Son Ford was born with dying on his mind. Christened James Thomas in Eden, Mississippi, in 1926, he was given his nickname for the toy tractors he started making out of unfired clay around the age of eight — the same time he picked up a guitar and learned to play the Delta blues. As a young man, he sharecropped, and then worked as a gravedigger till his back gave out. And all along, he kept making busts of Abraham Lincoln to sell; blood-spattered, syphilitic-looking George Washingtons with dirty cotton wigs; a teeming multitude of real and imagined faces; at least one elegant self-portrait; and a number of extraordinary skulls, ghoulish and gaping medieval specters with real teeth and glittering tinfoil in their eye sockets.
About 100 of these pieces are on view at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery. Gallery Director Jonathan Berger, who organized the show in collaboration with curatorial assistants Mary Beth Brown and Jessica Iannuzzi Garcia and six NYU curatorial praxis students, put a one-piece Califone record player playing “Highway 61 Blues” right by the door, with the eight-inch-high, untitled self-portrait bust right beside it, greeting the viewer with one synthetic black eyebrow raised to make clear exactly who’s got a bead on whom.
Beginning with a bread-loaf-shaped chunk of clay, the artist captured himself with what looks like perfect transparency: you can’t help imagining the thumbs pressing hollows into his cheeks or the fingers pulling out earflaps at the back. But, in fact, each cheek, if you count, is rendered twice — once in profile and once at the front. The knife-edge crease above the bone is as mannered and unreal as any figure of Max Beckmann’s, and Thomas’s light-brown skin color stops abruptly at his hairline. It’s only the overriding expressive force of a singular nose, lips, watchful glass marble eyes, and a precisely jowly jawbone that force you, despite visual evidence to the contrary, to read him in the round.
This lyrical feat of understated self-consciousness lives in the company of a bright red squirrel, a yellow duck, a fish, a snake, assorted other birds, a disembodied white hand, and 11 of Thomas’s skulls, all of them untitled. One skull has a stretched out Mayan forehead with eyes exactly halfway up; one is tiny and triangular, with gaping sockets; one has two pencil-shaped nostrils; and one is a squat and misshapen goblin with hardly any nasal cavity at all. All of them lean back, as if frozen in the act of locking gazes with their maker, or else recoiling in anticipation of the horror they hope to inspire.
In the back room, explosively profuse in their detail but somewhat stiff, are the head of a black woman with glistening maroon lips, scraggly eyebrows, large hoop earrings, and an erect posture (you can tell from the set of her neck); a tiny, bluish figure with enormous nostrils next to a sooty Edgar Allen Poe covered in white scratches; a man with enormous mutton chops and women’s glasses; and a narrow-faced man with a full set of eerily lifelike dentures and vitiligo.
The skulls, which ought to be fixed, are as plastic as Vaudeville comedians, while the faces, which ought to be plastic, are as eerily frozen as a candid photo of someone recently dead. By emphasizing the usually unremarked aspect of each type of portrait, Thomas, a believer in the African-American folk tradition called “hoodoo,” created a squalidly majestic, decidedly anti-modern, shockingly Manichaean, and radically unsentimental picture of the way human lives are lived in flesh and in time. It’s not only unmoving stuff that endures, his work says to me, but also the momentary flashes of insight, emotion, and wit. The same flashes that evaporate if they’re not immediately committed to music, conversation, or art — the same flashes that are inescapably consigned to rotting flesh — reappear after every defeat, and we can always recognize them. In some of his ghostly smiles, Thomas mixed in dentures and pebbles along with real teeth; in one case, he used kernels of corn and had to trim them when they sprouted.
James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues continues at 80WSE Gallery (80 Washington Square East, West Village, Manhattan) through August 7.