“American Folk Art”
John Natsoulas Gallery
Editor’s note: MUSE offers a monthly feature to review specific exhibits from art galleries on campus and throughout the Davis/Sacramento area. This month’s “Gallery Review” is of the exhibit ‘American Folk Art’ by various artists. The exhibit will be on display until Apr. 19 at the John Natsoulas Gallery.
The gallery experience can be an overwhelming one. However enlightening the creations, a plaguing stiffness can be in the air. That sense of heightened formality, a need to whisper and the rule to keep a respectable distance from the work on display. This prim decorum is not the case with “American Folk Art.”
It’s a welcome unpretentiousness: Folk art is created by those with little or no formal training in art, and most of the works on display in the exhibit are marked by a naivety, a certain inexperience that lends itself to an unstudied aesthetic. Many of the paintings are have a childlike quality – bright colors, flat images, a simplified, almost archaic approach to light and perspective – pieces that would seem more at home on a refrigerator door held up by a kitchen magnet than on a gallery wall.
Though some may cast it off as crude or unsophisticated, there is an innovation in the way some folk artists make use of unconventional materials. Retired preacher R.A. Miller used tin cutouts as a proxy for canvas in his works “Preacher Girl” and “Preacher Man.” For his pieces “Bike Rider,” “Milkin’ Old Bessie” and “Bull,” Jimmy Lee Sudduth (a famed figure in folk art) used house paint, mud and honey on a wood surface.
Folk art, according to American studies professor Jay Mechling, emphasizes unity and identity within a community. He added that folk art is meant to be consumed and enjoyed by people in that community.
“One of the traditional kinds of values found in folk art is community,” Mechling said. “Whereas with fine art, what’s valued are individualism, difference and [having] a unique vision and unique style. [Folk art] is not an individualistic art form. Folk artists are trying to connect to the community, trying to express their membership through that community.”
This call for community is most evident in the prominent religious motifs in a majority of the works. A wide assortment of emotions and messages can be found with these religious imagery: These range from the nostalgic and hopeful (such as Bernice Sims’ “Jesus with the Children”) to the blatantly preachy (former grocer Tubby Brown advocates a lifestyle of abstinence with “The Devil’s Christmas Tree,” which shows a tree adorned with untraditional ornaments of a less innocent nature, such as bottles of booze, sticks of TNT and drugs). Others take a considerably darker approach, such as “Apocalypse” by William Thomas Thompson, which depicts his take on the end of the world based on a vision he once had while on vacation in Hawaii.
Despite its grassroots foundations, folk art has created a niche in the art market.
“The people who love the objects often will say that they love the simplicity of folk art, they love the naivety,” Mechling said.
The John Natsoulas Gallery is located at 521 First St., and “American Folk Art” will be on display until Apr. 19. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For more information about the exhibit, go to natsoulas.com.