Folk artists don’t ask, “What is art?” They just make it — in the form of everyday objects, some utilitarian, some pure whimsy.
Weather vanes, signboards, painted enamelware, itinerant portraits, decoys, quilts and whirligigs are among the most familiar examples of American folk art.
For the current Folk Art exhibition at the East End Arts Council gallery in Riverhead, director Jane Kirkwood called for works by “unschooled artists or those skilled enough to appear unschooled, funky and fabulous.”
This artist call makes no bones about it. The definition of folk art, which refers to creative works by self-taught artists, has here been tweaked to encourage EEAC participants, tutored and untutored, to take their art in fun directions they may not otherwise have pursued.
In keeping with this genre stretch, juror Kathy Curran says her selections favored pieces with a “folk mystique that recalled idealized memories of Long Island surroundings or that reflected the craft and utilitarian origins that define folk art.”
Ms. Curran, exhibition and public program coordinator for the Suffolk County Historical Society, holds a master’s degree in American folk art from New York University. She will make an informal presentation at the EEAC Gallery on Saturday, June 18, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., discussing her selections and presenting examples of folk art from her personal collection.
Each attendee may also bring one personal folk art treasure to discuss. The gallery is located at 133 East Main St., Riverhead, and there’s a suggested donation of $5 per person.
The Yankee spirit loathed waste and prized ingenuity, and much of folk art’s irrepressible charm springs from its quirky, at times freaky, constructs of odd parts and found objects made to amuse adults or as children’s toys. A great example is the best-in-show piece, titled “Skate Boys,” by Jonathan Pearlman of East Quogue.
His laugh-out-loud construction made from ordinary stuff, imaginatively assembled, features a rare breed of creatures with bodies made from dried seaweed pods resembling crabs. They wear acorn caps or feather hats and balance themselves on wooden balls connected to an old splintered wheel.
Mr. Pearlman also created a wooden sculpture of a duck, its beak formed by a woman’s high-heel, its tail from some fan-shaped metal detritus.
Pure amusement is also found in “Lion Tamer,” a miniature sculpture by Patricia Beckham of Smithtown. She used a twisted tangle of metal to create a capricious Alexander Calder-like circus lion in a face-off with his limber master.
Folk art, which relies heavily on visual symbols — political, social, sexual and religious — is particularly intriguing when the artist creates powerful metaphors from everyday ephemera or discarded “junk.” Gina Gilmour of Mattituck uses a bit of both in each of her two submissions.
“Sanctuary,” which won first prize, catches the viewer’s attention with gentle guile then delivers a one-two punch. Here, a modest wooden plinth supports a weighty, old iron washer, the kind used in heavy construction. It has a perfectly round opening that here serves as a cave-like space where a sweet plastic lamb finds shelter.
But the miniature sculpture also suggests a reliquary, a reminder of those who are vulnerable, who sacrifice, who are abandoned. Global tensions in faraway lands come to mind.
In “The Price of Oil,” which received an honorable mention, Ms. Gilmour makes a more direct statement. This sculpture assumes the shape of a pyramid made of charred-black plastic soldiers, a jumble of bodies ascending the stem of an unattainable bright red flower.
Riverhead resident Jane Kirkwood’s multi-media work, “An Unholy Wrath – And, The Strange, Sad Story of Santa Librada,” draws inspiration from the tradition of illustrated religious wall hangings and samplers for the home. But her decidedly feminist choice of subject transforms the humorous image of a bearded lady into an updated statement about the horrors of abusive relationships.
The work describes how Santa Librada’s prayers to avoid an unwanted marriage were answered when she miraculously sprouted a beard. That got rid of her suitor. But her father crucified her. Ms. Kirkwood created a digital image of the crucified bearded saint on handmade paper attached to bark. She then studded the crucifix with tiny nails. The text of the story, in computer-generated calligraphy, accompanies the image.
Ms. Kirkwood’s use of natural materials contrasts with her technology-driven process, just as the story of the subjugated crucified woman contrasts with her current updated status as the patron saint of both abused and liberated women.
Much folk art is enjoyed solely for its decorative embellishments of utilitarian objects. Examples in this show include “Belle Starr,” winner of the second prize,” a banjo with a woman’s portrait painted on its face, its handle encrusted with jewelry, by Scott O’Hare of Baiting Hollow.
There are also Christmas ornaments made from Ukrainian-style painted eggs by Riverhead’s Holly Barlin and a hand painted chair by Anna Jurinich, also of Riverhead.
Many paintings in this exhibition borrow from the vivid flat patterns and nostalgic scenes associated with works by Grandma Moses, as well as from the stylized designs of stencils and the geometry of quilts. Most notable are two honorable mention works: “Red Barn” by Margarita Kritsberg of Southold, chosen for it’s quilt-like surface, and “Farm Life with Sheep” by Rhoda Gordon of Port Jefferson Station.
Viewers will also find “Still Life,” a floral painting on glass by Leo Revi of East Hampton, and “Soup’s On,” a charming kitchen interior scene by Barbara Haddon of Sag Harbor.
Two lively abstract color paintings, “Hysterical Delusion” by Maez of Bayside, which took third prize, and “Lola, which won an honorable mention, by Aija Meisters of Long Beach, are closer in spirit to contemporary outsider art than they are to traditional folk art. Today the lines between these two genres are often blurred.
Outsider Art is most often informed by the artist’s personal experiences and symbolism, folk art by shared cultural signs and symbols. The outsider artist, like the folk artist, is also self-taught and works outside the realm of those academically trained.
The show runs through July 15.
Juried mulitmedia show
On view through July 15 at East End Arts Council gallery, 133 East Main St., Riverhead.
‘What Is Folk Art?’
Talk by guest juror Kathy Curran Saturday, June 18, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at EEAC gallery.
Call 727-0900 or visit eastendarts.org.