A trip to a well-loved art collection
'Spiritually Moving: A Collection of American Folk Art Sculpture'
Harry Abrams; $125
Review by Jillian St. Charles
August 24, 1999
(CNN) -- "Spiritually Moving: A Collection of American Folk Art Sculpture," catches the eye immediately. It pushes the traditional limits of books, even art books, with its sheer size. Standing well over a foot high and snugly ensconced in its own hard case, this homage to folk art is obviously a love child. A collection of art-world denizens -- an art dealer, graphic designer, folk art collector, curator, art historian and still-life photographer -- put their materials and skill together to develop this sumptuous presentation of their well-known subjects. The collaborators, for they are not authors, state their devotion to "fine art" rather than "high art" right in the introduction. And the reader benefits from their passion and lack of pretension.
This massive book, focusing on art of the 19th century, evokes a rarefied atmosphere where a weathervane can be cause for celebration. Almost every huge page contains only one figure, displayed with a reverence usually reserved for the Mona Lisa. The paper is rich and thick with the pages ranging from a dull, textured creme to glossy sapphire.
Weathervanes lead the unlikely parade across such stylized pages, chosen no doubt in part to provide contrast to the pocked and battered countenances of rusty horses and flaking wooden cows. But the accompanying catalog (no distracting words are actually in the book to take away from the photos) explains the beauty to be found in these items of found art. Dull tin eyes that spent decades looking out over American farms and homes are now given their rest while due credit goes to their homely artisans.
By placing each object in such exalted light, though, the collaborators obviously painted themselves into a corner or two. Even thought the book is decently thick, space permits only a tiny selection of art. Considering this, the decision to allot nearly half of the available spaces to horse weathervanes -- 23 total -- and leave all other subjects to battle for the leavings is puzzling.
But the horses do share the spotlight with a few other animals of the barnyard persuasion. The reader, or looker, rather, finds a Cotswald ewe and a Menno ram on opposite pages. The two figures float in space, facing each other, with no other objects to offer perspective or comparison. The catalogue explains that throughout the 19th century, proud farmers would commission works of art to glorify their prize-winning animals. A beat-up pig of majestic proportions floats high in the sky, basking in its glory.
Two sections are dedicated to birds, called "Birds" and "Water Birds." The flat naming of the sections supports the feeling of the book that text makes a superfluous companion to this simple art.
Inexplicably, the "Water Birds" section deviates into decoys. While all the examples certainly fall under the rubric of folk art, each departure from the weathervanes feels random due to their dominance. But the catalogue praises the simplicity of the decoration eloquently. It reads, in reference to a pair of blue herons, "Bulbous, swelling forms for bodies and sweeping necks terminating in angular beaks are all that is necessary to define the essence of these beautiful birds."
The last figures represented are "Angels" and "Figures." All of the figures represent exalted characters, from the Angel Gabriel to the Goddess of Liberty. The angels make an interesting study in sociology, as they are sometimes prim and sometimes sensuous, depending on the mores of the moment. Artists used weathervanes in this instance to express ideals via art rather than simple, if adoring, representation, as is the case with most of the animals.
Reading "Spiritually Moving" feels like a trip to an intimate, well-loved art collection. The authors simply do not allow the limitations of dimension stop them from celebrating the grandeur they find in their subject. Through the daring use of negative space, printing techniques, variations in paper and unusual size, the feeling of not looking at a book at all is conveyed. Instead, the reader is a tourist in an unusual museum.
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