Selections from Four Contemporary Kentucky Folk Artists
by Matt Collinsworth
In an age when the line between folk art and fine art is increasingly blurred, these four artists stand to ask if it should exist at all.
Folk art in Kentucky and across the South has long been viewed as a product of the region’s unique and tortured agrarian mythology. To generations of urban and suburban collectors and scholars, this was art made by odd and ingenious men and women from far-flung, bucolic places that seemed simultaneously exotic and originally American.
The same qualities that brought renewed attention to self-taught Kentucky artists like Edgar Tolson, Charley Kinney, and Helen LaFrance in the 1960s and 70s also led to an oversimplified categorization of their work as regional, rural, or other. A line was redrawn and darkened between fine art and folk art. This line, though, was an artificial construct, one generated by our basest intellectual tendency to sort and rank. But today, a new generation of folk artists has set about to finally obliterate that line as they challenge our concept of what self-taught art is and what it can become.
The exhibition that opens at The Arts Company on February 6 presents the work of four such artists, Tad DeSanto, Joshua Huettig, Robert Morgan, and Bruce New. While these artists range in age from their thirties to sixties, they are all of a generation of folk artists in Kentucky who not only exist on the cutting edge but define it actively through their work. It is also important to note that none of these artists live in secluded, rural places. All four reside in or very near the state’s urban centers of Lexington and Louisville.
Of this group, Robert Morgan (b. 1950) has been making art prolifically for the longest period of time. As a teenager, Morgan recognized that he wanted to be an artist. Growing up in Lexington, he spent time with the artist and his mentor Henry Faulkner and was active in Lexington’s alternative art scene in the late 1960s and early 70s. He traveled the country over the next decade, always gravitating toward avant-garde artists and underground cultures wherever he found them.
Surviving the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and witnessing the carnage that it wreaked on many of his friends and loved ones was the primary motivating factor behind Morgan’s serious pursuit of art. In that catastrophe he found his voice, and he was moved to a life of art making and activism. It is, then, no surprise that he chose to make art from found objects. Robert Morgan takes the lost, broken, and discarded things of the world and makes them novel and magnificent. A Morgan assemblage may contain hundreds of individual items, and, taken separately, many of these objects seem selected for the sense of loss or pain that they appear to impart. But, joined together, they make something entirely new, a work that is often all about rebirth, exultation, and victory. Robert Morgan has earned his place as one of the most important self-taught artists working in America today.
Tad DeSanto (b. 1947) developed an interest in art in his twenties. However, he did not begin to make art in a serious way until decades later, after his retirement. In the early 2000s, friends encouraged him to offer his work for sale at a local art fair in Louisville. To his surprise and delight, the work was enthusiastically received, and he sold numerous pieces. Since that day, making art has been a much bigger part of his life.
DeSanto uses oil sticks and his fingers to paint on wood or Masonite, and he often includes a variety of other materials. His paintings and collages sometimes include words or phrases that are directly related to the visual image. Though regularly drawn from personal sources, the works are far from didactic and are often open to an array of interpretations. DeSanto’s images are always clever and among the most visually innovative to be found anywhere.
Bruce New (b. 1970) is one of the most exciting self-taught artists to appear on the scene in Kentucky in the past decade. New began making things as a teen. Working construction as an adult, he fell and was seriously injured. During his lengthy recovery, New became engrossed with art, using the local library in Richmond to explore art from every corner of the
Out of the vast visual vocabulary that he developed, Bruce New settled on an intricate form of paper cut collage. In his works, figures and symbols are often cut and laid atop a background of pages assembled from a variety of books. The work is obsessive and meticulous in the best possible ways. Recurring numbers in most of the collages refer to dates significant in his life. He has experimented with colors over the years and has even produced some striking three-dimensional works. New’s work is instantly recognizable and has garnered attention and showings across America and Europe.
Joshua Huettig (b. 1978) began making art in 2007 after the death of his father. Huettig was born in Louisville, but his family moved to Nashville when he was very young. Looking for a change of scenery and inspiration, Huettig moved back to Louisville in 2008. He now works out of a studio in a renovated warehouse near the river, west of downtown.
Huettig uses salvaged house paint and old sheets of plywood and lumber scavenged from the banks of the Ohio River to make his art. His chosen media produce work with unique colors and textures, but these choices also acknowledge the impermanence of all things, the inevitability of decay. In terms of subject matter, Huettig tends to produce work in series that examine themes important to him. For instance, most of his paintings in this exhibition feature women with beehive hairdos and noticeable musculature, mouths open in song. Huettig explains that in these works he was exploring ideas of self-creation and liberation. Joshua Huettig is a rising star who will be an important artist for decades to come.
In an age when the line between folk art and fine art is increasingly blurred, these four artists stand to ask if it should exist at all. Their work is all carefully conceived, fully intentional, and gloriously crafted. It’s as good as any contemporary art that one would hope to see.
Contemporary Urban Folk Art from Kentucky: End of the Agrarian Tradition opens February 6 at The Arts Company and remains on view through February 24. Nashville Arts Magazine Publisher Paul Polycarpou will host a discussion with collector and musician Kevin Gordon, exhibiting artist Joshua Huettig, and Kentucky Folk Art Museum Director Matt Collinsworth in conjunction with the exhibit on February 5 at 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.theartscompany.com.