Burning the Old South Church. A ttributed to John Hilling (1822-1894) c. 1854. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Barbara L. Gordon Collection
Something that must be said of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s current sprawling exhibition of American folk art, “Wonder, Whimsy, Wild: Folk Art in America”: It is probably the only time the museum has displayed works by an artist named “Schtockschnitzler.”
A century ago, Schtockschnitzler Simmons, whose first name means “cane carver” in German, was a prolific sculptor of wooden birds, which he chiseled out of tulip poplar and painted with unnaturally bright colors. A native of Germany but a resident of Pennsylvania at the turn of the twentieth century, Simmons traveled the American countryside peddling his illustratively carved “bird trees,” which show the avian specimens perched on a hardwood sapling.
The Brooks exhibition includes an ambitious example of the sculptor’s bird trees, featuring ten songbirds with small wire legs. Also featured is a lone-standing parrot, which the exhibition literature notes “may not look like a realistic parrot.” Instead, the elongated tail feathers, the rounded head, and the hooked beak reference stylized drawings of parrots often found in German-American art from the period.
Though it is hard to find a defining trait of folk art that is not, under some other definition, excluded, Simmons’ work is a good example of much of the folk art made in America in the nineteenth century: roughly hewn, open-hearted, and thrifty. The works on display at the Brooks, drawn from this period, are made from common materials, in a style that often used to be dismissed as “naïve,” because they didn’t employ an academic approach to perspective or naturalism.
Instead, Simmons’ bird sculptures rely on what the Metropolitan Museum of Art loosely defines as the tropes of folk art: “strong colors, broad and direct application of paint, patterned surfaces, generalized light, skewed scale and proportion, and conspicuous modeling.” They are decorative, but they also exceed decorative objects in subtle ways. They are instances of everyday mastery, testaments to the idea that you need not have expensive materials to make something beautiful.
Laing Family Record Book attributed to the “Record Book Artist” c. 1804. Ink and watercolor on woven paper. Courtesy of the Barbara L. Gordon Collection
When “ Wonder, Whimsy, Wild” premiered a year ago at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, under the title “A Shared Legacy,” the critic Ken Johnson wrote in The New York Times that the collection “evoke[s] a world and a way of life that modernity has eclipsed, and yet [feels] as fresh and lively as anything you might desire in the art of today.” Johnson also commented that “while most works don’t represent children, many seem imbued with a childlike spirit.”
It is true that the pieces on exhibit in “Wonder, Whimsy, Wild” often feel drawn from fairytales, probably because many depict oversized animals — wooden elephants and rabbits, originally intended for carousels, or a pair of chalkware cats with placid gazes. These works were made by immigrants, like Simmons, or by first-generation Americans who traveled to sell their wooden busts to tobacco stores, or else painted portraits of rural folk for reasonable prices. Many artists made art for profit, but not all. The sculptor John Scholl, whose intricately symmetrical Snowflake Table and The Wedding of the Turtle Doves are on display, began to make art at the age of 80, and afterwards turned his parlor into a museum where curious visitors could come see his work.
The work in the exhibition, despite its whimsical title, is not exclusively playful. Also present are mourning portraits, painted after the death of the subject, many of which feature the pallid faces of children and adolescents. Heavy symbolic elements in these portraits — weeping willows, drooping flowers, a watch, a ship on the horizon — allude to death. A decorated family record book from 1804 sports cryptic epitaphs, dressed in traditional Scottish and Germanic designs.
Other pieces, such as Jurgan Fredrick Huge’s 1851 painting, Conflagration of the U.S. Steam Frigate “Missouri,” involve real-time news, while pieces of heirloom jewelry and carefully wrought wooden chests provide clues into the daily life of early Americans. Still others deal with Protestant theology: The painter Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher who earned a living making signs, depicted over a hundred different versions of his painted menagerie, The Peaceable Kingdom , before his death in 1849. Hicks’ inspiration was drawn from the Bible verse, from Isaiah, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” A later example of the scene, painted between 1835 and 1840, is perhaps the most important work on display in this exhibition.
It is both the breadth and the historical reach of the work on display that inspired the critic Avis Berman, writing for the exhibition catalogue, to describe the pieces featured in “Wonder, Wild, Whimsy” as “a fertile cultural loam.” But, despite the widely acknowledged importance of work such as the pieces currently on display at the Brooks, many critics and curators feel that the category of so-called “folk art” should not even exist as such.
Folk art, as a category, was a strategic invention of a group of pioneering collectors in the 1920s and 1930s. These initial collectors, many of whom were wealthy daughters of American industry, championed folk art for two reasons. First, the art seemed definitively American, at a time when European modernism dominated the conversation. These collectors wanted an identity for American visual art that reflected something unique in our country’s spirit — a democratic tradition, realized in quilts and affordable carvings.
The other reason collectors may have been drawn to folk art is that the bright hues and flat forms often found in the work echoed the modernist work that these women encountered during educations abroad. According to the American Museum of Folk Art, prominent collectors such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller “equate[d] the straightforwardness, abstracted forms, and delight in color of early folk art with the new modernist art they had studied in Europe and were pioneering in America.” The work seems to pre-date and at the same time predict artists like Matisse and Picasso.
Much of the modern scholarship about folk art comes on the back of a resurgence of academic interest in the 1960s, by progressive academic historians who studied so-called “bottom up” approaches to history, thereby shining additional light on laymen folk artists. “Outsider” histories, according to these scholars, were primary, rather than secondary, resources for any true understanding of a period.
But recent criticism often calls out the “folk art” label for being unnecessary and classist, an antique division that twenty-first-century standards render meaningless. Roberta Smith, writing in 2013 for The New York Times , offered this critique: “Despite rising interest in and scholarship about folk art — and even after the wholesale rethinking of several major American wings on the East Coast — the isolation of folk from academic is still the norm. Given that we live in a time of eroding aesthetic boundaries and categories, when many curators are experimenting with integrative approaches in international biennials and commercial galleries, it seems past time for folk-academic division to soften.”
Still Life with Basket of Fruit unidentified artist 1830-1850 oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Barbara L. Gordon Collection
F or enthusiasts like Barbara Gordon, who collected the works on display at the Brooks, the attraction is likely not for the curatorial lines drawn around the work, but for the creations themselves. Gordon says that she was drawn to folk art during a middle school trip to Colonial Williamsburg. After becoming a successful lawyer in Washington, D.C., and attempting a collection on her own, she sought the guidance of art historian David Wheatcroft. Wheatcroft advised Gordon to sell all the early work she’d collected and build her collection all over again. With his guidance, Gordon acquired all 63 works of the featured in this exhibition.
Wherever one’s opinions about folk art as a historical category fall, it is easy to understand why paintings such as Daniel McDowell’s incredible Still Life with Watermelon drew Gordon’s attention, even though when the collector first saw it at an auction, she remembers it as “not cleaned and not framed. It was just stapled on stretchers.” There is something both exacting and soft about the work. Slight errors in perspective create a dreamlike feel that recalls works by Cezanne. These are simple subjects, uniquely realized.
Gordon’s efforts resulted in an exhibition with the rigor of a well-researched historical document, a rigor that allows both the childlike playfulness of works like Rabbit Carousel Figure and the austerity of craft visible in the still life paintings of McDowell and others to truly shine.
“Wonder, Whimsy, Wild: Folk Art in America” will be on display at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through February 28, 2016. For more information, visit brooksmuseum.org.