A few years ago, Lonnie Holley played a little impromptu concert at Matt Arnett's house in Grant Park. Holley, who has been exhibiting his artwork since the late Seventies, had borrowed an electric organ from Lance Ledbetter, the founder of the archival record label Dust-to-Digital, and sang improvised songs to a small living room of people. Among the crowd was Matt's father, Bill Arnett, the preeminent collector of self-taught African-American art in the world and Holley's manager. Holley is typically lumped in with "Outsider Artists," which is a way of saying that he doesn't fit in the arts establishment. Yet, the audience at his impromptu gig included multiple people who have been written about at length in the New Yorker, nominated for or are the recipient of a Grammy award, and, for whatever it's worth, two of Jane Fonda's grandchildren. The crowd wasn't entirely distinguished. I also dropped in, an arrival that prompted Bill to ask, "Who the hell is this guy? I didn't invite him."
The audience certainly doesn't make the art, but, in this case, it does illustrate an interesting question about Holley's career: Is it possible to be well connected and an outsider at the same time?
Holley has not always been invited to small, semi-exclusive salons with celebrated artists and art collectors. When he talks about his background, he describes living in a juke joint as a toddler, having 26 brothers and sisters, selling worms to make a living, doing a stint in a segregated reform institute, stopping school after grade seven, working as a custodian at a drive-in movie theater, selling metal scrap to a junkyard, and making his first sculptures, which were tombstones for relatives that died in a house fire. At times, his grasp on the chronology of those events feels shaky. Simply put, Holley's background puts him outside the typical trajectory of artists exhibiting today.
Does an artist's background necessarily define him for the rest of his life?
- COURTESY SOULS GROWN DEEP
- SELECTIVE EDITING: “Cutting Up Old Film (Don’t Edit the Wrong Thing Out)” by Lonnie Holley, 1984
Holley is primarily an assemblage sculptor. He combines and manipulates preexisting objects into new contexts. At his best, that can be something elegantly simple such as "Cutting Up Old Film (Don't Edit the Wrong Thing Out)," a weathered film reel and a pair of scissors that align into a focused meditation on the selective process of recorded history. There's a strong lineage of assemblage sculpture in 20th century art. The qualities that you might praise in a Bruce Conner sculpture — the weathered textures, the bleak palette, the chaotic balance of objects — are qualities you could also praise in Holley's work.
The thing is, though, that an artist like Holley doesn't fit into that lineage. He never lived in Manhattan or San Francisco and his decision to make assemblage sculptures doesn't have to do with an art world exhaustion of abstract expressionist painting. Holley's art, as he explained it to me, has to do with taking the same trash he was given as a custodian at the drive-in or as a scrap metal scavenger, the resources available to him as a poor black guy living in Birmingham, Ala., and trying to make meaning out of them. Sometimes that work is about his experiences and social position, what other contemporary artists usually describe as "identity." Other times it can just be a pun, like "Portable Telephone," a sculpture that is basically a broken pay phone in a handcart.
Holley belongs to a looser lineage of artists from the American South, sometimes called vernacular artists, sometimes called folk artists, sometimes lumped under the larger umbrella of outsider artists, which essentially means art made by people outside of the traditional art establishment. Bill has spent much of his career trying to establish artists like Holley and Thornton Dial as part of the canon of American art. Bill has fought so hard for that position, in fact, that his abrasive intensity and singular focus has made him a controversial figure, considered hard to work with. He's also a white manager for mostly black artists, a dynamic that rubs some people the wrong way, whether or not the implications that follow have any basis. Depending on whom you ask, Holley is an assemblage artist at the wrong time and place, a vernacular artist whose work doesn't resemble that of his peers, or a master in a lineage that most museums aren't eager to acknowledge.
Where do you put an artist that doesn't fit in the established narrative?
- Dustin Chambers
- RETROSPECTIVE: Holley discusses his work in the Arnett warehouse
Prior to that performance at Matt's house, Holley had been making music for years, mostly for himself, by singing over preprogrammed keyboard beats into a cassette player. Since then, he's released two lauded albums and his live performances, no longer in living rooms, have become a magnet for high-profile collaborators. In the past year, he's performed improvised sets with members of Animal Collective, Deerhunter, the Shins, Dirty Projectors, the Black Lips, and the songwriter Bill Callahan, among others. He'll tour Western Europe later this year. While none of that means that his records are hitting the best-seller charts, it is the kind of auspicious debut that most musicians would covet.
Holley's music sounds unlike anything being released right now. His improvised vocals have the textures of a bluesman and the sensibilities of a cosmic explorer and the rhythms of a jazz horn and the endurance of a preacher and the occasional melodic panache of a pop singer. He plunks around on the keyboard, occasionally for emphasis, other times in whimsical flourish. His lyrics tend toward the abstract, but they also provide a more direct line to the environmental, historical, and cosmic concerns that guide his artworks.
Can difficult music make a difficult artist easier to understand?
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the organization that represents Bill's collection and artists, keeps much of Holley's work in a warehouse on the Westside. The open space is arranged in part like an exhibition of the collection's highlights, much of which is devoted to works by Dial, whose star power has skyrocketed in recent years. At the center is a room devoted only to Holley's sculptures, mostly focusing on his work from the late '80s and '90s. This arrangement works as a quick introduction for interested museum curators, a lot of whom have been coming by lately.
In person, Holley is timid but striking. He favors army surplus jackets, worn-out blue jeans, and covers his hands and wrists with stacks of rings and bracelets. He rarely interjects himself into conversation, but, when prompted, has no shortage of things to say about his work. He speaks in long, digressive jags that range from recounting childhood traumas to quoting Stevie Wonder to cosmic platitudes ("Artists serve a universal purpose"), often from sentence to sentence. When I ask what year he was born, he starts by answering "1950" and ends his answer, minutes later, by directing me to transcribe an acrostic poem that looks like this:
Questions aren't very useful with that kind of conversation, because Holley isn't that interested in answering them.
"The main thing I'm trying to do," Holley says, speaking of both his music and his visual art, "I'm trying to communicate. I'm trying to communicate about the three mothers: about mother, about Mother Earth, about Mother Universe." So for a few hours, he leads me around his sculptures, just communicating.
However far Holley's methods and style and background lie outside of the typical art world, he's far from being outside of those concerns. Since being exhibited in the Birmingham Museum of Art in 1981 and soon after being acquired by the Smithsonian, American Folk Art Museum, and other major institutions, Holley has been building a body of work that is focused and direct, the kind of ambitious dedication to a singular style that inspires either institutional adoration or utter neglect. He points out a sculpture titled, "Board Members," a scarecrow-like assemblage of dull boards dressed in a clown suit. It's the kind of art world joke that amuses him.
Holley does give me at least one straight answer. Of all the different ways to describe his work — as an outsider, as an insider among outsiders, as a vernacular artist, as an assemblage artist — how would Holley describe himself?
"I like 'American artist,'" he says. "All the other terms, I wore them like a man wearing suits."