Ronald Lockett: Rebirth, 1987, wire, nails, and paint on masonite, 12 by 18½ inches; at the American Folk Art Museum.

The assemblage paintings and sculptural objects of Ronald Lockett (1965–1998) often depict animals or figures, constructed of found tin and wood, nails, paint, and sealing compound. With titles like Civil Rights Marchers, Hiroshima, Verge of Extinction, and Dream of Nuclear Destruction, the works often address social and environmental themes, and many convey palpable emotion. “Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett,” the first museum survey devoted to the artist, debuted at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) but was organized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum (where it opens in late January) and curated by professor Bernard L. Herman. It features fifty of the approximately four hundred works Lockett made in his ten-year career, which was cut short by his death from AIDS, at age thirty-two. (Concurrent to the AFAM presentation of the show, the exhibition “Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die,” organized by AFAM curator Valérie Rousseau, compared Lockett’s art with a selection of works from the museum’s permanent collection.) 

Although Lockett did not train formally, he grew up surrounded by creative relatives, neighbors, and friends in Bessemer, a rural town in central Alabama. In the mid-1980s, he was one of the few people permitted in the studio of his cousin Thornton Dial (1928–2016). As Lockett embarked on his own pursuits in the late 1980s, outdoor installations by his friends Lonnie Holley and Joe Minter were just receiving national attention. Less raw than works by Dial and others in his community, Lockett’s efforts suggest a correspondence to mainstream art trends, like 1980s Neo-Expressionism. At the time of his death, he was attracting art-world notice, having been lauded by William S. Arnett, founder of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which loaned many pieces for the show. 

Among the earliest of the mature works on view was the freestanding sculpture Untitled (Ram), ca. 1987. At approximately two feet square and seven inches thick, it presents a ram carefully cut from a piece of tin and mounted on an irregular wood plank. A small tree branch rises from the plank, and splatters of brown and white paint cover the whole assemblage. This work, as with many of Lockett’s best pieces, has a kind of talismanic quality.

The theme of entrapment, which relates to both the artist’s concern for the environment and his own struggles with racism, became central for him in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The wall-hung “Traps” consist of delicate renderings of animals collaged over with sticks and sections of chain-link fencing. The image of a deer predominates, a kind of avatar for the artist, as Herman asserts in his catalogue essay.

Following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, Lockett made a series of wall pieces. One gritty composition overlays sections of rusted sheet metal and fencing on a fifty-two-inch-square panel. In these later works, Lockett eschewed the delicate drawing and painting characteristic of his 1980s efforts. However, two very late pieces in tin and paint on wood from 1997, Sarah Lockett’s Roses and England’s Rose—memorial tributes to his beloved great-aunt and Princess Diana, respectively—reintroduce graceful, calligraphic lines in the flower and leaf emblems that decorate the quiltlike arrangements of painted metal.