My mother and father didn't work out; my mother remarried during a blizzard at the Old First Church in Bennington, Vermont, where Robert Frost is buried. This place, which around this time of year will smack you silly with beauty, is less than an hour from our house in small-town upstate New York, and on the way is a museum we'd often stop at, the Bennington Museum. That museum has just one claim to fame: its unparalleled collection of paintings by Grandma Moses. The headline of her obituary in 1961 in the New York Times read, "Grandma Moses Is Dead at 101; Primitive Artist 'Just Wore Out,'" and the obituary contained the remarkable line "Grandma Moses did all of her painting from remembrance of things past."
Grandma Moses may be the first recognized painter whose paintings I ever saw. Her story is like my mother's. She lived on a farm. She started painting at the age of 76 because she couldn't stand the thought, as the Times put it, of being idle. My mother does not paint, but now in her 60s, she is on her second career, which is more strenuous than her first.
Despite all those visits to the museum, I do not recall any single painting by Grandma Moses, but that's not really how Grandma Moses paintings work. You remember them in aggregate—their belief in warmth despite snow, their belief in the delight of brightly colored sweaters, their belief in the togetherness of tiny amiable sticklike people (she squeezed them in last, working her compositions downward from the sky) who, as again the Times pointed out (it really is quite an elegy for being so offhandedly journalistic), "cast no shadows." You remember them for their belief, period. "You have no idea how much you can handle until it happens," my mother always says, promising the strength of the American character whatever might come. Conviction is the core of folklore, not style. Folk art is not just a matter of untrained marks, but of untrained marks imbued with an unwavering but not entirely plausible sense of their own worth against the odds.
How, then, should we consider The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art—aside from appreciating its stellar title, taken from Greil Marcus's book on Bob Dylan's The Basement Tapes—featuring recent works by 18 formally trained artists who live in cities and who seethe with doubt rather than belief?
There's good reason for this doubt; the show was organized, and almost all of its art made, during the Bush years, when you couldn't help but lose heart in what it meant to be American and long to go back to the beginning, in a search for wrong turns that might be righted. In that spirit, the artists of The Old, Weird America are pioneers of the past.
Toby Kamps, of Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, is the curator of this show. It's now at the Frye Art Museum, finishing its nation-crossing tour in true pioneer country. Kamps is careful to make a distinction between a folk-art show and this show—between Americana and "meta-Americana." The phrase "meta-Americana" fills me with dread; I can feel a clash of ethics and aesthetics coming on. But that's inevitable: Undermine the foundation of illusionism in folklore and mythology, and you've shut down a major lifeline to all art. This show is not like other shows; it appeals not only to the individual (who would like to be seduced) but also to the individual as citizen (who is wary of being lured to sleep yet again). It's tricky, and important work, to satisfy both.
The works that try but fail account for the feeling of a cold breeze in the galleries. This is when the dry overtakes the sly, usually because the artist seems to address the art historian over the individual/citizen. Cynthia Norton's mechanized, spinning square-dancing dresses feel flatly Duchampian. Her tidy moonshine brewer, made of a magazine rack and titled Fountain (emotion) after Duchamp's famous urinal, doesn't have half the mojo of Tacoma artist Eli Hansen's low-rent-gothic meth-lab moonshinery machines. (The show includes not a single artist based in the Northwest; this corner of the national consciousness is glaringly missing.)
I'm also left wanting at Deborah Grant's grid "sampling" of Bill Traylor's folk figures in Where the Good Darkies Go, though it sounds good as an idea. Same with Matthew Day Jackson's fleshless postmodern montage of framed Americana, double-titled after Bosch and a Richard Prince re-photograph of Gary Gross's suggestive shot of a prepubescent Brooke Shields (police recently removed the Prince from an exhibition at Tate Modern, raising anew old questions about context, seeing, and control).
Magnetic despite relying on an obscure historical reference, Allison Smith's mannequins are cast in her own image, dressed as soldiers, and strewn about on a platform. The reference is Zouave soldiers, a dashing costumed bunch that fought on both Union and Confederate sides during the Civil War; long after you figure this out, the mannequins remain creepy and indeterminate in all kinds of good ways.
Sam Durant's slowly spinning, two-sided, life-size diorama of the Thanksgiving story is mesmerizing; he got its two different displays from the Plymouth National Wax Museum when it closed. On one side, the white settler is standing over the Pequot chief he has struck down and is about to kill, setting off an attack on the Pequots and then a victory thanksgiving feast; on the other side, in a parallel reality, the same chief gives a friendly demonstration of how to plant corn.
Kara Walker's black silhouettes of slaves and masters doing the unthinkable to each other have never been accused of being guarded, but there's a new and striking element to her 2005 video 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker. She emphasizes the artifice and the exaggeration of the scenes, including a slave impregnated with a cotton boll by his master, while at the same time setting her own real image inside the frame: Walker appears alongside the cutouts as the impassive puppeteer, seen plainly in front of the action or dimly behind a scrim. Her face and her movements express nothing and everything at once: I'm here, I'm not here, fuck you, isn't this cool?
The dark star of the show is Jeremy Blake's 18-minute video Winchester, which continuously morphs historic photographs, psychedelic abstractions, and images of rifle-toting cowboys that morph into butterflies and Rorschach-ish patterns in an homage to the Winchester Mystery House. The California mansion, with its endless doors and staircases to nowhere, was built by the widow of the Winchester gun magnate in a frantic effort to elude the ghosts of those who had been killed by the guns. The pure products of America go crazy, indeed. The history of violence is an especially irrepressible subject during wartime. But Blake was also expressing his own personal terror: In 2007, he and his girlfriend both committed suicide, believing they were being targeted by Scientologists and the CIA.
The most fascinating works marry the national and the personal. On the battlefields of the Civil War, for example, is where Barnaby Furnas works out his contemporary fears in paintings of spattering blood and the anachronistic streaks of tracer bullets presented as expressionistic video-game replays. On the other end of the spectrum are Dario Robleto's quiet, curative sculptures made of the actual artifacts of history (war widows' mourning-dress fabric, war letters, military-blanket wool). Brad Kahlhamer is somewhere in the middle, offering his paintings and sculptures as evidence of the pain but also the inevitability of misunderstanding across cultures. He thinks of his work as a "third place," beyond the white German-American family that adopted him and his lost Native American heritage.
There is humor here. Eric Beltz's graphite drawings of founding fathers includes a bitchy-looking Thomas Jefferson, his work finished, with the inscription "Good Luck Assholes." David Rathman's ink-on-paper drawings are based on combining stills from cowboy movies with puncturing new captions. A cowpoke sits contemplatively under the phrase "It's funny to start thinking about women."
One of the great pleasures of the show is the small body of paintings and sculptures by David McDermott and Peter McGough. The two artists, formerly a couple, live anachronistically (using candles rather than electric lights, for instance) and make their art that way, too. Each work has two dates, one given and the actual date of the making, as if to reinscribe their subjects—gay men—into history retroactively. The effort is a form of resistance with endless potential, and the results are moving. The white painting In Praise of Shame, 1915 (2000) is dotted with portraits of dapper men in hat and suit; each reads both as target and window into another, more colorful world. There are so many pasts to remember. If that is the only lesson this exhibition manages to get across, then it will have done what few art shows do: contributed to the republic.