The great tradition of the Southern road trip is transformed into a museum exhibition in the High Museum’s “Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads.”
A tour of some essential self-taught artists and environments from 1983 to 1992, this curatorial amble takes viewers through nine Southern states and a smattering of obscure towns as they are experienced by a trio of gallivanting novelty seekers with a taste for the unexplored, idiosyncratic side of Southern life.
Leading the trio of road trippers is North Carolina experimental poet Jonathan Williams. Williams helmed this sustained, sociological joy ride into the Southern small towns and overgrown front yards where these “Way Out There” self-taught artists plied their trade. Riding shotgun, photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley snapped documentation of the people and the art they saw along the way including the enchanted alternative worlds of Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, Vollis Simpson’s Lucama, North Carolina whirligigs and Eddie Owens Martin’s (St. EOM) “Land of Pasaquan” in Marion County, Georgia.
The three men were clearly kindred spirits with the anti-authoritarian, visionary, creative artists Manley and Mendes photographed. Always marching to a different drummer, Williams drove a car he nicknamed Okra and in one photo seen in this High exhibition, wears a trucker hat proudly proclaiming “Grumpy Old Fart.”
Some of Williams’ wackadoodle sensibility comes through in a small gallery where Polaroids and musings on the oddball treasures found on Southern back roads help set the show’s tone. It’s too bad that material wasn’t presented earlier in “Way Out There,” since it might have better established the strange synchronicity these self-taught artists, photographers and poet shared. An effort has been made to convey the wild, woolly weirdness of this long, strange trip in exclamatory billboard-style proclamations like “Ice, Pop, Ammo” painted directly onto the museum walls. Like the self-taught artists and environments they documented, those strange word salads are additional road trip souvenirs, in this case, seen on a convenience store sign in Loafers Glory, North Carolina. In addition to those evocations of local color, there are displays of work by outsider heavyweights like Thornton Dial, Sam Doyle, Mose Tolliver and Lonnie Holley, whose soccer ball wrapped in rusted metal fencing affirms Jeff Koons and Jasper Johns had nothing on the readymade impulses of these artists. In addition, “Way Out There” offers up photos of Mom and Pop barbecue restaurants and oddball homemade signage the trio encountered on their travels through 74 Southern towns, to give a fuller portrait of the South’s deep and pervasive eccentricity.
The road trip was essential to fully experience the environments that were an essential part of these self-taught artists’ work documented in Manley and Mendes’ photographs, and which—the curators note—are threatened with destruction and neglect. An especially sad instance is documented in the case of Clarksville, Tenn. artist Enoch Wickman, whose sculptures were decapitated and vandalized or Mary T. Smith’s vivid enamel paintings on chipboard and tin of religious figures, routinely stolen from her Hazlehurst, Miss. front yard.
But too often, like a slide show of someone else’s trip, it’s easy to imagine that this self-taught art road trip was probably far more fun in the doing than it is to experience second hand, as a distant observer in “Way Out There.”
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