Sunday, November 23, 2014

P.3: Herbert Singleton and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Herbert Singleton was a compelling New Orleans folk artist whose inclusion in Prospect.3 reflects its focus on important, if too often overlooked, people and places. A lifelong resident of Algiers, he was a carpenter before a drug habit landed him in prison. Both left him scarred by the time he died, at 62, in 2007. Today his eloquently mordant observations live on in the visceral social commentary seen in wood carvings like Leander Perez, below. Here the late, racist, Plaquemines Parish political boss points out a man in a work gang whose expression tells us this isn't going to end well. Except for Come Out of Her--his pithy meditation on black womanist theology's notion of a female first human--Singleton's subjects are mostly deeply flawed outsiders like himself yet, like characters in Dostoyevsky's novels, their stark pathos connects with our most basic human emotions.

Leander Perez by Herbert Singleton

Come Out of Her by Herbert Singleton
Indeed, his sharply etched focus on the dark side of the human psyche is seen in a variety of carved figures and bas reliefs featuring perpetrators, victims and mourners painted in deeply brilliant shades of Rustoleum. Dr. Kilikey is a bas relief of a drug dealer with a mythic, demonic presence, preparing a heroin user to shoot up. Both are archetypal figures in a pathological narrative that Singleton further elaborates in a carving that begins with the fateful name "Angola," top, as youthful foibles lurch toward a tragic conclusion in an electric chair. This human narrative is, absurdly yet convincingly, interwoven with scenes of a possum hunt, and it all ends with the carved words: "Lawd Have Mercy." (For more, see Andy Antippas's superb paper, Reading Herbert Singleton, delivered at an American Folk Art Museum symposium in 2008.)

A few images from Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's classic, unflinching, documentary photos of life at Angola, the notorious Louisiana state prison, help provide a context for Singleton's crime and punishment obsession while previewing their nearby Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex exhibition, where prisoners appear like caged animals in banana republic zoos, or laboring in fields where they are either indistinguishable from slaves on antebellum plantations or else resemble documentary scenes from South Africa under Apartheid. Calhoun and McCormick have been working on this project for decades, and their recent video of a man who spent 30 years at Angola only to be exonerated by recent DNA evidence underscores why this series is so profoundly important. (More on Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick and this exhibition can be found here.) ~Bookhardt

Prospect.3: Herbert Singleton: Inside Out/Outside In; Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick: Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex, Through Jan. 25th, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.