I AR YOU: Portraits by Self-Taught American Artists

21 Mar–1 Jun 2013
I AR YOU features an intimate selection of self-taught artists from the Deep South and beyond, presenting self-portraits and anonymous figures alongside images of celebrities, presidents and cowboys. The exhibition draws its title from the cryptic script across the top of a 1988 painting of a haunting, shrouded figure by the Black Mississippi native, Mary T Smith (1904–1995), who created the work just three years before she stopped painting at the age of 84. Smith, like most in this show, came to art late in life, and in retirement discovered a talent for depiction that blazes with intensity and strangeness.

Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910–2007) devised a way of working with local muds and clays, as well as leaves and berries, which he used for their different pigmentations, claiming he could summon up 36 different colours in total, each of which he applied by hand. He was fond of holding up his right index finger and proclaiming: ‘This is one brush that won’t wear out.’

Burgess Dulaney (1914–2001) made unfired clay sculptures in his kitchen from clay he dug from the ground and dried on his porch. Dulaney was a farmer who couldn’t read or write, and spent his entire 86 years on the same family farm in Mississippi. Similarly, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas (1926–1993) also lived in Mississippi and made unfired clay sculptures featuring caskets and skulls, sometimes with human teeth that he collected from local dentists. Thomas was for many years a gravedigger as well as a leading figure in the Delta Blues tradition.

At the age of 17 Ike Morgan (b1958) was deemed unfit to stand trial for murder and was institutionalised for schizophrenia in Austin, Texas. At the state hospital he began a lifelong pursuit of painting, especially portraits of American presidents. Initially he repeatedly produced the image of George Washington as it appears on the one-dollar bill, but over the decades he has expanded his intensely coloured, impressionistic style to include all the presidents through to Barack Obama.

Morgan and the award winning southern potter Jerry Brown (b1942) – one of a few remaining Alabama folk potters – are the only two in this exhibition still working today. The others belong to an older generation of American self-taught artists born closer to the beginning of the 20th Century who nurtured their own talent and in turn were discovered by a wider public towards the end of the century.

Jeff McMillan

Curated by Jeff McMillan

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