Sunday, July 26, 2015

"We all end up in the clay." -James 'Son Ford' Thomas

Summertime is not always a hotbed of good art, but mostly just good and hot. If you can handle a humid train ride to Manhattan, or even if you can’t, get over to NYU’s 80WSE gallery, pronto.  James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues is a celebration of the Delta Blues and Black Folk Art. Upon entering, an old turntable plays his recordings and beside it rests Son Ford’s sculpted head in the artist’s chosen medium of unfired clay, painted black with marbles for eyes: soulful and down to earth.

The first magical spread of clay figures appears on a raised white platform, not quite eye level: common birds, fish, snakes and several characteristic skulls with tin foil lined eye sockets and real human teeth pressed into the mouth. It all seems to come from his immediate world where as a child he would hunt and fish in Leland, Mississippi. 

As an adult, he worked as a grave -digger for a little over ten years. Son Ford claimed that the first skull he made at age 10, was intended to scare his grandfather coming home late at night to a candle lit home.

My favorite part of the exhibit is a room filled with sculpted portraits. From his own account, they are all made up people with the exception of a few George Washington and Abe Lincolns, which Son Ford made because they sold. The George Washington’s, with their upholstery cotton hair and red painted faces, happen also to perfectly reference America’s history of slavery and the punishing cotton plantations.  As one walks around the room with these portraits almost looking at you, it’s hard not to smile. The hair both human and wig is stapled or pressed into the heads with deliberate style: heavy eyebrows, goatee jutting out around a big mouth of human teeth or dentures, wavy curls with oversized aviator glasses nested. The eyes are often marbles painted in different hues, with a depth that transcends its matte paint.  There are also a few little figurines of men in daily life and death, sitting on a log after chopping wood, playing music, or laying in open coffins.

The Devil and His Blues is a gem of an exhibit of whose shine lingers in one’s head like a great song. Let your spirits be lifted.

80WSE is located on 80 Washington Square East. The exhibit closes August 7.