From the Outside In
By Tom Wachunas
“ Your life is a book, and every day is a page…” – Elijah Pierce
“…Elijah Pierce the artist and Elijah Pierce the citizen were one and the same. His carving bears witness to this fact. It provides us with palpable new text for the study and appreciation of art as a cultural production indelibly and dynamically marked by the singular hands of a maker…” - Michael Hall
EXHIBIT: Elijah Pierce: An American Journey, at the Canton Museum of Art / Curated by Timothy C. Keny, Keny Galleries, Columbus, Ohio, and Dr. John F. Moe, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio / On view THROUGH MARCH 4, 2018 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666
Pierce biography: https://www.cscc.edu/ElijahPierce/bio.htm
DOWNLOAD HIGH RESOLUTION IMAGES VIA THIS LINK
From 1969 to 1975, pursuing my BFA and MFA degrees at The Ohio State University (OSU) was an intensely cathartic experience. I remember those years as a protracted baptism - an immersion in the paradox that was Postmodernism. In both the contemporary art world and the microcosm of the Hopkins Hall Fine Arts Dept. at OSU, it was a period of crossing boundaries or shattering them altogether, of conflating so-called high and low cultures, of re-examining traditional definitions and terminology, of embracing old materials and methods while passionately exploring and establishing new ones.
In 1971, caught up in this heady milieu of multimedia experimentation, along came a fascinating one-man show mounted in Hopkins Hall Gallery – painted wood relief carvings by Elijah Pierce (b. 1892 – d.1984), then a 79 year-old African American lay minister and barber based in Columbus. The exhibit was organized by one of my former instructors, Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and OSU graduate teaching assistant who had seen Pierce’s work exhibited at a local YMCA. So thank you, Boris Gruenwald, wherever you are, for befriending Elijah Pierce and introducing him to the world at large. The rest is a matter of history (click on the biography link above).
I still remember being mesmerized by that 1971 exhibit. The visceral simplicity and raw immediacy of Pierce’s figural compositions in bas-relief (i.e., sculptural relief in which the modeled forms’ projection from the surrounding or background surface is relatively slight or low) had an illustrative clarity and child-like boldness of palette that would affect my own art for years to come. I was favorably smitten then – as I am now - by what continues to be rightly hailed as Pierce’s uniquely visionary Folk Art.
Viewing this beautifully assembled CMA exhibit brings to mind traditionally held notions about Folk Art and some characteristics associated with the genre, such as primitive, self-taught, untrained, and ‘low brow.’ Those same descriptors could just as well be associated with another, arguably more useful term for the kind of art we see here, namely “outsider art.” Critic Roger Cardinal originated the term in 1972 as an English equivalent to what Jean Dubuffet called “art brut” (“rough art”) – art created outside the norms of established cultural systems or the mainstream art world. In any case, the directness of Pierce’s pictorial language is enthralling and otherwise unpretentious in its refined unrefinement.
A palpable aura of agelessness surrounds many of these pieces. They often possess an intuitive harkening to stylistic elements found in ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian iconography, as well as religious imagery from European Middle Ages. They include hieratic scale, or continuous narratives, such as in “Elijah Escapes the Mob,” or twisted spatial perspectives - what historians have labeled “composite view” - as in “Jesus Calming the Storm.”
Other visions are infused with a salt-of-the-earth charm and even a cartoonish humor. Among those are “Straining at a Gnat, Swallowing a Camel,” a literal rendering of Jesus’s words berating the hypocrisy of Pharisees, and the wry “Three Ways to Send a Message: Telephone, Telegram, Tell-a- Woman.”
Elijah Pierce – a barber, a preacher, a woodcarver, an unassuming outsider probing our innermost responses to being alive. Collectively, his works are truly significant modern aesthetic touchstones of a life carved out in loving, tangible attention to God, tempered with a concern and compassion for the sociopolitical urgencies of not only his era but, prophetically enough, our own as well. Viewing them is to be immersed in a poignant conjoining of the banal and the Biblical, a bridging of the secular and Sacred, the human and Divine. All told… a compelling baptism by wood.
PHOTOS, from top: 1. Your Life is a Book and Every Day is a Page / 2. Jesus Calming the Storm / 3. Elijah Escapes the Mob / 4. Straining at a Gnat, Swallowing a Camel / 5. Three Ways to Send a Message: Telephone, Telegram, Tell-A-Woman / 6. Watergate / 7. Barber Shop and the Fight Against Evil