The activity piece the Portland Museum of Art provides to those who see “American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection” (through May 7) asks, “What does the Portland Museum of Art mean by ‘folk art’?”
In simplistic terms, “folk art” is art made by self-taught artists, but that’s not always a helpful distinction.
“American Perspectives” is a traveling exhibition of some 70 works from the AFAM collection. The show began at the museum in New York City three years ago and has since made stops in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Vero Beach and Jacksonville, Florida; Asheville, North Carolina; Pittsburgh, PA and now Portland. Its final stop will be at the Dixon Gallery & Garden in Memphis, Tennessee, this summer and fall.
All that traveling is made possible by Art Bridges, a program of wider availability and art accessibility started by Walmart heiress Alice Walton.
What the AFAM show means by “folk art” is pretty standard Americana fare — portraits, quilts, dolls, signs, domestic scenes, devotional objects. There’s even a hand-carved Coney Island carousel horse.
The show features such familiar folk art icons as a nostalgic winter landscape by Grandma Moses, one of the 62 versions of Quaker visionary Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom and a couple of busy social realist scenes by labor union painter Ralph Fasanella. But the inclusion of Fasanella raises an interesting question.
If Ralph Fasanella is a folk artist, why isn’t Jean-Michel Basquiat? Both were largely self-taught artists who developed their individualistic style on the streets of New York, Fasanella as a worker rehabbing an injured wrist, Basquiat as a graffiti artist on his way to art stardom.
Among the things “American Perspectives” does not include as folk art (and might) are graffiti art, hip-hop creations, tattoo art, decoys, weathervanes and Native American arts and crafts. Tribal art is an odd omission as the PMA goes to great lengths these days to include Native American people in their exhibition, but this is not Portland’s exhibition.
The late 20th and early 21st century has pretty much witnessed the breakdown of distinctions between art and craft (the former useless, the latter useful), yet the distinction between fine art and folk art lives on in “American Perspectives.”
To the degree that a distinction is worth making, the difference between folk art and fine art really comes down to conception, not education or execution. Ralph Fasanella was a blue collar political artist. He was illustrating the public life of America — workers on holiday at Coney Island, memorials for murdered leaders at the White House. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s wild neo-expressionist paintings were participating in the ongoing international dialogue about what art is and can be.
The difference between fine and folk art is not always obvious of course. You can look at a wooden tiger by Felipe Benito Archuleta and think it might have escaped from the carved menagerie of Bernard Langlais. And the wooden wall construction by Jean-Marcel St. Jacques might very well be a Louise Nevelson sculpture were it painted black.
A great deal of folk art is defined by its awkwardness, but the works I enjoyed most possess the freedom that often characterizes outsider art.
There is, for instance, a nest-like structure of yarn
and twine made by Judith Scott, a celebrated fiber artist who lived with both Down Syndrome and deafness (and died in 2005). And a painting on a vinyl tablecloth by legendary Black folk artist Sam Doyle depicting his baptism.
No matter what you call it, “American Perspectives” is filled with some strange and wondrous things.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.