“4 x 4,” at Barbara Archer Gallery through June 29, presents four distinctive bodies of work that offer entry into the public and personal worlds of their makers: Linda Hall, Joseph Kurhajec, Lydia Walls and Benjamin Jones. All four are in some way inspired by art that exists “outside” of mainstream studio practice, although with varying degrees of success. Together they present an engaging departure from day-to-day living through their transformation of the quotidian and mundane.
An enormous patchwork bear with unexpectedly large teeth and sharp white claws hovers over the entrance to Linda Hall’s “Hollow Dogs and Other Holy Remnants,” a trophy room filled with a menagerie of fantastic animals that make for a haunting and magical cabinet of curiosities.
Using taxidermy forms as models, Hall fashions hollow shells of familiar animals into what she calls “containers” for the animal’s spirit, adorned with beads, sequins and such, as well as fanciful masks that specific animals might wear. Her use of quilted fabric and embroidery introduces traditionally feminine arts into the masculine context of hunting.
“Bird Watching Mask for Our Cat, William #1,” for example, is a playful construction of paint, feathers, jeweled beads and papier mâché that materializes the imagined fantasy life of Hall’s housecat. Fantasy mingles with the macabre in three creepy but charming tiny constructions of papier mâché, thread and paint, similarly titled “Identity for My Passed Hamster Boo-Foo: Barnie Fife,” “… Lassie” and “… Ricky From Trailer Park Boys.” As the artist intends, the cat mask captures the predatory spirit of her pet, but without the titles, the hamster costumes would seem like ordinary puppets.
More disturbing than playful are masks inspired by an abused dog in Hall’s neighborhood. “Nurture Mask for the Chained and Neglected Dog Across the Street From My Studio” is a hollow canine head with a broad forehead, empty eyes and long, downward-pointing snout, covered with tumor-like lumps that form nipples at the tips, surrounded by wiry brown hair. “Ascension Mask for the Chained and Neglected Dog Across the Street From My Studio” looks like the bleached shell of the abused animal’s head, with empty eye sockets echoed by smaller eye-shaped holes cut all over its forehead and snout. Miniature off-white roses and pale blue beads scattered above its nose and sprinkled around its hairline temper the jarring effect of the lacerations, and flames that appear behind its ears, combined with the title, suggest a hopeful outcome for the unfortunate creature.
The evidence of neglect mixes with symbols of hope to evoke sympathy for the animal. As a whole, the transformation of hunter’s trophies into lovingly sewn and delicately decorated animals leaves the viewer charmed but slightly unsettled. A suite of three delicate drawings of a bear and a man implausibly interacting is almost lost around the corner from Hall’s main exhibition.
Animals and humanity merge into iconic, hybrid figures in the raw collographs of Joseph Kurhajec. Primarily a sculptor interested in African fetishes and ritual forms, Kurhajec became interested in European Art Brut when he moved to France and began to study the “raw” art of children, the mentally ill and “naïfs” in the collection of Jean Dubuffet and the Compagnie de l’Art Brut.
His “Spiritual Mysteries” series presents nine unique, mostly undated prints made from fur, reptile skins, human hair and cloth collaged onto a plate and printed with paint. “Shaman” presents an amorphous black-brown figure against a glaring cadmium red background. Its rounded face, tiny red eyes and pointed head are turned three-quarters to the side, with tiny hands that seem to explode from the shoulders of its bulging torso. This shaman might be powerfully evil, or it might be wonderfully magical, or it might be a preschooler’s finger-painted depiction of Barney the Dinosaur. All three possibilities are strangely compelling.
In “Paris,” a triangular, reddish scaly form rises phallically from blocky legs against a streaky yellow sky. Presumably a representation of the Eiffel Tower, two white circles with red at the top center hang between the legs, suggesting testicles, or rocket fire, or even the cartoonish eyes of a roughly rendered figure wearing a pointed KKK-style hat.
Despite his classical training and his worldly life experiences, the sincerity of Kurhajec’s appropriation of Art Brut forms and the rawness of his medium create an intriguing and powerful presence.
Lydia Walls’ appropriation of the folk art style of the late Reverend Howard Finster raises compelling questions. After earning a BFA from Georgia State University, she spent a few years working with an Atlanta artists’ collective but ultimately felt that the collaborative process had led to a lack of focus in her individual practice, so she took a several-year hiatus from making art independently. As Walls explains in her artist’s statement, after a day trip to Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia, she was impressed by the “crude” and seemingly obsessive nature of his portraits and was inspired to paint. She began painting small portraits of family, friends, celebrities, historical figures, animals and art world personalities, producing one every day over the course of a year.
“100 Southerners,” six-inch-square panels arranged in a 10-foot-square grid, includes historical figures, athletes, celebrities, authors and musicians, among them Sally Hemmings, Hank Aaron, Truman Capote, Margaret Mitchell, Elvis Presley and rapper Andre3000. There are even portraits of Uga, the UGA mascot, and the Atlanta Zoo’s formidable silverback gorilla, the late Willie B.
Each portrait was produced in one day, and the hundred selected were created over the period of a year. This folksy gallery of Southern figures has its charms and its problems. Walls’ depiction of Oprah Winfrey, for example, would hardly be recognizable if not for the name written beneath it. Individually, some seem like portraits, some more like caricatures, and some are almost generic representations.
This raises an old question: would the awkward representational style be more appropriate if painted by an “outsider” such as Finster? In this case the answer is yes. Admittedly Walls is searching for an individual direction for her art, but “100 Southerners” seems focused on production and quotation rather than consistency or craft. Because Walls has had artistic training, the variation in graphic quality among her images seems less like deliberate crudeness than lack of technical ability.
In the case of Benjamin Jones’ artist books, the answer is also yes. The knowledge that the books are filled with private studies for larger “public” drawings, and intimate self-portraits responding to the artist’s personal experiences, makes turning their pages seem like privileged entry into a guarded space. Jones’ subjects also include pop culture figures, historical figures and current events, but these are explored through collages of found images and crudely drawn, graffiti-style figures in fields of handwritten text.
The cover of Jones’ “The Little Red Book,” from 2000, named after the famous book of quotations by Mao Tse-tung, is bright, glossy red, with a black drawing of a Chinese pagoda-style building printed lengthwise (right side up when the book is turned on its side). Covering the top right of the roof is a cutout image of a crouching cat, perhaps a humorous reference to the Ang Lee film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of the same year. Two paper rectangles bearing official-looking numbers are pasted perpendicular to each other along the top and right edges.
Inside, the colorful pages are filled with collages of Chinese calligraphic characters, traditional Chinese costumes, childlike drawings of frightening cartoonish characters and references to Van Gogh’s paintings, Italian phrases and French postcards.
“Paris to Atlanta Menu,” from 1992, was created on a menu saved from a trans-Atlantic flight. In contrast to “The Little Red Book,” these pages are filled with handwritten notes, dated like a travel log, beginning with “plans are taking place for a trip to Paris” and narrating subsequent experiences in Paris and surrounding areas.
On one page, a stone fortress-like structure surmounted by a cross, drawn like a child’s doodle, is circled by postage stamps and crudely drawn figures reminiscent of the obsessive drawings of outsider artists in the collection of Dubuffet (a strong influence on Jones) or the graffiti art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. On the facing page, a cat, constructed by simply drawn blocks similar to the fortress-like church, holds a second head in its tail, its legs becoming arches through which blue sky can be seen. Perhaps the cat is a symbol for the artist himself, experiencing the ancient structures of another culture in the fast-paced contemporary world of trans-Atlantic travel and instant global communication.
The marginal doodling and handwritten notes that fill in the empty spaces seem to reflect the artist’s constant, obsessive processing of disparate experiences into bits to be stored for future drawings. The meaning of these pages is idiosyncratic and clearly personal, but their direct and simple drawing style, combined with Jones’ pop culture sources, makes them instantly accessible. As bound pages within a precious book, the everyday and ordinary becomes extraordinary and unique.
View more photos of work featured in the exhibit here.