Tangled Up in de Kooning’s Fence
Curated by Alison M. Gingeras
Lonnie Holley: Tangled Up in de Kooning’s Fence
Curated by Alison M. Gingeras
May 1 - August 1, 2021
South Etna Montauk
6 South Etna Avenue, Montauk, NY 11954
On May 1st, the newly formed non-profit South Etna Montauk Foundation will launch its 2021 exhibition program with Lonnie Holley: Tangled Up in De Kooning’s Fence, an exhibition of new works created by the venerated Alabama-born artist during his recent residency at the Elaine de Kooning House in East Hampton. An astonishingly prolific polymath who is equally accomplished in sculpture, painting, experimental music, poetry, film, video, and performance, Holley used the winter 2020 residency on Long Island – a period of rare solitude for the peripatetic artist during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown – to experiment with and extend his visual language. By drawing inspiration for his breakthroughs from the unique atmosphere of the East End, Holley’s work suggests connections in the narrative of American art between the inventive “craft” traditions of Southern African-American artmaking, and the breakthroughs of the 20th century modernists who lived and painted in the Hamptons.
Curated by Alison M. Gingeras, Lonnie Holley: Tangled Up in De Kooning’s Fence will be on view at South Etna Montauk’s gallery space through 29 August. The exhibition coincides with Everything That Wasn’t White, Holley’s solo exhibition opening at the Parrish Art Museum in Watermill on April 23rd. Both exhibitions will feature a range of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper that Holley made over the course of his residency on the East End.
South Etna Montauk’s exhibition coincides with the release of his new album Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection, a collaboration with musician and songwriter Matthew E. White.
Lonnie Holley will greet visitors at the exhibition opening on May 1st on the lawn behind South Etna Montauk Foundation. He will also perform at the Parrish Art Museum on the evening of his opening there, on April 23rd. The Parrish will broadcast the performance.
About the exhibition
Lonnie Holley is an artist in constant motion, traveling to perform and present his work. With the onset of the pandemic, and the residency invitation from Elaine de Kooning House, he recognized a rare opportunity to spend time working in a studio without interruption. During his East End residency, Holley would often rise in the predawn hours to walk the woods, soaking up the area’s famously unique aura and gathering materials for his sculptures, then returning to the studio to produce new work.
In the solitude of the East Hampton studio, Holley experimented with expanded formal vocabularies that are particularly evident in his new mixed-media paintings on quilts stretched over wood panels. Quilters and their works have long played a central role in Holley’s oeuvre and family history: many of his female relatives were practitioners of the art form, and Holley spent extended periods of time among the women of Gee’s Bend by the Alabama River long before that community of artists gained national and international prominence. While quilts and quilt fragments have appeared in his earlier works, it was only during the East Hampton residency that Holley began using quilts as complete grounds for paintings.
In addition to appreciating the formal qualities — the handmade textures and special materiality — of quilts, Holley has expressed his interest in them as vehicles for paying homage to women’s work and for harnessing the charged aura of African-American ancestral history and culture. Often discarded, or dismissed by mainstream society as handicraft, quilts here become grounds, and serve as a sacred picture plane upon which the artist further explores some of the tropes of his signature visual language. Layered human profiles and faces, painted with oil stick, spray paint, and acrylic conjure Holley’s connection to his lineage, which stretches back to the enslaved people who were forced to live and work across the American South. The change of environment – the immersion in the rural Long Island context – clarified his vision. “I travel around to see,” he explains. “It’s like walking back in time, to walk along the ocean, the beach, to walk in the sand. I am not trying to find my own footsteps in the sand, but to put my own footsteps where my ancestors might have stepped.”
Tangled Up in De Kooning’s Fence at South Etna Montauk Foundation will feature a number of Holley’s new quilted paintings made during the residency, including Down in the Country Where the Old Things Remain, From Nothing to Everything, and Without Skin. These works depict schematic human forms—facial profiles made with stencils and black and white spray paint, sometimes with additional brushwork in primary colors that bring eyes or other features into focus amid the grisaille patterns. Holley layers and repeats his forms using various types of paint and techniques, riffing off the textures of the patchwork textiles upon which they are laid down. Just as Holley describes his walking journeys as a quest for a connection to the past, he similarly enacts this search upon the picture planes he creates. Working in series over multiple canvases and sculptures simultaneously, the structure of Holley’s practice is akin to his approach to musical compositions wherein improvisation, poetic meandering loops, and mantra-like repetitions meld together to create an emotive final form.
In addition to the quilted paintings he made at the Elaine de Kooning House, Holley worked on several large format paintings on canvas that also deploy his polyrhythmic, silhouetted figuration. Removal of the Shadows (2020), on view at South Etna Montauk, is one of the largest paintings he has made to date, enabled by the ample studio space where Elaine de Kooning made some of her most important works from 1975 until her death in 1989.
While Holley has not made specific reference to Elaine de Kooning’s specific painting practice or legacy, he has remarked upon the charged spirit of her former studio and the surrounding woodlands. The exhibition’s title, Tangled Up in De Kooning’s Fence, is borrowed from one of the works on view, comprised of found wooden branches, fabric, twine, and bent metal wire sculptures. Human profiles forged in curvilinear metal wire emerge from the organic wood—typical of Holley’s poetic verbal and material language. A second work on paper entitled She Was as Wild as Her Garden (Elaine) also pays homage to the auratic reverberations that Holley felt in the studio and on his daily meanderings through the surrounding landscape.
Holley refers to himself as a living bridge between spirits, those of his ancestors who were forced into slavery in America and future generations to come, and those of artists of the past. He has said, “As we develop our person-ness, we learn to yield to the ancestors and the history of learning, we develop that inner head, that second head, the keeper head; the embankment of all wisdom.” In the process of experimenting with his visual language while in East Hampton, the artist also suggests construction of a bridge between formerly siloed strains of American art – between the Southern “craft” of Black artmaking and the “canon” represented by such gods and goddesses of postwar painting as Jackson Pollock, Less Krasner, Robert Motherwell, and the de Koonings, who over a century ago likewise drew inspiration from the East End setting to locate breakthroughs in their work.
About the Artist
Lonnie Holley’s critically admired art practice spans painting, drawing, assemblage sculpture, sandstone carvings, and performance that combines experimental music and poetry.
Born in 1950 in Jim Crow-era Birmingham, Alabama, as the seventh of 27 children, Holley had a difficult childhood. Working from the age of five in various jobs, Holley labored picking up trash at a drive-in movie theater, washing dishes, picking cotton, digging graves, and even as a short order cook at Disney World among other things. His itinerant childhood, living across the South and in various precarious circumstances, was chaotic. His survival of a brutal four-year stint at the notorious Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children left an indelible imprint on his work.
A self-taught artist, Holley made his first sculptures when he carved tombstones for a niece and nephew who perished in a house fire in 1979. Over the following years, he devoted himself to making sculptures that populated his property near Birmingham, eventually bringing some of his sandstone works to the director of the Birmingham Art Museum. After his inclusion in the benchmark exhibition Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, organized by William Arnett in 1996, Holley’s work began to attract attention beyond Alabama. He soon became one of the foremost artists of the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic that blossomed across the Southern United States.
Holley’s Birmingham art environment was destroyed in 1997. In 2010, he settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where he lives and works today. While he has been making music most of his adult life, his career as a performing artist did not begin until he began professionally recording his music in 2006. Since then, Holley has recorded five studio albums. His latest record, a collaboration with Matthew E. White and entitled Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection, was released in early April 2021. Holley has toured the world with various musicians; his ever-evolving compositions and lyrics are improvised and morph with each concert and recording.
Holley has been the subject of several documentary films, and his own directed short film I Snuck Off the Slave Ship premiered at Sundance in 2019.
Holley’s work resides in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., among many other museums.