Will — or should — the United States’ current climate of potentially explosive racial tension affect the ways in which critics, curators, researchers, teachers, and other specialists in the world of art and culture think about and discuss their respective subject areas?
In the visual arts, that’s a question that, in their own ways, art museums in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Atlanta, as well as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, are now effectively exploring as they make room in their collections for numerous works by self-taught American artists of African descent from the Deep South.
That’s because, since late 2014, these museums have purchased and/or received as donations a collective trove of such works from the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation. The self-taught artists whose technically innovative, thematically rich works have been added to these museums’ holdings include, among others, Thornton Dial; Ronald Lockett; Joe Minter; Lonnie Holley; Joe Light; Mary Proctor; the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama; Mary T. Smith; Royal Robertson; Georgia Speller; and Purvis Young.
Acquiring such artists’ works obligates these museums to rethink the ways in which they tell the story of 20th-century art, making room for the achievements of these often visionary autodidacts who lived on the far margins of the mainstream art world’s critical debates, stylistic movements, and institutions.
It is against this backdrop of revisionist art-history-in-the-making that Rev. George Kornegay: New Jerusalem, an exhibition of paintings on paper and mixed-media assemblage sculptures by the late, Alabama-based self-taught artist George Kornegay (1913-2014) has just opened at Shrine on the Lower East Side. On view through October 8, it reinforces what is now understood about the mix of artistic, spiritual, and social traditions out of which the works of art-makers like Kornegay emerged, while highlighting his own art’s distinctive inflections.
Kornegay was born in Bibb County, southeast of Tuscaloosa, in east-central Alabama. His father worked on a farm, in a coal mine, and in a barrel-making mill. George, the second of his parents’ 10 children, attended a rural school for several years but left to help farm the 28-acre parcel of land his father had eventually managed to purchase, leaving sharecropping behind.
George married and, with his wife, brought up 12 children; he worked at a foundry in Tuscalossa and eventually became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serving several rural congregations. In interviews from the late 1990s with the researcher and art collector William S. Arnett, who was also the founder of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Kornegay explained that he had received “a divine calling” to enter the ministry. He said, “I run from it at first. I think I was afraid of it, but God, he stayed at me. I ask him to give me these signs if this is what he mean for me. And he sent them. And the end of it come from a choir of angels come to visit my house.”
Around 1980, at his home in Brent, about half-way between Tuscaloosa and Selma, Kornegay began constructing a multi-part, outdoor art environment that would eventually dominate his family’s entire compound. Keenly aware of his mixed African and Native-American ancestry, in his late-1990s interviews, Kornegay, speaking in his region’s noticeable dialect, said of his home, “This property is a sacred place. This was a Indian village way back before my daddy got out here. It’s a burial place. My daughter at certain times can hear voices out here talking but she can’t tell us what they’re talking about.”
Commonly known by historians of folk or vernacular art forms as “yard art” or “yard shows,” creations like Kornegay’s, fashioned out of wood and metal scraps, old furniture, cast-off toys, tires, pots and pans, bottles, farm equipment, and other found objects, trace their roots to the central-African homelands of their makers’ ancestors, who had been enslaved in the American South.
The anthropologist Grey Gundaker, a Williams & Mary College professor who has long specialized in the history of this vernacular art form, noted in a 1994 Metropolis magazine article describing her visit to Kornegay’s property that “the rubbish heap is a metaphor for the grave and a point of contact with the world of the dead.”
Gundaker wrote that such yard shows, which can be found throughout the Deep South, “serve as rambling altars, places where spirits can be summoned and communed with.” (The theorizing that surrounds this phenomenon continues to unfold; in recent years, the art dealer, researcher, and collector Randall Morris, a co-director of Cavin-Morris Gallery, in New York, has also referred to them as “spirit yards.”)
Gundaker is the co-author, with Judith McWillie, a painter, photographer, and former, longtime professor of art at the University of Georgia, in Athens, of the book No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African-American Yard Work (University of Tennessee Press, 2005). Recently, by telephone, McWillie recalled, “While I was teaching at the university, I began doing my own research about certain vernacular art forms I encountered in the South, of which African-American yard art was by far one of the most interesting and powerful. Decades ago, even before the question of whether or not such works could be called ‘outsider art’ emerged, some people in the art world were arguing about whether they should mainly be regarded ethnographically or if they could — and should — be discussed and appreciated aesthetically.”
McWillie’s research flowed into such projects as Another Face of the Diamond: Pathways Through the Black Atlantic South, an exhibition she helped organize for New York’s INTAR Latin American Gallery, in 1989, and the book No Space Hidden. “I was presenting a talk near Tuscaloosa in the early 1990s,” she said, “when people took me to see Rev. Kornegay’s yard. I saw it when it was in its prime.”
“It was a terraced property,” McWillie recalled, “with Kornegay’s own house up at the crest, and each level filled with his sculptures. Even the brightly painted house, with its simple geometry, was an integral, expressive part of the whole experience.” The then-retired minister, she remembered, “was tall, thin, and elegant, with a sash of African kente cloth around his neck, and he proudly told me about his ancestry; in his facial features you could see evidence of his African and Native-American background.”
As Kornegay grew older, and word spread about his remarkable yard, he and his family sometimes made parts of his unusual creation available for sale, but only after deliberating about such transactions — and making sure that prospective collectors understood and appreciated their deeply spiritual character.
The current exhibition at Shrine has its roots in the longstanding interest of the gallery’s founder, Scott Ogden, in the works of self-taught artists, which he collects. Ogden, who is also an artist, grew up near Dallas and studied art at the University of Texas, in Austin, and at Queens College, in New York. He recalled, “During my first year in Austin, I heard a lecture about Texas prisoners’ art and the work of such self-taught artists as ‘The Magnificent Pretty Boy’ Henry Ray Clark and Frank Jones. Later, a teacher pointed me toward Bruce Lee Webb and Julie Webb of the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, just south of Dallas. I was floored by the artworks on their walls, as well as by the stories they shared with me about how this kind of art had been created.”
Ogden acknowledged that, for better or worse, the often hardscrabble life stories of some of the best-known artists in the related outsider and self-taught art fields have become inseparable from showings of their work. Still, he pointed out, the art that has attracted him has always had “to be singular and outstanding in its own right,” irrespective of “the story of the individual who made it.” Ogden brought together his interest in the biographies and working methods of self-taught artists in Make (2011), a documentary he co-produced with the Canadian filmmaker Malcolm Hearn, which focused on Hawkins Bolden (1914-2005); the self-styled “prophet,” Royal Robertson (1936-1997); and Ike Morgan (all African-Americans from the South); as well as Judith Scott (1943-2005), a woman with Down syndrome who made unusual sculptural objects wrapped in thick layers of colored yarn and thread.
This exhibition is Kornegay’s first-ever solo presentation anywhere; Ogden organized it by tapping into several private collections. Whereas the simple, uncluttered, found-object assemblages of the blind Hawkins Bolden can feel eloquent and soulful, and those of Lonnie Holley often recall African-American yard art’s talismanic character, Kornegay’s works tend to address their subjects, both biblical and other themes, more literally, as well as with more quirky, formal-interpretive twists.
At Shrine, in works from the early 1990s, Kornegay’s “Untitled (Black Woman)” uses an oddly shaped board, scraps of black Naugahyde (artificial leather), sheet-metal shavings (for hair), and a few daubs of paint to fashion a female face and her robed figure. In both “Untitled (Animal)” and an untitled, bird-like form, whose face is white on one side and brown on the other, the artist used thick slices of tree trunks to craft unidentifiable creatures’ heads, trapping them in awkward, wood-and-metal frames or perching them on long, wooden legs.
Kornegay’s painting of what appears to be a member of a celestial choir employs a stripped-down palette of black, blue, red, and white on a scrap of corrugated metal. As clever as any classic modernist’s manipulation of found materials, here Kornegay used the vertical stripes created by the corrugation to suggest the folds in a long robe, literally giving them tangible form. Similarly, in his boldly colored works on paper, Kornegay used felt-tip markers or what appears to be plain house paint to produce abstracted, often silhouetted forms — of women, plants, and other, more indistinguishable creatures or objects. And then there is his multicolored toilet seat festooned with a cascade of shredded-fabric strips and dotted with white paint to render a simple, watchful face.
Kornegay regarded his yard and the individual elements it contained as a means of communicating messages to the living from the dead (their legacies, teachings, and wisdom) as well as an embodiment of those messages themselves. According to McWillie, when she visited the artist, he pointed to the objects in his yard and told her, “These are the things that can’t be said,” by which he meant, she explained, “that the entire yard was a spirit-filled kind of energy field.”
That’s a tall order for any work of art, but even here, in a Manhattan gallery, far removed from their original site and fuller context, Kornegay’s creations exude a compelling, mysterious air.
Rev. George Kornegay: New Jerusalem continues at Shrine (191 Henry Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 8.