Folk art is a constant stream that runs under, through and around American art. And it seems more important than ever right now.
The influence of quilts, for example, continues to be felt in New York museums. The New Museum mounted an impressive survey of Faith Ringgold's story quilts last year, while the American Craft Museum devoted its summer show to "Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African-American Artists (through Oct. 10). This is in addition to the exhibition of early 20th-century quilts in "Beyond the Square: Color and Design in Amish Quilts at the Museum of American Folk Art (through Nov. 7). By the way, the folk art museum plans to include a special center for "Outsider" artists when it opens its new building on 53rd St. in 2001.
And while the Museum of Modern Art no longer collects what is termed contemporary folk art, "Outsider" or self-taught art -- one can always hope for a policy reversal! -- MoMA contemporary art curator Robert Storr is to be congratulated for bringing out some of the museum's great folk paintings from the 1940s in his current rehanging of the 20th-century galleries.
Downtown, too, we see the folk art influence. The season begins at Deitch Projects with "To Friend and Foe," a painting installation by Margaret Kilgallen, a kind of faux-naive sign painter from San Francisco. She mixes together surplus paint to create floor-to-ceiling tableaux of small and large signs. This attractive welter of ocherish nostalgia with a modern touch combines images and various kinds of typography. In the smaller gallery at Deitch, Lane Twitchell's show "State of the Union" explores his Mormon heritage with intricate cut-paper patterns backed with brightly colored and iridescent materials (both through Oct. 9.)
Just around the corner, the Drawing Center is playing host to "Darkness Like Dream: 19th-Century Sandpaper Drawings from the Collections of Randall and Tanya Holton, and Matt Mullican and Valerie Smith" (through Oct. 14). The presentation of these 40 works -- most anonymously made -- may just be the oddest event of the new art season.
Strange though it may seem, sandpaper drawings weren't actually made on sandpaper. These popular monochromatic charcoal (and sometimes pastel) drawings were done on prepared boards that were painted white and then dusted with a gritty marble dust, giving them an eerie glittery sheen. The medium was perfect for capturing night scenes, although subjects range from historical events and Biblical stories to landscapes, architectural scenes and memorials (akin to those stitched in silk or painted in watercolor). Amateurs of every stripe, including many schoolgirls, tried their hand at the craft, freely adapting print sources, so that even the most popular subject was never produced exactly the same way twice. Sandpaper paintings were probably most widespread during the 1850s and 1860s.
The exhibition offers multiple reworkings of a specific print. Three versions of The Magic Lake, plus a copy of the print on which the sandpapers are based, all depend on the story of a wizard that conjures up a spirit in a girl's dream. She follows the spirit into a cave and finds immortality, a metaphor for merging with Christ in the afterlife. A male and female figure on a shore near a cave raise their hands to the heavens with spirits hovering in the sky in every rendering, yet each is distinctive.
Two works show an island fort, each with uniquely patterned waves and buildings. Two drawings of Niagara Falls, both from the same source, offer disparate visions -- one much more abstract with darker tonalities than the other.
One of the finest pieces is one of the smallest, The Arctic Rescue, with a sole figure stranded on an ice floe with others dispatching a small boat from other floes to save him. A large sailing ship is anchored in the background. Who needs movies or TV with this little thriller in black and white?
Harper's Ferry, New York is a lively genre scene featuring a covered bridge, strollers near the town on one side of the river and a train moving along bluffs across the way. One piece explores the Ruins of Palmyra with fallen columns and robed figures with little regard for historical accuracy, although it's more fun than a Cecil B. de Mille epic. Another tells the tale of a ghost walking a local cemetery at night.
A different kind of standout is a series of four small pieces by Edward F. Rannels. His drawings of houses and a church, taken from the Oxford Drawing Book, can be appreciated as geometric studies built upon contrasts of white, black and a creamy gray.
Sandpaper paintings were many times removed from their original sources, most being based on prints that were themselves based on paintings. The free interpretations of sandpaper artists seem sure to inspire contemporary artists to do the same with who-knows-what results in the future.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.