Organized in conjunction with the exhibition Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett, this gathering of scholars and curators explores the course of Ronald Lockett’s artistic development, his influences, and the challenges his creative work brings to larger histories of American art. With Paul Arnett, Bernard L. Herman, Thomas J. Lax, and Valérie Rousseau. Moderated by Phillip March Jones.
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“They Modernized Themselves”
In 1914, upon encountering the work of a young T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound offered to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, a now legendary recommendation: “He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” My talk looks at Ronald Lockett’s revolutionary decision, in his early twenties, to remain in effect a vernacular artist and loosely apprentice himself to his then-unheralded neighbor, Thornton Dial, rather than attend art school and assimilate into Western art-historical dialogues and artmaking practices. Subsequently, Lockett’s artistic development led him to insights and crises—concerning history in general and cultural genealogies in particular—that were likewise affecting contemporary creators within other world traditions.
“Ronald Lockett and the Birmingham-Bessemer School”
Bernard L. Herman
I will take on the topic of “Ronald Lockett and the Birmingham-Bessemer School” in which I look at Lockett in the context of larger artmaking practices that constitute a school of creative thought. The artists in this school include Lockett, Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, and Joe Minter but extend to a much larger creative cohort that numbered local builders, quiltmakers, and others working in the universe of found objects and found artistic opportunities. Their school confounds the conventions of institutions and canons.
Thomas J. Lax
My topic, “Elected Affinities,” will contextualize Lockett in relationship to a group of New York–based artists including fierce pussy, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Group Material, who belonged to communities deeply impacted by the history of AIDS and AIDS cultural activism. While he did not know these artists personally and his exhibition history only relates to theirs in adjacent and oblique ways, I ask whether we might consider them together in the context of the exhibition’s presentation in New York.
“Exhibiting Ronald Lockett: The Ritual Image”
Reflections on works by Melvin Way and Sandra Sheehy, Eskimo effigies, and Brazilian votive offerings that are included in the exhibition Once Something Has Lived it Can Never Really Die, in relation to Ronald Lockett’s oeuvre.
Phillip March Jones is the Director of the Andrew Edlin Gallery. He formerly served as Director of the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation, documentation, and exhibition of African American vernacular art. In 2009, he founded Institute 193, a non-profit contemporary art space and publisher based in Lexington, Kentucky, whose mission is to collaborate with artists, writers, and musicians to document the cultural production of the modern Southern. His work and writings have been published by Vanderbilt University Press, Dust-to-Digital, and the Jargon Society, among others.
Paul Arnett is chairman of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an Atlanta-based philanthropy dedicated to the preservation, documentation, and exhibition of African American vernacular art. He has edited a number of books on this family of art forms, including the two-volume Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South; The Quilts of Gee’s Bend; Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts; Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt; and Thornton Dial in the 21st Century. He has also written for many other publications, including the exhibition catalog Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett, in which he combines art-historical analysis of Lockett’s development with first-person reporting as a longtime friend of the artist.
Bernard L. Herman is the George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His books include Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper (2011) and Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett (2016). He has published essays, curated exhibitions, lectured, and offered courses on visual and material culture, architectural history, self-taught and vernacular art, foodways, culture-based economic development, and seventeenth and eighteenth-century material life. His current book projects include Drum Head Stew: The South You Never Ate and Troublesome Things in the Borderlands of American Art.
Thomas J. Lax was appointed Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014. For the previous seven years, he worked at The Studio Museum in Harlem, where he organized over a dozen exhibitions as well as numerous screenings, performances and public programs. Thomas is a faculty member at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts; on the Advisory Committee Vera List Center for Arts and Politics; and on the Advisory Board of Contemporary Art. Thomas received his BA from Brown University in Africana Studies and Art/Semiotics, and an MA in Modern Art from Columbia University. In 2015, Thomas was awarded the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement.
Valérie Rousseau has been a curator at the American Folk Art Museum since 2013. She has written numerous essays on international self-taught art and art brut, and organized exhibitions, including the award-winning When the Curtain Never Comes Down on performance art (2015), Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet (2015), as well as shows on Bill Traylor (2013), William Van Genk (2014) and Richard Greaves (2005–2007). Her upcoming exhibition, Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die, includes artworks by Ronald Lockett, Sandra Sheehy, Melvin Way, Eskimo effigies, and Brazilian votive offerings. Rousseau holds a PhD in Art History and a master’s degree in Art Theory from the Université du Québec à Montréal, as well as a master’s degree in Anthropology from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.
Image: Ronald Lockett (1965–1998), Sarah Lockett’s Roses, Bessemer, Alabama, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood, 51 x 48 1/2 x 2 1/2″, collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.22. Photo by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio.