Last Thursday, during the perpetual heat wave that was this July, we popped into Salon 94 Bowery to cool off after a long day of gallery hopping on the Lower East Side. Entering the gallery we walked down a flight of stairs to the exhibition A Being in the World. We immediately noticed a small gray stone sculpture by William Edmondson amongst a group of colorful artwork by contemporary artists. The first painting we encountered was a red, white and blue painting of the Cracker Jack logo by James Ulmer. We thought of it as a folk art inspired pop art painting. It has the hard edges, boldness and subject matter of an Andy Warhol painting with the freshness of a child’s drawing. Ulmer’s Black and White Grid also stood out with its contemporary hieroglyphics of faces, video game, and basketball player icons.
The exhibition’s emphasis is on self-taught artists and contemporary artists whose work has the same freshness. Two of the self-taught artists are Gerasimos Floratos and Lee Scratch Perry. Floratos was born in NYC and raised near Times Square where his family owns a deli. His studio is in a Theater District basement where he paints to hip-hop and reggae music. His painting Mystic Taxi Boy gains its energy from the music he listens to and the city’s streets. Lee Scratch Perry’s Ho Lee Ghost is a bright and powerful graffiti inspired acrylic and spray paint and collage. Perry is a Jamaican-born musician who was influential in the Jamaican Reggae movement, the spirit of which is reflected in his paintings.
We fell in love with Caro Niederer’s small hand knotted silk carpets. They are fresh, playful, and their unpretentious attitude is refreshing. Caro paints scenes from her surroundings and personal life then artisans translate her ideas into silk carpets. The carpets are made with the same techniques as Oriental rugs. Her Mona Lisa “rug” encapsulates the spirit of the show. Katie Stout’s colorful Unique Shelf from the Architect’s Residence and Sculptural Girl is a fun piece we’d want in our living room. It is a bright pink amorphous shelving unit with brightly painted figurines.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is William Edmondson’s Untitled (School Teacher) that was beautifully installed near Maia Ruth Lee’s Untitled wrought iron sculptures. Edmondson was a self-taught artist who lived in Tennessee from 1870-1951 who worked odd jobs most of his life. He said his life was changed by a vision he saw in the sky. According to Edmondson, the vision told him to carve tombstones and figures. He took railroad spikes and fashioned them into carving tools. With no instruction, he started carving sculptures and kept carving them, even though he rarely sold any.
Curators Jayson Musson and Fabienne Stephan installed the sculpture in front of Maia Ruth Lee’s welded metal sculptures made from found fence parts. Her sculptures recall old hand tools hung on a wall. Lee’s sculptural forms are associated with Zodiac symbols and ancient hieroglyphs.
The exhibit contains other important self-taught artists most notably Bill Traylor and James Castle. Traylor’s enigmatic Untitled (Woman with Umbrella) is a colored pencil drawing on cardboard. On the left wall is James Castle’s found object and paper construction Untitled (Construction, Native American head). Both of these works imbue the freshness, spontaneity, and authenticity so many contemporary artists strive for.
The exhibition obtains its power and authenticity from the older work by Edmonson and Traylor, and its freshness and energy from the contemporary artists. The curators assembled a robust group of artists, and with the thoughtful installation, this was an effective and memorable show that everyone should check out.
Photos // Michael Wolf