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It's Part Art Show, Part Revival

PUBLICATION: Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN)
SECTION: Playbook
BY: Cory Dugan Special to The Commercial Appeal
DATE: July 2, 2004
Page:  G31

There's an old Southern prayer, usually employed by the seldom-at-church and certain free-lance art critics, that implores: "Dear Lord, let me seek the truth, but spare me the company of those who have found it." It's designed to ward off proselytizers of all stripes, from Pentecostals to postmodernists.

Despite this earnestly irreligious prayer and a healthy suspicion of the exhibition establishment's current embrace of self-taught, outsider, visionary and folk artists, I can hereby declare it safe to enter the Art Museum of the University of Memphis and see "Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South."

The culmination of nearly a decade of research by curator Dr. Carol Crown, an associate professor of art history and former art department chair at the university, "Coming Home!" contains 122 artworks by 73 artists who never benefited from a university art class and whose intent is to translate the "Word of God" into some sort of visual language.

Some of the biggest names in the self-taught field are included: Painters Howard Finster, Clementine Hunter, Myrtice West and Sister Gertrude Morgan are each well represented. Sculptors William Edmondson and Edgar Tolson are also included — as are Mose Tolliver and Jimmy Lee Sudduth, who are not known for religious imagery. But many of the more interesting discoveries and innovative works are by lesser-known artists.

Crown separates the work in "Coming Home!" into four sections, and its installation serves to herd the viewer (or pilgrim) through a not-so- straight but narrow path that follows her directions. A temporary wall of corrugated metal divides the main gallery and provides much needed wall space as well as an architecturally thematic link to the mostly rural base of artists.

The first section is labeled "Southern Religious Life," and its theme is to provide an introductory picture of evangelical church services. Here we see religious frenzy depicted in a number of paintings and sculptures as dance, celebration, musical performance, snake handling and "holy rolling." The most striking pieces in this section are the abstract works on paper by John 'J.B.' Murray, an illiterate who considered his drawings to be a visual expression of speaking in tongues.

The section on "The Garden of Eden" deals with the story of Adam and Eve and the concept of original sin. Most of the imagery is very familiar, and very few works stretch the canon. One exception is Lonnie Holley's disturbing assemblage of a child's battered pink scooter bisected by a crude wooden cross that bears the title, "Thou Shalt Not." This powerful image, dealing with child abuse, seems at first glance to bear little relation to the theme of the Garden of Eden; the curatorial explanation is that it also represents God's curse on humanity for disobeying the original commandment. Hugo Sperger's large-scale "Creation," a continuous narrative of the Eden myth, is a reminder (despite its comic-strip styling) of the relation between of much of the work in this exhibition to medieval Christian art, especially to illuminations and Carolingian manuscripts. (It is also a fitting reminder that Crown's previous area of expertise was medieval art.)

The third section is called "The New Adam," and it deals broadly with images of Jesus. Most deal with the Crucifix ion, but simple portraits, depictions of the black Jesus, and a few nativity scenes are also included. Jesse Aaron's "Crucifixion" stands out in its rawness and abstraction, fashioned into a truncated torso from a found piece of wood in the form of a rounded X. Elijah Pierce's version is an impressive collection of painted wood reliefs, again suggesting the narrative structure of medieval manuscripts.

The last segment of "Coming Home!" is the largest; "The New Heaven and Earth" is subdivided into sections on prophecy, judgment day and heaven (the "home" in the exhibition's title). Of these, the section on prophecy offers the most fascinating iconography, based on biblical readings and on "prophecy charts" that were created and distributed by the Millerite sect in the 1800s.

Certain imagery is repeated by many artists in this section, such as variations on the many-headed beast from Revelation and the "Colossus" from the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel.

Wandering through "Coming Home!" would be a daunting task if not for the guidance provided by the wall texts and the flow of traffic dictated by the curator's narrative. Even so, it feels part art show and part sideshow, part tent revival and part three-ring big top, part museum and part flea market.