Mysterious Muses through Aug. 25;
Southern Folk Masters through Jan. 5, 2014
Mennello Museum of American Art, 900 E. Princeton St. | 407-246-4278 | mennellomuseum.com | $5
Good folk music has a raw honest quality unvarnished by slick studio production, and good folk art ain’t no different. Citified museums and hoity-toity galleries used to be a no-fly zone for folk art; instead of getting MFAs, these self-taught artists often create under shady magnolias and on the back porches of the much-maligned American South. Yet folk art can connect to your soul with a punch often lacking in silk-gloved fine art. For a hit of that reality, visit the Mennello Museum of American Art this summer.
The Mennello’s colorful walls are home to a fine collection of the art of Earl Cunningham, a Maine transplant to Florida, part of which is now hanging in the gallery to the left of the museum entrance. As of last week, Southern Folk Masters is installed to the right, and Mysterious Muses, a mélange of mythic animals and anonymous subjects of the South, floods the main space. Mennello curator Frank Holt has built the two shows out of the museum’s permanent collections.
The entry is a gauntlet of crows – birds despised by the agricultural South, and that also have a darker meaning to those who grew up in these parts. Shane Campbell’s “Crow Column” stands in the center. The wooden pillar swirls with carved, painted birds and epigrams like “Never trust a hungry crow.” On the wall, Terry Cannon’s glowering “Untitled (Crows)” hunch menacingly against a blood-red background, framed by building scraps.
Kurt Zimmerman’s electrifying “Armadillo,” “Opossum” and “Wounded Crow” look furiously alive, with a freaky raw energy that draws the viewer into the Mysterious Muses gallery. By contrast, Gary Yost’s black “Uncle Sam” stands tall and thin, beckoning elegantly from the corner, a wry smile on his face. It is Ronald Lockett’s untitled, stoic trapped deer assemblage, however, that strikes with a pathos at once horrific and universal. Lockett, dead at 33 of AIDS, was mentored by the great self-taught artist Thornton Dial in Alabama’s Black Belt near Birmingham, and his work speaks of the African-American experience in the South like few others today.
The Southern Folk Masters show is a selection of legendary visionary artists, including Mary T. Smith, whose untitled painting on a section of garden fence is a powerful red-and-black abstract expressing struggle. Inner-city Miami artist Purvis Young died in April of 2010; in “Angel Head,” his iconic spirits float over the miserable, hot buildings of Overtown wearing almost bodhisattva-like expressions. Also look for Nellie Mae Rowe’s “Untitled (Bearded Lady),” done in crayon – yes, serious artists use crayon too – a street scene rich with narrative and intrigue.
Whatever you call it – folk art, naive art, outsider art, visionary art, primitive art – this style of work is addictive, like eating hot chilis. But in the Mennello’s far right gallery, a viewer will notice, instead of more spice, patrician hoardings of indigenous Florida artifacts on display. This splash of cold water on the viewer (who might wonder how the items were separated from their original owners, the Seminole Indians) reinforces the honesty and raw creative energy radiating off the improvised scraps used by folk artists for canvases. However those artifacts were collected, they serve an educational purpose now, one that the Mennello seeks strenuously to impart to Orlando. Like Mose Tolliver’s “Black Jesus,” the viewer may find redemption in the connection to a greater humanity.