Lonnie Holley: Changing Power, 2014, power wire from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, broken lamp fixture, plastic tubing and coat hangers, 61 by 45 by 25 inches; at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

Simply stated, Lonnie Holley’s exhibition at the Halsey soared. The approximately 40 sculptures were selected from the collection of William S. Arnett and the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which Arnett founded, as well as the African-American artist’s own collection. Elegantly curated by Halsey director Mark Sloan, “Something to Take My Place,” titled after a 2008 sculpture of nearly the same name, focused on discrete objects—solos rather than a choir, dazzling though the artist’s environments can be. (Holley, who was born in 1950, was long known for his artwork-filled yard in Birmingham, Ala.) The canny and visually gratifying installation allowed each piece its own space—to expand into and to be appreciated within—which is the norm for sculptural display but not always for work by artists labeled as self-taught, vernacular or folk. Often, such artists are perceived as lacking aesthetic rigor and savvy, though Holley, along with Thornton Dial, Mary Lee Bendolph and others, give the lie to that interpretation.

On exhibit were a few sculptures from the early 1980s, when Holley began to make art seriously, but most of them were from the last decade, including Changing Power (2014). It is a standing lamp—without a lightbulb—from which dangles a coil of useless wiring that Holley salvaged from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last year. A metaphor of disrupted illumination, this work takes on additional significance in light of the shootings of nine people at that church this past June by a racist terrorist. 

Holley is a sophisticated improviser, adroitly merging narrative and autobiography with taut formal resolution. (He is also a musician of note, who performs internationally, showing the same spontaneity and inventiveness in his music as he does in his art.) His raw but also surprisingly delicate works, such as the barbed-wire-heaped Table of Discussion (2005) and the barbed-wire-filigreed Like a Slave Ship (2008), resemble modernist assemblages. Curiously, they do not photograph well. Their multiple textures; the way they etch, enclose and define space; the relationship of each part to the other, with solid matter playing against air; their complex internal scale; the balletic twists and turns—all are lost in reproduction. The show was also muted, the palette tending to silver, white, black, pale blue, the hues of aged wood, rusted metals, bleached clothing. Therefore, the occasional appearance of bright color was all the more piercing. Red paint, emblematic of blood—his own, his family’s and that of his race—can be found in Three Shovels to Bury You (1998); In Memory of the Blood (2007), consisting of crutches rising from rocks that are stained red; and Blood on a Rock Pile (2003), which refers to a nearly fatal beating he received in his youth. 

The dump was Holley’s earliest supply store, by necessity before it became a philosophy—a way to preserve “Mother Universe,” as he likes to say. There, he retrieved unwanted materials that became the foundation of his work: bottles, barbed wire, wire mesh, cement blocks, rocks, shoes. Grandmama’s Bottomless Bucket (1999) memorializes his forays. A wall-mounted metal bucket has a stick thrust through its open bottom, suggesting a place where things might be deposited in a constant cycle of loss and reclamation. Some sculptures seem purely formal until you read the titles, such as the interlocked metal rings called Will the Circle Be Unbroken (2011). Other works are wry, lightening the grimness of poverty and prison, including a charmingly crunched-up spoon ruddered by metal locks and titled Can’t Eat Locks (2005). 

This show presented a proud and eloquent group of works, tracking personal history through national history. Holley asks us to see on multiple levels, and once these levels are percieved, he asks us for justice.