Folk Art and Modernism Merge At Harlem’s Studio Museum

Sometimes the surest marker of artistic worth is the flow of traffic. Standing on the mezzanine landing of the Studio Museum in Harlem, overlooking the ground-floor gallery, I was struck by the decisiveness of its visitors. One glance at the exhibition featured downstairs, Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005, and-hup!-straight to the staircase and up they went.

How many of the gallerygoers remembered Mr. Ofili as the pornography-recycling, elephant-dung-wielding, Rudolph Giuliani–enraging artist of Sensation fame is anyone’s guess. One thing that’s certain is that the majority of them chose not to waste their time with his art. In bypassing 100- some-odd of Mr. Ofili’s “treasured archetypes”-watercolor portraits notable only for their haplessness-visitors to the Studio Museum voted with their feet. In doing so, they exhibited considerable aesthetic acumen. Afro Muses? Afro-kitsch is more like it.

In marked contrast to the sprinting occasioned by Mr. Ofili, Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse, the exhibition seen on the museum’s mezzanine, encourages and sustains deliberation. Little wonder: Bill Traylor (1854-1949) and William Edmondson (1874-1951) are among the most significant exemplars of American folk art. The two men-one born a slave, the other the son of slaves-epitomize the attribute we have come to value most in “outsiders”: vision propelled by unbending conviction.

Edmondson, for instance, had no say in taking up sculpture: God told him to get busy. Given the stolid gravity of his limestone carvings, you can believe it.

Traylor has, in recent years, emerged as a favorite among connoisseurs of folk art. His silhouetted depictions of men in top hats, pointing women and animals of all stripes are delights of pictorial economy. He had an impeccable gift for placement: Hieratic figures, structures and designs occupy the page with an almost balletic lilt. Narrative is winnowed to a potent minimum. A stylish woman moves her arms in an accusatory manner, heaping frustration upon a one-legged man slumped on his crutches. A reptilian creature is trapped at the bottom of the page, its expression unnervingly self-aware, as if it realized that extinction was its fate. These are startlingly evocative images, urgent and whimsical.

Having said that, the narrowness of Traylor’s art-and it’s prudent to remember that we shouldn’t expect breadth of vision from a folk artist-becomes all the more pronounced when placed side by side with Edmondson’s sculptures. It’s not that they aren’t narrow, but Edmondson’s narrowness feels deeper, more rounded. Certainly, his simplified, monolithic figures resonate, due not least to their good humor and the close attention paid to the foibles of humankind. In one work, Edmondson bestows (or maybe burdens) Eve with a hilariously oversized fig leaf. Elsewhere, an angel glares with admonishment, two doves nuzzle lovingly, and a crucified Jesus gestures forgivingly. Edmondson wasn’t a master of his materials-limestone never quite yields to his touch; he did the best he could with it-but the sense of contained malleability typical of the work is no mean accomplishment.

What this all has to do with a “modernist impulse.” as stated in the title of the exhibition, is unclear. Could it be an implicit argument that Traylor and Edmondson be ushered into the company of, say, Constantin Brancusi and Elie Nadelman as equals among modernists? Lowery Stokes Sims, the executive director of the Studio Museum, intimated as much in writing about Edmondson’s work that “the distinctions between self-taught and mainstream artists [are]… specious.” If that’s the case, the argument could’ve been framed in a more up-front and provocative manner. If you’re going to strong-arm art into being an adjunct of politics, then for God’s sake, don’t be namby-pamby about it. Still and all, that plaint is easily ignored: Modernist impulse or not, this is a charmer of a show.

Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse is at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, until July 3.

Cardboard Construct

Maybe it’s the ad posted in the entryway for a two-bedroom rental in Beacon, New York-only $1,750.00 a month!-but I could swear that the two installations at Max Protetch are Tobias Putrih’s bid for inclusion at Dia: Beacon. Too bad: Mr. Putrih’s cardboard sculptures-effigies as muscular as the Elgin Marbles and as light as the proverbial feather-were among the few worthwhile things included in Greater New York 2005. They heralded an artist of sculptural promise. The new pieces at Protetch trade that promise for imposing decoration, the stock in trade of Dia: Beacon. A step forward this isn’t.

Utilizing some strange species of milky cloth, Mr. Putrih has created a pair of encompassing architectural enclosures, tent-like funnels of space held aloft by a cascading series of hooks and wires. They’re meticulously crafted-that’s always welcome-and the overall effect is impressive and elegant, if not as transformative of space or material as Mr. Putrih intends. Learning that each piece refers to the movie screens at Anthology Film Archives doesn’t help-I mean, who cares? If a work of art doesn’t do its own heavy lifting, no amount of theoretical baggage will make it stronger. Artifice as its own reward is a feeble thing.

Not only has Mr. Putrih forsaken sculpture: He’s taken up multimedia. Quasi-Random Construction (2004) is a sound-and-video piece wherein a steady female voice coos into our ear about bending structures and “the suicide of love,” among much else. Without this sop to our technological age, I would never have figured Mr. Putrih for both a sloppy romantic and a pretentious bore; now I can barely figure him for anything else. Someone tell him that cardboard is where it’s at and Dia: Beacon is where it isn’t before he stumbles any further.

Tobias Putrih is at the Max Protetch Gallery, 511 West 22nd Street, until June 18. Folk Art and Modernism Merge At Harlem’s Studio Museum