The Philadelphia Museum’s Perelman Center is an impressive and sleek Art Deco building. But now on view inside is work that is the antithesis of sleek: the emotional and arresting exhibition Souls Grown Deep.
Since the early 1980s, the foundation of that name (from a phrase by Langston Hughes: “my soul has grown deep like the rivers”) has documented, preserved, and promoted the work of African Americans in the deep South. Many of these artists were self-taught and didn’t consider what they made to be “art.” Their paintings, textiles, sculptures, and assemblages were created by repurposing what was at hand in the houses or yards or garages of their Southern towns.
Stellar additions to the PMA
The foundation is now transferring some of its collection (of which two-thirds is by women) to leading art museums across the United States, and that is how the PMA came to acquire these 24 stellar pieces. It’s a joy to stand in the large, airy room with them and feel their energy pulse through the space.
The nine mixed-media works (made from 1985 to 2005) and 15 quilts (sewn between 1920 and 2004) were created in Alabama and Tennessee. They include several notable sculptures, including three major works by the great Thornton Dial (1928-2016). His massive and magnificent The Old Water (2004) centers the exhibition. This riveting sculpture almost defies you to look at it and yet it defies you to look away. The work is filled with animals at a mysterious African river and festooned with chains and barbed wire. A giant eagle spreads menacing wings over all, a symbol of the abuse and heartache America has inflicted on its own citizens.
Lonnie Holley (b. 1950) depicts something more intimate but no less moving. To make the 1994 work Protecting Myself the Best I Can (Weapons by the Door), he assembled in a drainpipe items held close at hand by his neighbor Mrs. Smith—two bats, a golf club, and a metal pipe topped by a clothespin—in a touching monument to one woman’s strength and determination.
And Bessie Harvey (1929-1994), whose credo was “God is the artist,” used the natural shapes of fallen trees and limbs decorated with beads, glitter, and shells to create Jezebel (1987), a sculpture that references multiple iconographies and oozes both beauty and immorality.
But no collection of artworks from this area would be complete without the transcendent quilts made by women from the Alabama hamlet of Gee's Bend and its environs. The quilts have become iconic, but when they were exhibited in 2002 at New York’s Whitney Museum, these works and their makers shook up the art world, redefining what constitutes modern art and who makes it.
They were made as practical coverings “to keep us warm,” layered on beds or hung on drafty cabin walls or over cracks in the floor. Some newer works have purpose-bought fabrics, but traditionally they were made with whatever was at hand, odds and ends and pieces of old clothes that “have spirit in them.” After working in the fields or the house all day, the artists had little time to be precious or deliberate. Quickly planned and often just as quickly made, they have the energy of creation and the heft of a deep expressive desire.
Each is worthy of a lengthy discussion, and Gee's Bend art has been amply analyzed. But here two are particularly arresting, both masterworks of design. Blocks, Strips, Strings and Half Squares (2005) by Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935) is a black-and-white grid of cotton, corduroy, and synthetics interlaced with magenta, the culmination of years of design artistry. Next to it is a print—her first—that the quilter made that same year in an artist residency.
Flying Geese Variation Quilt (c. 1935) by Annie E. Pettway (1904-1971) is from the opposite end of the design spectrum, filled with color and movement. Pettway, a legendary Gee's Bend quilter, composed this work of six large squares, five in a straightforward take on the traditional Flying Geese pattern, which she jazzed up with one very different square that brings the work alive.
Nearby there are two ancillary museum offerings. In the hallway is Patterning Community (2019), a commission by Philadelphian Joy O. Ude as part of the Art Splash program. The installation uses over 4,000 scraps of fabric (in patterns based on Gees Bend quilters) to create an environment with an inviting domed tent. And in the gallery next door, The Art of Collage and Assemblage features 63 European and American works from the Museum’s collection that add a traditional art-world context to the remarkable and improvisational works on view in Souls Grown Deep.
Image one: Blocks, Strips, Strings, and Half Squares, 2005, by Mary Lee Bendolph. Pieced cotton plain weave, twill, corduroy, nylon twill, and cellulose acetate knit, 7 feet × 6 feet 9 inches. © Estate of Mary Lee Bendolph/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio/Art Resource (AR), New York. Purchased with the Phoebe W. Haas fund for Costume and Textiles, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.
Image two: The Old Water, 2004, by Thornton Dial, Sr. Steel, tin, wood, wire, cloth, carpet, driftwood, wood trellis, barbed wire, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound, 7 feet × 12 feet 2 1/2 inches × 44 inches.© Estate of Thornton Dial/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio/Art Resource (AR), New York. Purchased with the McNeil Acquisition Fund for American Art and Material Culture, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.
What, When, Where
Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South. Through September 2, 2019, at the Perelman Building, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania and Fairmount Avenues, Philadelphia. (215) 763-8100 or philamuseum.org.