Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 9, 2018
Bernard Herman Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley Eds Mark Sloan and Lizz Biswell Exh. cat. Charleston: Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, College of Charleston, 2016. 214 pp.; 114 color ills.; 3 b/w ills. Hardcover $39.95 (9781467574488)
Exhibition schedule: Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Hollie, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston School of the Arts, South Carolina, August 22–October 10, 2015.

Exhibition schedule: Lonnie Holley: I Snuck Off a Slave Ship, Atlanta Contemporary, January 12–April 2, 2017

Installation view, Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, August 22–October 10, 2015 (photograph © Rick Rhodes; provided by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art)

A central (and not uncommon) problem confronts the curator of a white-box gallery who wishes to exhibit the work of Lonnie Holley, an Alabama-born artist and musician typically described as self-taught or vernacular: how to present the work within the conventions established by this type of institution while also acknowledging that the artist’s animating presence is necessary to the artworks’ significance. As Bernard L. Herman argues in a persuasive essay in Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley, the catalogue accompanying a 2015 exhibition at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, “Performance stands at the heart of Lonnie Holley’s art, in the sense that the works from which he creates found objects serve as repositories of ideas that await the enlivening moment when they are summoned forth” (35–36). Another, more recent (but unrelated) one-person show—Lonnie Holley: I Snuck Off the Slave Ship, at Atlanta Contemporary—reveals the stubbornness of museum practice and the necessity of finding ways to address its structural limitations.

In both the Atlanta Contemporary exhibition, curated by Daniel Fuller, and the Halsey catalogue, edited by exhibition curator Mark Sloan, the conundrum was addressed via a division of labor between the forms of presentation and the words that accompany them. The visuals remained true to form: the work of art was treated as autonomous, set off against the white walls or floating on the white page. The ramifications are especially profound in the book, where the isolation of the objects and their transfer to two dimensions accentuate the play of form and line, nearly to the exclusion of all else. With this treatment one could easily be led to a pseudomorphous comparison between Holley’s Climbing for Power (1996) and a Mark di Suvero timber composition, for instance. The book’s textual elements were tasked with conjuring the performative, life, and spatial contexts from which Holley’s works derive. All of the plates in the Halsey publication and very nearly all of the twenty-eight assemblages on view at Atlanta Contemporary were accompanied by the artist’s elucidations. His voice dominates the essays in the former, whether in direct quotations or in the biographical details gleaned from his recounting. Indeed, the catalogue for Something to Take My Place concludes with “Blackbirds,” a vivid account of Holley’s life (as told to Theodore Rosengarten), the tragic dimension of which seems fit for cinematic scale. The split between visual and textual rhetoric—a sensible and even elegant solution to what may be an insurmountable difficulty—may nevertheless be a source of friction for the viewer. This split was mitigated to some degree in Atlanta by Fuller’s smart decision to include a third apparatus—that of sound. A video of Holley in musical performance played in the black box, and its rhythms could be heard throughout the galleries; the looped soundtrack made manifest the multidimensional nature of Holley’s “voice” without promising explanatory power.

Of course, an emphasis on the visual is very much warranted by the work. A length of burnt PVC piping, a tangled mass of mattress springs, the ornamental yet threatening spirals of steel shavings, and the gnarled branch: Holley is an artist of materiality who turns crude substances into the elements of abstract compositions, flourishes in space. Holley is also an artist of material culture. In this regard, his assemblages draw directly from specific regional, economic, generational, and cultural life contexts. The First Time We Heard the King (2015–17) is an installation that takes advantage of adjacent walls to evoke two domestic spaces through their accoutrements. Though they feature interchangeable vintage radios, clocks, and framed needlepoint and samplers, the portraits of a matriarch on the left and a Confederate soldier on the right signal distinct, racially marked sites. At the vertical seam between the two walls, a voting box, billy club, flashlights, and gun case suggest violent confrontation between the disparate worldviews that govern the two spaces.

The brass filigree frame that holds religious imagery, ubiquitous in southern African American households of a certain class and in a certain period; the black lawn jockey ornament; the permanent wave machine with its hanging tentacles—Holley assembles these and other articles in a mode aptly described in terms of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, who “makes do with ‘whatever is at hand’” (Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, 17). Momo’s Rake (2015), a metal rake head bound to a long, calligraphic tree branch, functions thus as the sign under which all of Holley’s other works may be gathered. The work, included in the Atlanta exhibition, pays homage to the artist’s maternal grandmother, who taught Holley how to subsist by sifting for recyclables at the city dump using a long-handled implement. Momo is referenced again in Three Shovels to Bury You (1998), an impressive and affecting assemblage featured in both Atlanta and Charleston. A bent and rusted metal bed frame is topped with upright shovel heads at the mid- and end points, traversed by a piece of wood, and festooned with decayed cloth; the heraldic assemblage recalls both Momo’s work as a gravedigger—she dug the resting places for three of the girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, Holley recounts—as well as the improvised and impermanent markers once commonly used by poor African American families. Holley’s assemblage practice both instantiates and celebrates “making do” as a form of meaning making.

On the one hand, then, Holley emphasizes the material specificity of his assemblage components. On the other hand, he treats them as emblems—emblems that are often so on-the-nose as to be literal. Blue Ribbon First: America’s Chemistry (2016), for example, is a totemic structure composed of various metal and glass jugs and cans atop a powder keg. That one of the jugs is for a White House brand product underscores the incendiary potential of American politics. Growing Up behind the Fence (2016) thematizes the circumscribed nature of Holley’s youth with a section of chain-link fence placed askew on a child’s rocking chair. A branch has accommodated itself to the chain link, which suggests both the damage done by visible and invisible constraints and the resilience in the face of such constraints. Although these examples are quite recent works on view in Atlanta, Holley’s tendency toward an emblematic use of objects can be traced back to Cutting Up Old Film (Don’t Edit the Wrong Thing Out), of 1984, the earliest work in the Halsey exhibition by nearly a decade. A film reel and two pairs of scissors inserted in its center figure bring forth the construction and constructedness of narrative. The parenthetical title is characteristic of the exhortatory or didactic impulse that runs through the work. Recurring themes include the threats posed by technology to more culturally rooted forms of knowledge and experience, the complacency of African Americans regarding their past and present struggles, and humans’ disconnectedness from and destruction of nature.

Holley’s note for Cutting Up Old Film (Don’t Edit the Wrong Thing Out) in the catalogue reads, “Our history has been ‘edited’ in many forms, from our elementary days to the time of our death. . . . If we don’t let people tell their stories, their stories will never be told properly” (42). Holley’s point is well taken, as is Leslie Umberger’s reminder in her contribution to the Halsey catalogue: “The standards and ideals of the mainstream art world are irrelevant to this work; its power grew apart from them and will exist apart from them, with or without endorsement” (14). Certainly the exhibitions’ curators and essay writers have been especially careful not to speak for the artist or to propose meaning for the works apart from the artist’s intentions. But one is left to ask whether this laudable ethical imperative serves the production of knowledge surrounding Holley’s work. Given the straightforwardness of his emblematic tendencies, Holley’s explanations may dissipate the works’ power rather than serve to heighten it. More to the point, however, Holley avows, “I want to be an artist of America, not an orphan in a storm, not a passion-visioner, not a self-taught artist, not a folk artist. I just want to be an artist. We African Americans in America, we Negroes of America, we are kept in these different zones” (204). If we do not allow for scholarly analysis to join Holley’s perspective as maker, will his work ever escape categorization as separate and other? In addition to doing the important work of bringing Holley’s work to public consciousness, the Atlanta Contemporary and Halsey Institute exhibitions also bring to the surface the yet unresolved question about how best to maintain the specificity of this decidedly American art while also connecting it to broader artistic discourses.

Lisa Lee
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Emory University