Auction: Sunday 11/03/13, 11 am
Preview Exhibition: Thursday 10/31 to Saturday 11/2, 10am-6pm – Daily
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Material Culture brings an astonishing gathering of important folk and self-taught art to auction on November 3rd. Comprising over 700 lots, its sale, “Candles in the Light: International Folk and Self-Taught Art, ” revels in the spirit and diversity of unique artistic vision around the globe. A leader in self-taught art, Material Culture has once again compiled a stunning array of paintings and drawings in this burgeoning field, led by pieces by Purvis Young, Howard Finster, Justin McCarthy, Ellis Ruley, Prince Twins Seven-Seven, Victor Joseph Gatto, Thornton Dial, Jack Savitsky, Lee Godie, Anna Zemankova, Anne Grgich, and many others. Self-taught sculpture includes work by S.L. Jones, and Nate Barrow, both also shown in two-dimensional artwork, and folk-art inspired artists R.A. Miller and David Butler. A truly global compendium of folk art at the sale is led by pieces from Haitian metalworker Georges Liautaud, Togolese folk artist Abagli Kossi, and Felippe Archuleta, an American folk artist from New Mexico. A large assortment of Georgia folk pottery comes to the sale, including the work of Lanier Meaders, Chester Hewell, and others in the same families or tradition. Other substantial categories include a variety of Polish folk sculpture from the 1930s and 40s, a gathering of Judaica folk art from various countries, African popular art movie posters, Indian Bihar folk painting, and a fine collection of Mexican retablos brought to auction by St. Joseph’s University. The auction commences at 11 AM, with live online bidding provided by LiveAuctioneers.
This eclectic array of art will be on display in a dedicated exhibition, October 31 to November 2, from 10 AM to 6 PM. On Friday, November 1, Material Culture will host the “Party of the Year”—an extraordinary free evening of art, exhibitions, music, dance and refreshments, from 6 PM – 11 PM. A special lecture will take place the day before the sale, on November 2 at 2 PM. Joseph F. Chorpenning, the Editorial Director at St. Joseph’s University Press, will present an illustrated lecture focusing on the Mexican folk devotional retablos that are being offered for sale at the auction the following day. A reception will follow the lecture. All events—the exhibition, the party, and the lecture—are free and open to the public.
A wealth of pieces by American artist Purvis Young (1943-2010) forms a vibrant core for the abundant offering of self-taught art at the sale. From the Overtown section of Miami, Florida, Young is famous for blending the African American experience in the south with his private study of the masters of art history in his paintings, collages, and found media artwork. He began drawing as a teenager during a period spent in prison, and his move to painting was initially inspired by the mural movements of other large cities. His work, which shows the influence of Youngʼs private study of Rembrandt, El Greco, van Gogh, Gaugin, and Picasso, attracted the attention of Bernard Davis, owner of the Miami Art Museum, and eventually the praise of collectors and institutions around the country. Today, his pieces appear in many museums, including the High Museum in Atlanta, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Arts in Washington DC, the American Folk Art Museum in Atlanta, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, amongst others. One of the highlights of Young’s art at auction is a giant painting on plywood, measuring 48 by 96 inches. Known as “Dudes in Chains,” this untitled artwork presents nine figures, the joyous hues of yellow, rose, and sky blue a thought-provoking counterpoint to their shackles, while the featureless dark heads suggest that we are looking at the back of the men. The piece is, interestingly, signed upside-down at the top center of the frame. Another painting, depicting a line of men trooping up a shallow incline, was featured in the 2006 documentary “Purvis of Overtown.” At the center of the frame is a man on horseback; sharp lines extending up from the shoulders of the marching men could be muskets or other weapons, suggesting that this is a procession of soldiers. The artist also created the frame for the painting by nailing white boards, smudged with tan, around the image, resulting in an irregular sight for the piece of approximately 18.5 by 39.5 inches. Another piece, even more highly unsymmetrical, features a figure of black with a hugely pregnant belly, painted on an assemblage of irregular boards. Segments of white carpeting are affixed to the right side of the frame; the 92 by 46 inch image is otherwise dominated by hues of orange and sea green.
The sale also boasts a painting by self-taught artist Ellis Ruley (1882-1959), a rarity since much of the artist’s work was destroyed in a house fire shortly after his death, and only 62 pieces remain. The child of escaped slaves, Ruley grew up poor in Norwich, Connecticut, leaving school after the third grade in order to work. In 1929, he suffered an accident as part of his strenuous occupation as a mason’s tender, and with the relative fortune of $25,000 he received as compensation, he purchased several acres of land, and married his second wife, a German woman named Wilhelmina Fox. They were the town’s first interracial couple, and life in the community was strained and difficult for them, their children, and Ruley’s son from his first marriage, who died mysteriously in 1948 from circumstances that may have been murder. Ruley himself was found dead with a head wound in his own driveway, which was ruled to be accidental, despite evidence of a robbery, and his house burned down several weeks later. Much work must have been lost, because according to Joseph Gualtieri, director of Norwich’s Slater Museum in the 1950s, the prolific amount of paintings hanging in Ruley’s home attested to Ruley’s commitment to creating art. Ellis’s brightly colored, finely balanced pieces seem to focus on harmony, both in composition and in narrative. Whether the setting is Biblical, modern, or timeless, Ellis’s paintings generally show fantastic animals or humans in peaceful cohabitation against nature’s backdrop. Ruley’s painting at auction features a man and a woman on horseback, the pair of humans and the pair of horses alike enjoying a pause on the tree-lined path. Though the trees are green, falling triangles of red, yellow and orange suggest a descent of dreamy leaves. The strangeness of the white building to the right of center causes the viewer to reevaulate the white telephone pole above it as a shape of beauty. Ruley’s posthumous reputation as an artist took a turn in 1993 with the publication of Glenn Robert Smith’s book Discovering Ellis Ruley, leading to a retrospective of his work that travelled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City in 1996, and a 2002 documentary film.
A rich selection of work from Howard Finster (1916-2001) comes to auction; Finster may be one of the best known American self-taught artists, his distinct style recognizable for its use in popular culture in the late 20th century. Born in Alabama, Finster was a Baptist minister, and his relationship with God inspired him to create a museum which he titled the Plant Farm Museum, but has come to be referred to as Paradise Garden. Finsterʼs art, brightly-colored and finely-detailed, is frequently decorated with religious or Biblical text, and it gained much attention after appearing on the album covers of bands such as R.E.M and the Talking Heads, amongst others. His pieces are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the Georgia Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago. The auction features over 25 of his pieces, led by “Cow Woman,” a piece of paint on cut-out wood, dated 1988. 48 inches tall, the figure is mostly human, with a large tail shaped like a cow’s; the tail’s end bears another smiling face, and faces make up the woman’s legs and constitute part of the pattern of her shorts. Her body and the anthropomorphic trees that flank her are covered with characteristic bits of Finster’s text, resulting in a complex and multi-layered work. A mixed media carved root sculpture, measuring 57 by 21 inches including its carved wood frame also leads amongst his work at the sale. A panoply of Finster’s wooden cutouts include many of his signature forms, from the political–Presidents Washington and Lincoln—to the popular—Henry Ford, and a young boy in overalls identified as “Elvis at 3”–to a parade of animals: cheetahs, lions, goats, camels, monkeys, giraffes, dogs and dinosaurs. At one point in his life, Finster felt God that had asked him to make 5,000 pieces of art, and he faithfully numbered each piece, even long after he had accomplished this goal. Every piece at auction consequently bears not only a date and signature, but a number designating its place in Finster’s prolific sequence.
The auction also showcases works by self-taught artist Justin McCarthy (1892-1977), native of Pennsylvania, whose art has been included in major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Folk Art in New York, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The paintings display the expressionistic style and bright, non-naturalistic colors characteristic of McCarthyʼs work. McCarthy’s family was originally prosperous, but the deaths of his younger brother and father left the young Justin and his mother in financial difficulty. McCarthy’s emotional nature, always timid and awkward, was taxed to the point of a nervous breakdown when he flunked his second year at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He was committed to an asylum between 1915 and 1920, where he began to draw. Afterwards, he returned to live with his mother, and continued to live in his family’s home after her death in 1940, working a variety of odd jobs, and occasionally showing his paintings at outdoor art fairs. It was at one of these fairs, in 1962, when artists and collectors Dorothy and Sterling Strauser came upon McCarthy’s paintings and were fascinated. The Strausers, also advocates of other self-taught artists such as Jack Savitsky and Victor Joseph Gatto, began to promote his work. Often remarked to have more in common with German Expressionism than American folk art, McCarthy’s paintings have been likened to many of his international contemporaries in the world of “fine art,” of whose work McCarthy was utterly unaware. He simply painted what interested him, often scenes from popular culture: sporting events, movie stars, or women wearing the day’s high fashion. Animals, plants, illustrations from literature or Biblical scenes were all treated with his expressionist lines and brushstrokes his and vivid use of color. Particularly notable amongst the more than twenty McCarthy pieces at auction are his oil-on-canvas painting “Household Cavalry,” and “Seven Dwarfs,” a mixed media illustration on poster board of the seven dwarfs of Disney’s “Snow White” hopping home to their cottage. Several lots contain multiple paintings brought together in single frame, from a series of fashionable women—“Anna Nillson, Grace Darmond, Anita Stewart, Edith Storey, Dorothy Dalton, & Irene Castle,”—to “Bathing Beauties,” to a boxing match depicted in serial frames, “Sub Spencer, Fights Gunboat Gaffy for the Welter Weight Championship of the World.” McCarthy’s work is now in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.
Other significant self-taught artists appearing in the sale include Prince Twins Seven-Seven, Kwame Akoto or “Almighty God,” Victor Joseph Gatto, Jack Savitsky, S.L. Jones, Vojislav Jakic, Thorton Dial, Gregory Warmack or “Mr. Imagination,” R.A. Miller, David Butler, Lee Godie, Anna Zemankova, Edith Valentine Tenbrink, Annie Grgich, Nate Barrow, John Tursi, Richard A. Smith and Rex Clawson.
A group of important sculptures from Haiti grace the auction. Famed Haitian artist Georges Liautaud (1899-1991) is featured at the sale with three of his distinctive iron crosses, though each varies in size and type. The largest measures 68 by 33 by 12, and stands freely on its crossed metal base. Separate pieces of curling, forged iron curve between the points of the cross, finished with diamond-shaped tips. Another cross has a simple figure of Christ mounted to the twisting iron of the cross’s beams, which end in three-pronged curls reminiscent of tridents. Measuring 36 by 22 by 7 inches, the cross has three metal legs as its base. The smallest cross, with fine fleur-de-lis ends, has a spike at its base, probably to enable it to be driven into the earth. Liautaud is generally credited as the source of an important movement in metal art in 20th century Haiti and the inspiration to subsequent generations of artists. In 1955, the American watercolor painter Dewitt Peters, co-founder of Le Centre D’Art or Center of Art in Port-au-Prince, noticed some intricate iron crosses in a local cemetery. Inquiries led him to forge where Liautaud was at work, who explained that the crosses marked the graves of Vodouists. Peters subsequently commissioned work from Liautaud, and with the encouragement to explore other representational elements, the artist brought forth a wholly new genre of art in Haiti. Liautaud cut figures from old oil drums or scrap metal, using a handsaw or chisel; the rough outline would be filed and smoothed. He also continued to use a blacksmith’s forge as the site for further innovations in the form, using metal to embody the possibilities of his boundless imagination. Vodoun (or Voodoo), the syncretic national folk religion of Haiti, animates much of Liautaud’s work, and he frequently used the spirits of Vodoun, called loa, as his inspiration. Murat Brierre (1938–1988), arguably the most prominent heir to Liautaud’s art form, is represented at auction in a standing figure made of iron. Two smaller heads emerge from the figure’s shoulders, a fantastical element characteristic of Brierre’s work, which frequently features human forms conjoined in eccentric ways. Rounding out Haitian sculpture is a wooden carving by Nacius Joseph (b. 1939). Measuring 68 inches long, the size of the sculpture creates an impact, while its subject matter, a boat full of rowers, represents one of the artist’s favorite subjects.
Across the Atlantic ocean, from the small West African country of Togo, Agbagli Kossi (1935-1991) is another artist who draws much inspiration from the traditional Vodun religion, using the idols and statuettes of its altars as muse. Eight sculptures from this important artist are featured in the sale. Carved from wood, his delicately-featured figures are painted in smooth, bright polychrome. Their skin tones—brown, pink, or pale white—and their expressions, placid, wistful, or cheerful, endow them with a familiar but dreamlike quality. Particularly notable at auction are two of his ivory-skinned figures. The first, seated, wears a golden snakelike headpiece, and holds one hand up in a gesture reminiscent, though not a copy, of the Buddha’s abhaya mudra. Another stands 49 inches high by 11 by 19, a size of carving from Kossi that is rarely available. The hairless figure, clad in a short sarong of deep lilac, holds out his arms in a gesture of giving or receiving. His work has appeared in museums such as the Georges Pompidou Center, in Paris, France, the Cultural Center of Contemporary Art, Mexico City, the Groningen Museum, Netherlands, and the Atlantic Center of Modern Art in Gran Canary, Spain.
American folk artist Felipe Benito Archuleta (1910–1991) is frequently considered to be the grandfather of the non-santero wood carving tradition in his native New Mexico. He began sculpting relatively late in life, prompted, as he explained, by a command from God. Though he was moved to utilize the same soft cottonwood that generations of Southwestern carvers have employed, he felt he was unworthy to be a santero—a maker of Saints—and turned his hand to sculpting animals. His piece at auction, however, is a human woman clad in a pink bikini with yellow stars; her wide stance was probably inspired by the branching of the wood from which she was carved. A beam of painted wood props the figure up from behind, allowing this large sculpture—measuring 55″ x 26″ x 36″—to stand on its own. A smaller, child figure with crossed arms, stands as tall as the woman’s knee. The child is not attached to the larger carving, but is clearly part of the same piece by virtue of attire; the same pink hue as the woman’s bikini, trimmed with the same green. Though bearing the arresting, distinctive expression of much of the artist’s work, this depiction of a person is a rarity in his oeuvre. Archuleta’s work appears in the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, amongst others.
Over 25 pieces of Southern folk pottery, predominantly from Georgia and North Carolina, are featured in the auction. This distinct and highly-collectable tradition began in the early 19th century, when a man named Abner Landrum decided to copy the old Chinese method of alkaline-glazed stoneware. His pottery manufactory used his plantation’s slaves, endowing the form with a distinct African-American influence. Today, several family-operated folk potteries keep this tradition alive, using local clay and, frequently, wood-burning kilns. The most prominent producers of folk pottery in Georgia are the Meaders and Hewell families, shown at auction in a variety of face jugs, ewers, clay roosters, and others. Lanier Meaders (1917-1998), who graces the auction with both a face jug and ewer, is arguably the most famous folk potter in the United States, and is frequently recognized for bringing folk pottery in the South back from the brink of extinction. The Meaders family began producing stoneware in 1892, but Lanierʼs style is nevertheless distinct and his creativity exceptional. Meadersʼ face jugs appear in many museums, including the Smithsonian Institute, and he received numerous awards, including the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Governorʼs Award for the Arts in Georgia, and the Library of Congressʼs creation of Meaders Pottery Day in 1978. Lanier’s brothers Reggie (1919-2009) and Edwin (b. 1921) are also shown at auction in the form of sculpted roosters in each of their inimitable styles. Reggie most commonly used a brown glaze, and his roosters frequently have a red comb and wattle, while Edwin has become known for his slightly more vertical roosters entirely painted in cobalt blue. A number of pieces by the Hewell family, whose legacy of folk pottery stretches back to 1850, are included in the auction: several face jugs by Harold “Bull” Hewell (1926-2012), his wife Grace Nell Hewell (b. 1933), and son Chester Hewell (b. 1950). Other Southern folk potters featured in the sale include B.B. Craig, Stanley Ferguson, Marie Rogers, Charlie West and C.D. and L.D. Brown.
A stunning collection of over 30 Mexican devotional retablos comes to auction from St. Joseph’s University of Philadelphia. The word retablo in Spanish refers to an altarpiece, either painting or sculpture; similar objects are called reredos in English and retables in French. In Mexico, however, the word specifically evokes a small painting on tin, wood, or copper depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints, for use as devotional objects in private homes. This class of Mexican retablos generally dates from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, when mass-produced prints of similar images began to replace their hand-painted counterparts. Frequently little is known about the provincial artists of these pieces, who may have been self-taught, or apprenticed with an older retablero, but this collection testifies to the expressiveness of their creations. Gloria Frasier Gifford’s study of the retablo, published in 1974, created increased interest in the art form amongst scholars and collectors. The decades since have seen many museum exhibitions focused on Mexican retablos at various institutions across the country. The collection from St. Joseph’s, in particular, is featured in Joseph Chorpenning’s book, “Mexican Devotional Retablos from the Peters Collection,” published in 1994.
A substantial collection of Polish folk art from the 1930s and 40s enriches the eclectic spirit of the auction. Predominantly wooden figural carvings, some unfinished pieces let the color of the wood speak, while others are painted in bright polychrome. These small sculptures vary in detail but are universally approachable in expression, frequently delightful. Many Biblical scenes and personages are depicted, including the Holy Family, a crèche scene of Jesus Christ’s nativity, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, St. Francis, and St. George slaying the dragon. The most common, naturally, are figures portraying Jesus, occasionally on the cross, but also sitting in contemplation, standing and riding a donkey. Another frequent theme, often more whimsical in countenance, is that of the family portrait in carved wood, ranging in size from a bride and groom to a family of seven, accompanied by a pet. As an isolated carving, the most common animals are birds, with a carved wood chicken, owl, and seagull offered at this sale. Several lots offer a one-stop collection of puppets, a grouping of painted, carved characters from devils to policemen to kings to mild-mannered townsfolk, prepared to enact any story.
The auction features a number of interesting pieces of Judaica from different countries, led by a beautifully painted chest that comes to auction from Nishapur, in northeastern Iran. The words which adorn the chest, written in Hebrew, help identify its purpose–perhaps a storage space for items for the Passover Seder service–but stylistically and functionally, chests like this are rarely seen. One end, the chest bears the word “Passover,” with a cup, jar, and menorah; the front, with two lively birds facing a Star of David, reads “God is One,” with the words “Zion” and “bitter herbs”—part of the Seder—inside the star. A book on the other end, below the large word “Law,” has text that reads “God Guard Israel.” The chest may have been used to hold dishes for Passover, which, according to Jewish law, need to be kept separate from those used at other times of the year. Other highlights in Jewish folk art include an assortment of the carved and painted wooden figures from Poland, depicting rabbis and Jewish men.
International popular art includes an assortment of hand-painted African movie posters, created to promote the showings at the traveling “Cinemas.” The posters tend to be unique in design, and an expression of their artists’ vision, not simply an advertisement or strict recreation of one of the movie’s scenes. For example, a poster by Ghanian artist Bright Obeng for the 1999 film “Lake Placid” bears some resemblance to the official poster, with Bridget Fonda’s character swimming away from the gigantic alligator’s jaws. But Obeng’s poster for another aquatic horror film in the same year, “Deep Blue Sea,” blends a number of images not seen on other posters anywhere, its shark with a bloody but closed mouth pursuing a diver from an underwater vantage point, while a separate scene of a boat sits at the upper right. Hand-painted posters for films such as “Rambo 2,” “Total Recall,” and “Friday the 13th” combine images from the film, but a poster for “Twilight: New Moon” runs with the idea completely; the vampire clutching at the woman at center bears little resemblance to the film’s lead, while two red eyes with dome-shaped irises stare out at the poster’s top.
Folk art from around the world encompasses many fine examples of Madhubani painting or Mithila painting, from the Mithila region in Bihar, in southern India. For centuries, the women artists of this area have decorated the walls and the floors of their homes for auspicious and festive occasions. Since the 1960s, as a way to supplement the income of the artists, the tradition was extended to works on hand made paper. Depictions of gods, scenes from the ancient epics, and humans in their relation to nature are evoked with dazzling colors and complex shape. Typically, every space on the canvas is filled, with plants, flowers, fruit, birds, animals or geometrical designs. In keeping with the ancient tradition, artists use natural plant and mineral-derived pigments which are applied with bamboo twigs, fingers, nib-pens, and occasionally brushes.
Many carved wooden figures from the Ewe peoples of Ghana and Togo appear in the sale, including several groups of venavi or twin figures, small statues made to represent a twin who was deceased for the protection of the living child. Masks come to the auction from the Dan tribe of the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Peru and Mexico. Mexican masks include eight Huichol hand-beaded masks of glass beads on wood; a collection of Huichol yarn paintings and a beaded violin are also featured at the sale. The luminous, sometimes fluorescent colors of the commercial yarn and glass beads used in the art of the Huichol people is still the media to convey traditional patterns of religious and symbolic significance.