everything that is really important about life and art….The quilts…inevitably invite comparison with the great abstract-expressionist canvases of Pollack, Rothko, Still, and others. Their brilliant, slashing patterns and startling color harmonies provoke the kind of shiver of visual excitement that one imagines adventurous early viewers of the New York School must have felt.”—Baltimore Sun

 

Indianapolis Museum of Art, October 8 – December 31, 2006

Orlando Museum of Art, January 28 – May 15, 2007

The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore MD: June 16 – August 26, 2007

Tacoma Art Museum, September 22 – December 9, 2007

The Speed Art Museum, Louisville KY: January 2 – March 23, 2008

Denver Museum of Art, April 13 – July 6, 2008

Philadelphia Museum of Art, September 14 – December 14, 2008

 

 

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
September 25, 2005 - January 8, 2006

This groundbreaking exhibition follows the artist’s exploration of interlined topics, including a halting suite of works about September 11, 2001; contemporary ” history paintings” on life in America since the events of 9/11; homages to his friends, the women quilt makers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama,

This groundbreaking exhibition follows the artist’s exploration of interlined topics, including a halting suite of works about September 11, 2001; contemporary ” history paintings” on life in America since the events of 9/11; homages to his friends, the women quilt makers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and their craft; a new type of “art about art” in which Dial responds to works from the disparate cultural dialogues (including art by academically trained and vernacular artists); memories of vanishing ways of life and his childhood in the the South; and evocations of human struggles for freedom.

Since 2000, Thornton Dial (born 1928) has embarked on one of the most remarkable creative journeys in American visual art. Following his discovery by the art world in the late 1980s, he became in the 1990s a widely known African American vernacular artist. Coinciding with the turn of the millennium, Dial has spent the eighth decade of his life on overlapping cycles of epic-scale artworks that summarize the grand sweep of his improbable life’s story.

"Tour-de-force paintings so feral in their wrath, so exuberant in their invention, so monumental, playful, profound, and technically proficient….the sheer tumultuous force of his mammoth multimedia works make the more conventional traditions look timid in comparison…" —Newsday

"Preternaturally gifted….Mr. Dial…looks dumbfoundingly adept to some of us because his energy and fluent line, abstracted in maelstroms of color, easily call to mind Pollack and de Kooning."—New York Times

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
September 6 – November 10, 2002

From its beginning at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Whitney Museum of American, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition received unprecedented critical acclaim and broke a

From its beginning at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Whitney Museum of American, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition received unprecedented critical acclaim and broke attendance records over the course of on its twelve-city American tour. The New York Times, Newsweek, NPR, Art in America, CBS News Sunday Morning, and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer are among the hundreds of print and broadcast media organizations that have celebrated the quilts and the history of this unique community.

“Some of the most miraculous works of art America has produced…. So eye-poppingly gorgeous that it’s hard to know how to begin to account for them.” –New York Times

“The Quilts of Gee’s Bend…is a collection both visually stunning and emotionally moving. Nearly 70 quilts of amazing boldness and variety are hung as high art, and they pack nearly as much wallop as Picasso’s Guernica.”—Dallas Morning News

 

Whitney Museum of American Art, November 11, 2002  - March 9, 2003

Mobile Museum of Art, July 14 – August 31, 2003

Milwaukee Art Museum, September 27, 2003 – January 4, 2004

Corcoran Gallery of Art, February 14 – May 17, 2004

Cleveland Museum of Art, July 27 – September 12, 2004

Chrysler Museum of Art, VA, October 15, 2004 – January 2, 2005

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, February 2, 2005 – May, 8, 2005

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, June 1 – August 21, 2005

Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University, September 11 – December 4, 2005

High Museum of Art, GA, March 25 – June 18, 2006

Museum of Art, Ft Lauderdale, September 7, 2007 – January 7, 2008

Michael C. Carlos Museum at City Hall East
June 29 - November 3, 1996

Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South, a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artitst, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen i

Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South, a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artitst, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert witht he Civil Rights Movement. The exhibit will introduce visitors to the acheivements of individuals who have given artistic form to their chaning identity. This showing will emphasize Southen artists' growing awareness of their changing role from being conveyors of localized traditions to becoming concerned with national issues. Some of the most powerful African-American vernacular art has been created in areas where the greatest inequities have occurred, namely those sections of the South where deep-rooted traditions have come into collision with industrialization, mass-media, racial integration, and increased social and demographic mobility.

This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South. Involving both a celebration of gains in Civil Rights as well as a critique of the values of post-World War II consumer culture, this art combines naïveté and sophistication in remarkable new ways that have collapsed fine and folk art in designations, resulting in a new category that is neither wholly marginalized nor completely mainstream. This art is unique in its way of sythesizing three enduring legacies—African, European, and Native American—that are particularly strong in the South.

Writing in Newsweek, critic Malcolm Jones, Jr. reviewed the cultural events presented in conjunction with the Atlanta Olympic Games:

“The show that ought to be showcased in the High Museum, the show that best exemplifies the South’s unique contribution to art, has been relegated to a lesser space in City Hall East, a venue that’s harder to find but worth the trouble. ‘Souls Grown Deep,’ an enormous collection of vernacular art —what used to be called primitive art —by Southern African-Americans is the show to see in Atlanta. Enter through a front yard re-created right down to the dirt floor, but a yard transformed, with broken tombstones, sprinkler heads, bedsprings, paintings, baby-doll parts—and all of it rejiggered by artist Lonnie Holley into a phantasmagorical vision as surreptitiously coherent as a dream. The rest of the show is not quite so overwhelming, but every piece is a wonder. Roots painted to look like faces, driftwood, burned televisions, roller skates, porch furniture cut apart and refashioned into strange abstract sculpture, or iconic people and animals cut from bits of sheet metal. Making art out of ordinary stuff—trash, really, the flotsam of daily life that we all see but don’t see—these artists offer a rebuke to our lack of imagination. But it’s done with such finesse and the results are so surprisingly beautiful that we forget to complain. Robert Rauschenberg recently said that seeing ‘yard art’ like this when he was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, helped inspire his assemblages of the ’50s and ’60s, and that statement underscores not only the uniqueness of this work but also its sense of visual sophistication.”

The exhibition is a collaboration among The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) Cultural Olympiad, the Carlos Museum and the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs.

The New Museum / Museum of American Folk Art
November 17, 1993 - January 2, 1994

Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger, guest curated by Thomas McEvilley, was presented simultaneously at The New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of American Folk Art.

Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger, guest curated by Thomas McEvilley, was presented simultaneously at The New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of American Folk Art.

"As [he] continues his artistic journey, following his own agenda, it will be increasingly difficult to classify him simply as 'folk,' or 'naive,' or 'outside,' and thus Dial will forcefully challenge the hierarchical language that we bring to the discussion of various genres of art.

A quiet revolution may indeed be in process, a revolution that may very well effect a reexamination and reconsideration of the centrality of the 'outsider' experience to mainstream art experience, namely the black experience to that of the American experience."

—Lowery Stokes Sims, exhibition brochure