Friday, May 29, 2009

Folk art, naive art, outsider art: A 440 Gallery

The little gallery tucked into the corner of the hallway at 49 Geary has gone through several owners in the last couple of years. But all of the galleries have displayed fascinating art and the current incarnation is no exception. The owner, William Latham, is displaying two artists who straddle that perplexing area that is commonly tagged as folk art, but in this case is really outsider art, although coming from visionary and religious traditions in the African American community.

Definitions of art, as Eugene W Metcalf points out in his article, “Black Art, Folk Art and Social Control, “ are highly political. This is especially true for the African-American community whose humanity was so long denied by the wider white culture. Art has been seen as a product that represents what is valued in society, so, for previous generations of African-American artists, to be thought of as cultured meant adopting the prevailing style of European culture. Folk art was seen as primitive, barbaric and uncivilized and that standard was applied to all people who created art that didn’t fit the mainstream – whether that art was quilts from Appalachia, pottery, ironwork – anything outside the recognized forms of Academic Eurocentric painting and sculpture. As art historians have been discovering, African-American (and other people of color) had their own vibrant living artistic traditions but while the art was beautiful, it was made for utilitarian purposes and, until recently, not classified as "art." However, this makes the issue more complex for folk art, naive art and outsider art can’t be solely classified by aesthetic terms and taken out of historical context.

Both Leon Kennedy and John Abduljaami are African-American, part of the community but not folk artists. They are not formally trained, work outside the academic tradition and take little or no interest in producing art for galleries and museums. What they make has no utilitarian value. But their works are powerful and intensely personal and can't be pigeonholed into outmoded categories. Both men have potent visions of the world, as it should be, rather than as it is. Listen to their voices. Go look at their art. However you define it, it's something quite special.

A440 Gallery, 49 Geary, San Francisco, Ca

Eugene Metcalf. Black Art, Folk Art, and Social Control. Winterthur Portfolio, 1983
Sharon F. Patton, African American Art, Oxford, 1989

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