There was a distant relation of mine, if I’m remembering this story right (I believe he was some kind of great uncle), who worked for the Department of Defense in or about the 1960s and who, in the firm, sweaty grip of psychological distress, steered his car off the side of a bridge in Washington, DC, and drowned. My grandmother mentioned him once or twice, though what I recall isn’t so much what she said as her having said it, later. I do remember that there was no horror in the way it was told. Whatever distress this grand-uncle’s suicide caused had, at some point, spoiled and gone soft, leaving a sense of bemusement, bordering on out-and-out whimsy, in its place. Remembering this, I tried to look him up. I Googled — my grandmother having been gone for years now, and it being very difficult to bring up familial suicides with one’s parents without arousing concern — “defense department 1960 bridge suicide,” “washington dc defense department suicide 196*” “car off bridge dc dod,” and so on, but had no success. This is to say, I have been thinking about insanity.
The insane, or seemingly insane, have constituted a good chunk of “outsider art” (a funny definitional tic considering the degree to which mental illness is fetishized in some circles) since the term’s inception, so it’s no surprise that When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, now in the last week of its run at the Studio Museum in Harlem, includes a few of them. It seems there’s little that inspires a sense of the South quite so much as an eccentric recluse — though, to be fair, not without reason. I’ve known a few of them myself. Take as an example the work of J.B. Murray: page after page of asemic writing (Murray was illiterate) paired with bold strokes of color in compositions that were, he said, inspired by the visions of God that came to him regularly between about 1978 and his death a decade later. We might call this insanity, but outsiderdom — in a state, Georgia, where regular first-person communion with the Divine is less a cause for concern than a qualification for public office — is something of a stretch if we are to take Murray’s perspective. And the thrust of what curator Thomas Lax has put together at the Studio Museum suggests that we should.
There are some heavy hitters here, and they don’t disappoint: Kara Walker’s 15-minute film “8 Possible Beginnings, or the Creation of African-America” (2005) is a wry and powerful allegory of African-American ethnogenesis, and Carrie Mae Weems’s “Boneyard” (1992), an excerpt from her Sea Islands series, documents a graveyard on one of the islands that dot the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina with all the gravitas you’d imagine. (“Stars Begin to Fall,” by the way, is the title of a slave spiritual noted in 1867’s Slave Songs of the United States, the first published collection of African-American music, as having probably originated on Edisto Island in South Carolina, one of these same islands — once a massive cotton plantation and now mostly a seaside resort). The pieces that really shine, though, aren’t on the same level of institutional credibility.
What jumps out immediately on entering the space is John Outterbridge’s “Untitled” (c. 1974–76), a humanoid figure in wood that’s been disfigured — bandaged knee, limbs shorn off and hastily patched — but remains somehow playful and alive. Beyond that is Bessie Harvey’s tremendous “Black Horse of Revelation” (1985) in which a fabric figure, covered in beads, is mounted on a rearing horse composed of gnarled branches painted black. Where Deborah Grant’s “The Birth of a Genius in the Midnight Sun” (2012), 24 incisive panels depicting episodes from the life of African-American painter William Henry Johnson, evokes the quilting tradition, Marie Roseman blows it apart with her exuberantly embroidered pillows, at once totally uninhibited and carefully choreographed. Blues musician and gravedigger James “Son” Thomas’s sculptures, a series of heads made from unfired clay, are alien, off-putting, but immediately familiar. Someone sent me an article about the funeral service, a couple weeks ago, of one Miriam Burbank in New Orleans, who was posed in death at a table with a cigarette and beer. I could only say, thinking of nothing but Thomas’s heads, “Yeah, I know.”
Of course the African-American experience in and about the South, like any other, isn’t monolithic, but the work Lax has assembled connects a lot of dots all the same. The result is at once celebratory and analytic, jarring and engaging; worthy, in other words, of the spirit it sets out to capture. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the insider-outsider dynamic, including by Lax himself (in the exhibition’s wall text); When the Stars Begin to Fall isn’t an answer to that question, however. Instead, it poses a question of its own: when you’re talking about the South, and everything that comes with it, what difference does it make?
When the Stars Begin to Fall continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through June 29.