This spectacular, if often eccentric, “Vernacular Voices” exhibition highlights the scope and depth of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's collection of “outsider” and “visionary” artworks by self-taught Southern artists. What all this entails is different from the older and tamer version of what was traditionally meant by “folk art,” a term often used to describe displays of hand-carved duck decoys and boats or baskets cleverly cobbled from popsicle sticks. By contrast, works by untutored “outsider” or “visionary” artists tend to be less predictable, often reflecting the unusual inner life of creative individuals who are products of their time and place, yet who were gifted with unique visions that often appeared to them in dreams, or which they said were received from angels or the spirits of historical figures — maybe even the ghost of Elvis Presley. Others are direct messages from God, who chose little-known intermediaries to spread divine revelations to the rest of us. The variations are endless but what they all share is a perspective unfiltered by graduate schools or art history, but which at its best reflects a unique vision that, like all successful art, opens windows revealing insightful new views of the world around us.
Even the most straightforward of these artists can provide unexpected insights. Sometimes called a “memory painter,” Clementine Hunter (1886-1988) was a descendant of people who were enslaved, and she spent much of her life at Melrose, a plantation built by free people of color. There she painted pictures of field workers, cotton gins and baptisms with stylized figures in near-hieroglyphic compositions that are deceptively simple in much the way Mozart's classical melodies often are deceptively simple. Hunter’s other works, such as “Chaleur: The Sun Gives Life to Everything,” reflect a far more sophisticated flair for composition and color.
If Hunter is the legendary matriarch of the Louisiana folk art tradition, many who followed in her footsteps were more complicated characters. The late Herbert Singleton (1945-2007) carved wooden figures inflected with his passion for social justice, and against “confusion,” which he saw as the most dangerous tool of oppressors. Here his carved bas relief, “Leander Perez,” depicts the segregationist former political boss of Plaquemines Parish haranguing restive, bedraggled storm victims in the wake of Hurricane Camille in 1969.
Although Louisiana is arguably the weirdest of American states, the intriguing thing about Southern outsider art is its pervasive strangeness regardless of locale. Henry Speller (1903-1997), a Mississippi Delta blues musician who often performed with Howlin' Wolf, created deeply psychological works that recalled expressionistic European “art brut,” for instance, in an untitled, undulating drawing of three weirded-out women with bare breasts and high heels that resonates a sensibility somewhere between Helmut Newton and the art of the insane. No less odd are the hypnotically intriguing wood sculptures by Tennessee's Bessie Harvey (1929-1994), who believed she was on a mission from God. If her otherworldly figures in “First King and Queen,” cobbled from painted wood, beads and cowrie shells, are peculiar, it is God's will because, as she once put it, “his people are peculiar people.”
Alabama's greatest visual artist, the late Thornton Dial (1928-2016), is justly famous for his mixed-media assemblages and painted wall reliefs, which are as eccentric as anything in the outsider art genre, but they also are distinguished by a compelling presence that transcends categories. His primal yet deftly sophisticated way of simultaneously navigating many dimensions is seen in “Struggling Tiger in Hard Times,” a convoluted jungle labyrinth cobbled from carpet, tin, rope and painted canvas on wood. His more boisterous “Man Got It Made Sitting in the Shade” depicts an expressionistic blue man gazing serenely at the viewer in the shadow of a colorful shrub like a spaghetti tangle of painted rope and canvas. It never is easy to divine exactly what Dial was thinking, but it is clear that he is a master of grand gestures that he coaxes from maniacal mazes of orphaned objects mingled with fragments of lost dreams.
A list of exceptionally beguiling, compelling or just plain strange objets d'art in this exhibition of some 150 works by more than 40 artists would be too long to mention here, but standouts include works by a few living artists such as Mississippi's Elayne Goodman (b. 1940) whose “Altar to Elvis” mingles obsessive detail with near-cinematic production values. In a quieter vein, Louisiana's Welmon Sharlhorne (b. 1952) is a New Orleans resident who developed his precise yet otherworldly style of pen-and-ink drawing while in prison. There he found “art and God” and, like so many of the artists in this exhibition, he has been devoted to both ever since.