Existential Folk Art

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Purvis Young and Ricardo Manuel Díaz offer a darker, deeper vision of folk art.

Allison Hersh
For the Savannah Morning News
April 23, 2005

Folk art typically brings to mind charming handcrafted quilts, walking sticks and furniture. However, two solo exhibits on display at the Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art provide a radically different definition of folk art.

Together, "Purvis Young: Urban Painter" and "Ricardo Manuel Díaz: Reality Out of Grayness" offer a much darker, deeper vision of folk art, expanding the definition of this vernacular genre to include a broad range of existential experiences. Using contrasting styles and conceptual approaches, Young and Díaz explore themes of alienation, powerlessness and transcendence in their mixed-media paintings.

"It's interesting to see the work side by side because both artists are exploring the human condition in very different ways," said Valerie Sottile, director of the Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art, which opened its doors last fall.

Part of the mission of the Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art is to provide a richer understanding of folk art and to comprehend its relationship to fine art in clearer, more focused terms, she said. Exhibiting concurrent solo exhibits by two very different artists provides the creative and conceptual spark to begin a heated dialogue about the intimate relationship between folk art and fine art.

Young is a celebrated "outsider artist" whose work is included in permanent collections at the High Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Corcoran Museum of Art and has been featured in Art in America and ARTNews, juxtaposes images of the mythic and the mundane in his paintings, exploring the nature of divinity in everyday life.

"Purvis Young's work explores the city, the man and the system," said Sottile. "His work has a lot of color and is quite universal."

The paintings exhibited by Young, most of which are on loan from Skot Foreman Fine Art in Atlanta, include work from the early 1970s through the present, illustrating the evolution of a haunting talent. Young draws much of his inspiration from urban scenes he has witnessed in the Overtown area of Miami and from the social and economic injustices he has witnessed first-hand.

"The street is real life," Young once said. "You come out here and feel the workings of the world. That's all you need to be an artist."

As a former prison inmate, this Miami artist also has a fascination with locks, restraint and confinement that runs through his work. "Locked Up," a portrait from the early 1970s, features abstracted human figures supporting a large black padlock in an examination of the psychology of confinement. His 2001 painting "Behind Bars" depicts expressionistic human forms accented with bright yellow and pink brush strokes imprisoned behind black crosshatches, extending the metaphor of confinement into his painting style.

"Middle Passage," a chilling composition that focuses on the slave trade, focuses on a chocolate-skinned deity gazing down upon a single boat loaded with abstracted ebony figures. As the boat is tossed through the waves, red and blue paint pour down from the sky in a storm of blood and rain. The entire image has been scrawled on the inside of a metal florescent light housing, demonstrating Young's industrious talent for using found materials in his work.

Young represents the human form through a series of undifferentiated black squiggles, often tightly clustered to suggest faceless crowds. Using earthy hues and frenetic brushstrokes, he often inserts large, childlike faces of angels hovering over the crowds, suggesting a higher power that reigns supreme. White horses recur in many of his compositions as a symbol of freedom, hope and transcendence from earth's mortal coil.

For Díaz, an accomplished artist who originally hails from Cuba, there is no such symbol of hope, no escape from the cruel, merciless maze of life. In "Waiting," Díaz portrays a black silhouette of a person with two right arms dangling from a rope, extending one arm in a fist in a gesture that can be read as one of boredom or defiance. A mottled gray background suggests industrial materials like concrete, serving as a symbol of humanity's lifelong imprisonment.

Díaz delights in arranging nude figures in a row until they resemble a powerless army, blending together to form the outline of picket fences. In his work, people stand within inches of one another yet are hopelessly isolated and disconnected, serving as a powerful visual metaphor for the human condition.

In works like "Figura," he applies paint in thick, pasty, architectural strokes to form a stucco-like surface from which spectral human forms emerge, as if from some chaotic primordial matrix.

Together, these two exhibits of paintings by Young and Díaz offer a prescient, thoughtful meditation on the complex nature of human existence. As each artist explores the darker side of life on the street, behind bars or at the end of a rope, he bravely records his journey with a paint brush.

"The message is so powerful in both of these exhibits," says Michael Sottile, co-founder of the Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art. "This museum has added a dignity, a respect and an awareness to folk art. We've been very encouraged by the response we've received to these exhibits."