This summer: art from the heart

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

So much contemporary art is about art, it’s refreshing to leave that echo chamber and see work that has the human experience as its subject, or that is simply an act of creative expression. This summer, three notable exhibitions around the country present wonderful selections of … call it what you will: folk art, self-taught art, craft, or just plain “art.”

The Last Supper by David Butler, c. 1984. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, T. Marshall Hahn Collection.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is showing Outliers and American Vanguard Art, an ambitious exhibition of some 250 works by more than eighty artists—some trained, many not—that debuted earlier this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. In her bid to assert the depth of the contribution of unschooled and marginalized artists to the development of American art, NGA curator Lynne Cooke makes juxtapositions with work by mainstream artists that are often apt, if sometimes dubious. The treat here is the opportunity to see so much great art—including paintings by lesser-known artists, such as William H. Johnson and David Butler—at the same time.

Bird House (“Church for Birds, Birds Worship God Too”) by Rev. Benjamin Franklin Perkins, c. 1980 – 1987. Birmingham Museum of Art, collection of the Art Fund Inc., Robert Cargo Folk Art Collection, gift of Caroline Cargo.

Drawing on works in its permanent collection, the Birmingham Museum of Art is presenting more than 175 works by southern artists in the exhibition The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection. The paintings, sculptures, and assemblages on view include pieces by artists with a wide following, such as Mose Tolliver and Jimmy Lee Sudduth. But the star of the exhibition is the Reverend Benjamin Franklin Perkins. To attract more congregants, Perkins covered his church and its grounds with a colorful array of art and signage that is at once fervently religious and patriotic, but also joyful and good-humored.

Husband Suit Clothes (Housetop Variation), quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph, 1990. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, purchase with the Anne and Fredric Garonzik Acquisition Fund; photograph by Laura Shea, courtesy Rubin Bendolph Jr.

Quilts from the famed Alabama enclave Gee’s Bend are featured in both the abovementioned shows. One of that community’s artists is getting a star turn this year. After debuting at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in January, Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph will travel in September to Swarthmore College. Even within the extraordinary body of quilting work from her hometown, Bendolph stands out with her lively and intricate compositions.

Outliers and American Vanguard Art • High Museum of Art, Atlanta • to September 30 •

The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection • Birming­ham Museum of Art, Alabama • to December 30 •

Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph • List Gallery and the McCabe Library of Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania • September 6 to October 28 •