Self-taught art reminds us that there is incredible creativity and ingenuity at work even in the smallest, most obscure sliver of rural America. Artist Ronald Lockett, the subject of a wonderful solo exhibition at the High Museum, lived the “folk” art mythos to some degree, making his work in a tiny Bessemer, Ala., neighborhood with the cartoony name of Pipe Shop.
A cousin to celebrated self-taught artist Thornton Dial, Lockett honed his craft under Dial’s watchful eye. Included in the exhibition is Dial’s tribute to his cousin who died of AIDS in 1998, a kind of Edenic garden forged of found materials — carpet and rope and fake flowers — whose centerpiece is a majestic deer, standing in for Lockett.
Lockett also lived by the self-taught artist’s creed that, in his cousin Dial’s words, “having nothing is having everything.” Like Dial, Lockett used what was close at hand: time-weathered wood, chicken wire, nails, sticks and the rusted metal abundant in his steel factory neighborhood. The ultimate gesture of creative reuse, Lockett transformed neglect and waste into a potent language that tackled big issues.
“Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett” is the first solo exhibition of Lockett’s work and a refresher course in the ability of artists outside the hubs of L.A. and New York to alchemize limitations into remarkable, resonant work. But Lockett is also a reminder that self-taught artists created deeply thoughtful, politically engaged art to rival the work of any art-school educated artist.
Placed next to contemporary artists in a group show, his mixed media works in wood, metal, paint and assorted detritus could easily be assumed to be cut from the same cloth. Lockett tackled homelessness, domestic terrorism, racism, genocide but also offered up homages to Princess Diana and his beloved great-aunt, Sarah Dial Lockett, who raised him and whose orbit of quilts and roses Lockett fashions into a moving tribute on view here. There is a quiet and gentleness to Lockett’s work that gets under your skin, a sadness in his depiction of “Homeless People,” black figures radiating halos of white energy like heat waves that you realize is Lockett’s way of showing the divide, the force field that separates them from the world.
Despite limited prospects, Lockett was a visually sophisticated, highly moral and empathetic artist who forged allegories in mixed media works like “Traps,” of racism, persecution and cruelty from scenes of deer waylaid in wire traps and in his deeply affecting odes to a natural world in peril.
The deer, as the show’s exhibition notes, was Lockett’s avatar. It stood in for a sense of hemmed-in helplessness that Lockett perhaps felt in the face of being poor, black and HIV-positive in the rural South. But it also stood as a representative of all creatures, human and animal, trapped, mistreated, trying to make their way in a hostile world. In early works like “Holocaust” (1988) or “Rebirth” (1987) of a hunched, skeletal animal passing against a backdrop of green fields and blue skies into a landscape enshrouded in darkness, Lockett affirms that the world is twofold, and that normalcy and blue skies can coexist with despair.
In an age of bluster, divisiveness and rage, “Fever Within” is a necessary tonic. This powerful, important show is a memorial to the quiet, thoughtful act of creation and the power of empathy.