We live in an age of arts professionalism.
Like music, visual art is regarded as a pursuit best left to pros. Artists often undergo years of training to win advanced degrees from prestigious universities. They create highly conceptual works using specialized materials and describe their works with the rigorous, obtuse language of academia.
The joy of folk art is that none of those intellectual underpinnings exist. It is precisely the absence of professionalism and polish, in fact, that gives folk art its charm and redemptive power.
Drawn from the collection of Barbara L. Gordon, the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s “A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America” is a warm, welcoming affirmation of the human spirit.
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Presenting more than 60 objects, including paintings, drawings, carved sculptures, and an unconscionably beautiful collection of handmade furniture, the exhibit enlightens and entertains. Maybe more importantly, they validate and inspire.
Art, strictly defined, is that which has no purpose beside the aesthetic. Most of the works in “A Shared Legacy” don’t fit that bill. Many were created for domestic use — like the painted wooden storage boxes and dish cabinets. Or the “fraktur” — elaborately illuminated manuscripts that were used by the Pennsylvania Dutch to commemorate family histories.
Other works had a commercial purpose. Like the life-sized wooden “trade figures.” A nattily dressed, mustachioed sculpture called “Dude” was created for display in front of a haberdashery. The cigar store Indian — a ubiquitous figure in the 1800s — was used to sell tobacco. As was the figure of a young woman shown, shockingly, smoking a cigarette.
One of “Shared Legacy’s” gems is a simple depiction of human teeth that was created as an advertisement for a dentist’s office. Disembodied and floating in the context of an art museum, the sign hovers and haunts like a Cheshire Cat smile.
Another strong work, a huge carved wooden rabbit replete with saddle, was made for use on a carousel. The piece fairly vibrates with power. With those half-comforting, half-menacing leporine eyes gazing into the viewer’s soul, one can easily imagine a frightened child refusing to ride the beast.
Paintings, though, dominate the show. Especially portraits. Particularly portraits of children. To the modern eye, their lack of technique is striking. Typical of folk art, they have off-kilter proportions and rough brush work. Some have flat or skewed perspectives. The kids look mean and stiff, or weirdly androgynous. Most have the elongated bodies of adults.
An 1828 portrait by Samuel Peck, for instance, depicts a bizarrely dour toddler with the body of a 60-year-old man. A work attributed to Ammi Phillips shows young James Mairs Salisbury, perhaps 6 or 7. In a light blue dressing gown, his hands in a curiously feminine pose, he holds strawberries on the vine.
These unsettling, incongruous children are a challenge. We are forced to go beyond the notion that the paintings are merely “wrong” due to a lack of technique. That’s a form of soft bigotry — the condescension of all moderns toward so-called “primitive” art. Instead we have to accept these portraits as authentic depictions of what the artists actually saw — which makes these faintly sinister, weirdly mature children a challenge to our current, Norman Rockwell-eque notions about kids as inherently joyful, innocent cherubs.
The flagship works of the “A Shared Legacy” might be two wooden sculptures attributed to John Scholl: “Snowflake Table” and “The Wedding of the Turtle Doves.” The latter features a 3-foot tower festooned by geometric shapes, flanked by a pair of carved white birds and topped by a modified hex sign.
In Scholl’s quirky, outsider “celebrations,” we see the massive redemptive power of folk art. A lifelong farmer and carpenter, he didn’t even begin making art until he was 80. He had no formal arts training, and never sold any of his work. Scholl created art simply because of the human need to create, and his example shows what makes “A Shared Legacy” so affirming.
In an age when art is purportedly best left to professionals, Scholl’s career validates the creativity of the untrained amateur. The display of his works in the prestigious Nelson-Atkins not only communicates that his art matters, but that our own art — even if it’s only a cocktail napkin doodle — might matter, too.
“A Shared Legacy” not only challenges us to accept different ways of seeing the world, but different ways of seeing ourselves. The show doesn’t merely display the creativity of others. In celebrating the domestic, the commercial and the art of the untrained outsider, “A Shared Legacy” gives us all permission to be creative, too.
“A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America” continues through July 5 in the Bloch Building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. For more, go to nelson-atkins.org.