Ronald Lockett (1965–1998, Bessemer, Alabama) Rebirth Bessemer, Alabama 1987 Wire, nails, and paint on Masonite 12 x 18 1/2 x 1 1/2" Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation (Photo by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio0

Ronald Lockett, “Rebirth” (1987), wire, nails, and paint on Masonite, 12 x 18 1/2 x 1 1/2 in, collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation (all photos by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio)

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.

Ronald Lockett (1965–1998, Bessemer, Alabama) Traps (Golden Bird) Bessemer, Alabama 1990 Chain-link fencing, branches, cut tin, industrial sealing compound, and found plastic bird and berries 48 x 48 x 4" Collection of Tinwood LLC, L2015.15.15 Photo by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio

Ronald Lockett, “Traps (Golden Bird)” (1990), chain-link fencing, branches, cut tin, industrial sealing compound, and found plastic bird and berries, 48 x 48 x 4 in, collection of Tinwood LLC

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.

Homeless People Bessemer, Alabama 1989 Paint and wood on fiberboard 48 x 48 1/4 x 1 1/2" Collection of Ron and June Shelp, L2015.3.1 Photo by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio

Ronald Lockett, “Homeless People” (1989), paint and wood on fiberboard, 48 x 48 1/4 x 1 1/2 in, collection of Ron and June Shelp

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.

Fever Within Bessemer, Alabama 1995 Tin, colored pencil, and nails on wood 66 1/2 x 30 x 2" Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.1 Photo by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio

Ronald Lockett, “Fever Within” (1995), tin, colored pencil, and nails on wood, 66 1/2 x 30 x 2 in, collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation (click to enlarge)

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.

Ronald Lockett "Untitled (Horse)" (c. 1987) Paint on wood with cut tin and nails 41 x 58 x 3" Collection of Tinwood LLC,

Ronald Lockett “Untitled (Horse)” (ca 1987), paint on wood with cut tin and nails, 41 x 58 x 3 in, collection of Tinwood LLC

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.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

4 replies on “Choosing Between a Folk Artist’s Story and His Work”

  1. This work seems rather sophisticated to be called ‘vernacular’. It’s true the artist worked outside the usual art school – gallery – museum precincts of the Art Industry, but so did Joseph Cornell until he happened to walk into a gallery where someone could recognize what he was doing. I mean the artist seems to have seen some things besides the inside of his head. I appreciate Hyperallergic bringing his work to our attention, and only wish it had done so in time for me to get to the show, which will close in a few days.

  2. This artist may not have had formal training, but the look and feel of the work says he had experienced “art” situations”. Maybe he went to museums or to exhibits where he saw modern work. There is nothing folk arty about this work, it is sophisticated and well executed.

  3. Of course Bessemer isn’t “rural” either. It’s a suburb on the outskirts of Birmingham. But opining about the “plight” of “rural Southerners” has it’s own satisfactions and sense of romance for some people, I suppose.

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