"MAKE: Hawkins Bolden, Ike Morgan, Judith Scott, Royal Robertson," Apr. 16-May 16, 2009, at Ricco / Maresca, 529 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. .
Works by the four artists in "Make," which was on view this spring at Ricco / Maresca in Chelsea, are replete with intuitive action and authentic passion. Their singular and pinpointed visions say little about worldly knowledge but much about the tragedy of fate. Screwed by the luck of the draw, these folks answer a calling only to touch and testify.
Spiraling into a black hole of misogynistic rage after being deserted by Adell, his wife of 20 years and the mother of his 11 children, the trained sign painter Royal Robertson (1936-97) turned his Louisiana home’s façade into a collage of hand-painted signage directed at whores, adulterers, evil-doers and other undesirables. He wallpapered its interior spaces as well with diagrams of futuristic housing, vehicles and weapons, as well as denunciations of his ex-wife. His apocalyptic images were stimulated by everything from skin magazines to the Bible, and illustrate what he saw as a suspected universal conspiracy of females, ne’er-do-wells and pushers. All are the subject of his wrath.
This purging of personal grievances, his prophetic rants, accusations and generally erratic behavior brought contempt and ostracization from his neighbors. Robertson, though, serves as poster boy for ingenuity, and in this show is the party who most successfully walks the line between social and insane worlds. He was delusional but capable, borderline yet notably productive.
My own discussion with Royal in 1991, about the purchase of a drawing, went like this: "Royal, I’d like to have this piece, how much is it. "$16.95," he was quick to answer. I hand him a $20, and tell him to keep it. "No, $16.95," Royal repeats, firmly. So, it’s back to the car and off to the nearby single-pump gas station and country store for change. I see a box of poster board of the variety he uses and buy half a dozen sheets for him, making sure to ask for a dollar in change, including two dimes and that nickel.
Robertson’s two-sided drawings illustrate, document and serve to explain his many visions. Like pages torn from some oversized diary, each drawing is backed with a detailed calendar recording suspicious activity, his ex-wife’s continuing offenses and the general wrongdoing in the community. Together this large and cohesive body of work serves as a decades-long chronicle of one man’s personal hell.
Included in the exhibition are two of Robertson’s less abrasive and inventive drawings of futuristic transportation, executed in meager materials like marker, ballpoint pen, enamel paint and glitter. Robertson even gives his Snow Auto Superboat and SoloAuto their own fabricated patent numbers and a "designed at" cost, to rival Detroit. Another rare and vintage decorative work on masonite panel depicts a perky pair of kneeling angels, sporting beehive hairdos and amply filled corsets. Shutterlike and devoid of text, it appears to be the ornate embellishment of some portal to Robertson’s world; a relic from a world imagined.
A childhood accident left Hawkins Bolden (1914-2005) blind at the age of eight. He would never see his own work and never intended for it to be viewed as art. Inspiration for his objects came from a young nephew, who told him that the sculptures he’d created of life’s discarded flotsam would keep the birds away, and they were soon employed in Bolden’s cherished vegetable garden.
Old rags, the soles of shoes and tattered lengths of discarded garden hose are crudely hinged thru holes, brutally gored through all kinds of metal debris, to fashion scarecrows Picasso would be proud of. Having once held court over Bolden’s Memphis yard, stuffed dungarees and a punctured cake pan, including tattered lengths of canvas belt and the soles of shoes, roost here upon a salvaged lawn chair like some pompous, sacred swine, relics of Bolden’s simple agenda, his own Homeland Security.
Life dealt a bad hand to Judith Scott (1943-2005), deaf and subject to Down’s Syndrome, who was institutionalized for 35 years before her twin sister was able to obtain her release. Her subsequent transformation and resolve is a well-documented and moving story.
While Bolden punctures his surfaces as if in an effort to expose, Scott hides her objects of choice in cocoons of wrapped yarn, string and ribbon. Her dense and variegated wrappings harbor within their core some painstakingly buried mystery, as in a warm chrysalis.
A thin skin of Butterfinger candy bar wrappers, spread flat just below the last layer of compulsively knotted cord, appears feebly protecting a cumbersome, egg-shaped form. Unconventional beauty, born of insatiable desire and deft hands, is left prone as if dropped heavily in place, rippling to the surface and metamorphically changing, right before our eyes. It is a talisman of tenacity.
Ike Morgan (b. 1953) also employs a "found" palette of readily available commercial color. Morgan’s agitated surfaces of raw color -- royal blues, canary yellows and olive greens -- build portraits of kaleidoscopic presidents and mottled Mona Lisas that would make Andy Warhol blush. Wide open eyes peer menacingly from stucco faces, drawing our nervous attention. Stippled flesh, in unnatural and jarring color combinations and indefinite space, further induces paranoia and discomfort. Here, the series of portraits are presented in a grid, amplifying their cacophonous effect.
At a time when the entire art world seems focused on art as a commodity, a show like "Make" emphasizes art’s otherworldly functions, its power to heal or stem the flow of human pain. Perhaps lessons of resiliency can be learned from these four artists, whose modest obsessions speak volumes. Bolden’s assemblage of two found stop signs, each pierced by holes and given a tongue-like strap, insinuates what may be a last and invaluable warning. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
JOHN DRURY is a New York-based artist, writer and teacher.