February 26, 2014

American Folk Art: Strength and Whimsy

Ammi Phillips, Portrait of a Lady, 1835; oil on canvas, 38 x 30 in.

I suppose we could argue about what constitutes folk art, but however you might define it, the show currently at Edward Thorp Gallery, American Folk Art, is a thrill. The pieces in the show––you can see all of them at the link––are varied in subject and material, but they are consistently of strong visual interest. I have a real love of American folk art: its simplicity, wit, clarity of form, and sensitivity to line appeal to my taste. The show even has a prize of a painting by the great itinerant portrait painter, Ammi Phillips. Phillips was untaught, but had a eye for strong compositions and dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and a refined attention to the details of clothing, and in this painting, furniture. The portrait is very much a specific person, and strongly present to us. 

Anonymous, Marblehead, MA, Pair of Portraits, 1810; paint on white pine panels, 13 x 11 in.

These portraits seem to me more of the generic girl child and boy child. They are charming, each with an animal accompanying the portrait. The bird on the should of the girl is especially delightful; the girl herself looks at us with a kind of open surprise.

Anonymous American, Carved Flapper Figure, 1930; carved wood with original varnish, 53 in.

I have grouped the images in this post by subject, and these first pieces are all of the human figure. I loved seeing how each artist approaches the simplification of form. In this figure the nose and eyebrows are in a continuous arc and the eyes are emphasized with a raised line around them. I wonder why her arms are outstretched; was she holding something? when this figure was displayed was it clothed?

Anonymous African American, Seated Figure, 1910; carved wood and metal with original paint, 
22 x 15w x 12d in.

Here is another figure with outstretched arms, but they seem to be embracing something. The gallery's terse press release says that this piece references a Tanzanian chair. The legs contain a metal tray, so it could be a container of sorts. The lines of this work are beautiful, from the rounded head with large ears, to the curve of neck which echoes the curve of torso swelling out to the bent legs and rounded supports. It is powerful and sophisticated, topped by an enigmatic face.

Anonymous American, Dancing Man, 1920; mixed media, 20.5h x 9w x 5.5d in.

I honestly don't know whether to be charmed by this dancing man or be horrified by it. A black man in a beautifully shaped coat and top hat stands atop a box lid that I suppose goes up and down with the lever. I love it, but I also think it's way too close to the "darky" dancing for comfort. This piece too makes me wonder about its provenance, its origins.

Anonymous American, Walking Stick, 1920; carved wood and paint, 34 1/4 x 2 1/4 in.

This is a fantastic piece, a bony hand holding a globular form that has a soft and vulnerable appearance. Like the dancing man, I can see this in a couple of ways: as a fanciful gesture, or as something creepy, a grasping hand from beyond the grave.

Mr. Rothloff, Athens, PA, Pair of Carved Skeletons, 1906; carved wood and varnished wood, 18 in.

Speaking of death, here are two skeletons, finely carved, full of personality. Although they represent death, there's nothing frightening here for me, just the individual quirky attention of Mr. Rothloff.

Anonymous American, Dog, 1920; carved wood with original paint, 28h x 40w x12d in.

Folk artists often represented animals as an important part of their world. This wonderful dog is alert and ready to run; you can almost hear him panting with anticipation.

Charles Perdew III, Mechanical Crow Decoy, 1930; wood, 26h x 11w x 17d in.

A sensitively rendered crow is about to take wing. Although the gallery description mentions just wood as a material, the wings are made of metal.

Anonymous, NH, Salmon Weathervane, 1910; molded sheet metal, 22 1/2h x 77 1/2w x 8d in.

A.L. Jewell, manufacturer, Waltham, MA, Steeple Chase Weathervane; molded and sheet copper and lead, 36h x 30w x 2d in.

Weathervanes are some of my favorite objects of folk art, and these two examples are marvelous. There's also a galleon weathervane in the show. Because they're seen from a distance, their outlines have to be strong and clear. The salmon is an especially powerful work in its clarity of line and accidents of surface texture. It is solid and still, while the horse vigorously leaps.

Anonymous, Maine, Shelf with Moose, 1920; carved wood with paint, 28h x 22w x 7d in.

A pair of charming moose stand on a shelf, looking at us with a quizzical expression: here we are, much more graceful than in life, sporting huge racks...what would you like to say to us? And there are whimsical bits of decorative foliage carved around the animals, and at center, what? could it be the artist's idea of a pine tree? 

J. Paul Batemen, Bridgeton, NJ, Mantle Surround, 1890; carved cherry wood, 80h x 70w x 30d in.

I caught my breath when I spotted this dramatic work on entering the gallery: its size and color and complexity and craft are remarkable. Here is another instance where I wish I knew more about Mr. Bateman and the circumstances of his making this. It is religious in its subject matter, and like medieval carvings on a cathedral. (click to enlarge to see more details)

Mantle Surround detail

Although the drawing is quite simple––the face of Christ being almost childlike in handling––there are details that are sophisticated: the mountain, the curved wall with plants, and especially the subtlety of the carving of the arms of the woman at the well. In this piece of sculpture––I can hardly call it furniture––I see a relationship with the Trecento art of Italy.

Anonymous American, Checkerboard, 1910; original paint on wood, 11 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. 

Lastly, a work of modernist abstraction.....of course not; it's just a checkerboard, but how beautiful it is! The colors are wonderful together and the aging of the wood adds life to its surface; the frame of reddish wood adds another layer of interest. I would love to have this hanging on my wall. Folk artists may be untutored, but they are wise in the ways of art.


  1. i love folk art
    is there such a thing as contemporary folk art?

  2. thoroughly enjoyed my visit through your eyes Altoon, thank you.

  3. Yes, there certainly is contemporary folk art; I think "outsider" art would qualify.
    I'm glad you enjoyed the tour, maureen.