Ronald Lockett believed in magic. So said sculptor Kevin Sampson during a talk in July at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), which is currently hosting a retrospective of Lockett’s work. The artist died in 1998 of AIDS-related pneumonia, so hearing Sampson say that Lockett believed that the objects he made with his hands had power beyond aesthetic allure makes sense. Being black and gay and male in the rural South — Bessemer, Alabama — one would have to stay under the radar, or, as Sampson put it, “keep to himself.”
But this may not be true. According the biographical essay by collector Paul Arnett on the website of Souls Grown Deep (his nonprofit foundation promoting many self-taught artists from the South), Lockett’s sexuality was questioned by many, and he had female sexual partners. See? I’ve already tumbled into the well of personal narrative where Lockett’s art eddies into a whirlpool of sentimentality, pity, and rage about the shrunken life chances of people like Lockett from the rural South, people who graduated from high school, but never learned a trade and who lived in their mother’s house their entire lives.
This is the tension pulled taught by the contravening forces of the work, which has its own things to say, and the story of his life, and also the category in which we place Lockett. Is he a vernacular artist, or a craft artist; an outsider artist, or one who is self-taught? In this context, it feels unfair to say he died of “AIDS-related pneumonia.” I have to say “AIDS-related pneumonia at age 32” because this is true and a key part of his story, but I also need to put that aside for a moment to talk about his artwork.
Lockett takes some of the strategies I am familiar with, but imbues them with — there’s no other way to accurately say it — heart. Look at “Holocaust” (1988). He separates the story of that historic horror with two separate fields of color that then become the story and the meta-discursive comment on it. White skeletal bodies made of painted metal are tossed willy-nilly into the air of an utterly black setting and then, on the right side of the piece, demarcated by a change in color scheme, just green on the bottom and blue on top as if a new day had dawned. You can also see him reworking ideas in this show. “Rebirth” (1987) features a skeletal dog in painted tin that’s stark white on a black background and, to the right, another field of green grass, but this time bloodstained under a washy blue sky. Lockett has an intelligence with materiality and with drama that together make things matter, even if the history isn’t completely familiar. The revelations continue as you walk through the show. “Sacrifice” (1987) consists of a shelf of wood with a painted figure made of wire — a lone figure on a cross, clearly meant to refer to Christ, delineated from the cross itself by the use of white paint. The figure is both part of the structure and floating above it.
In the exhibition Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett, AFAM wants you to see the magic that Lockett supposedly believed in and brought to bear on nails, tin, tree branches, chicken wire, industrial sealing compound, plastic vents, charred wood, and the enamel and paint he could hardly afford at times. But is there any other way to talk about these works and convey Lockett’s spirit except by using terms like “magic”? It’s alchemy to change the basic ingredients that went into his artist’s cauldron into works of staggering feeling.
This exhibition asks you to do more work than most museum shows. Not only do you need to decide how to feel about the transformations Lockett accomplished, you also have to decide how to divide your attention between his story and his work. AFAM complicates this choice by simultaneously running the exhibition Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die in an adjacent hall, where Lockett’s work is paired with votive symbols and indigenous crafts of various tribes to make the point that this work has a performative aspect. It’s about calling forth another reality that the maker wants — perhaps needs — to experience in order to keep going in this one. Lockett says in a video housed in that second show, that when he loses himself he goes back to the work to “regain himself.” It’s awful to think he had nothing else but the objects made from his own hands to comfort him, but then you are astounded by a painting like “Civil Rights Marchers” (1988), with all its vicious, ugly swirls of red, black, and white, like blood leavening our entrenched racial antagonism.
All of these generative tensions make Lockett’s work worth seeing and spending time with. But don’t pity him; there’s no need. You’ll find Lockett’s hand working tin, wood, iron nails, and paint, working from deep desire for a conjuring that is its own healing salve.
Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett and Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die continue at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through September 18.