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.
Sculptor, painter, musician and educator Lonnie Holley was born in Alabama in 1950. He is one of a group of contemporary artists, among them Purvis Young, Ronald Lockett and Holley’s close friend Thornton Dial, whose work has its roots in Southern African-American vernacular art and architecture.
Holley’s own art is particularly indebted to the tradition of the yard show—the embellished yards decorated with wood, concrete, plants, roots, paint and cast-off objects seen throughout the American South. For 18 years, Holley’s one-acre property outside of Birmingham served as a yard-show-like multimedium environment incorporating his paintings, sculptures carved from industrial sandstone (a by-product of Birmingham’s steel industry) and found-object assemblages. It was bulldozed in 1997 to make way for a proposed addition to the Birmingham airport; Holley now works out of a studio in Atlanta.
With the exception of one 2011 sandstone carving, this crowded exhibition of a dozen pieces was limited to assemblage sculptures made in the last 10 years. Into these essentially abstract constructions, Holley introduces political, autobiographical and poetic narratives that address our relationships to nature, technology and one another, among other subjects.
As in the work of Dial, the materials in Holley’s assemblages may have formal, pictorial or metaphorical value—or all three at once, as in The Cause of the Accident (2011), the centerpiece of which is a blown-out truck tire. As a shape, the tire interacts with the circular forms of a hubcap and a loop of thin wire in a serene arrangement that pairs flow and stillness. As an object, it is evidence of an incident, perhaps a fatal one. As a symbol, it serves as a cautionary reminder of the laws of cause and effect.
Recurring elements are emblems of motion (in addition to tires, there are steering wheels and truck gears), power (electrical cords and plugs), communication (telephones and telephone wires), danger (barricade tape, red paint), labor (workman’s tools and ladders) and frequently art. In High Class Chair (2011), for example, an arrangement of a gilded picture frame, a classroom chair, a piece of electrical cable and a crude wooden cross is dedicated to the late art critic and scholar Thomas McEvilley, a champion and explicator of Holley’s work.
Two especially strong sculptures emphasize human interconnectedness. The Catholic Lady’s Pictures (2004), a bouquet of empty picture frames sprouting from a piece of firewood set on its end, is—according to a statement by the artist—a portrait, of sorts, of the neighbor who once owned them, while the fugitive face in profile in Mother P (2011), two interlocking pieces of scrap metal threaded through with a squiggle of wire, stands in for unnamed forebears and their histories.
Gabriel’s Horn (2011) features a square grid of wire fencing hung with an assortment of objects, including a battered metal horn. The work encompasses a more global vision of community—one in which we ignore our common humanity and the consequences of our actions at our peril. About this piece Holley has written that the horn symbolizes the act of alerting others to danger. The implication here is that this is the job of the artist, but, as Holley adds, “Gabriel was a messenger in biblical times, and I wanted to show that maybe that kind of spirit exists in all of us.”