Category: Material Culture

Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett

Edited by Bernard L. Herman. 2016. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 160 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4696-2762-5 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Meredith McGriff

[Review length: 825 words • Review posted on November 14, 2017]

[Cover ofFever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett]

Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett illuminates and commemorates Lockett’s fleeting life; the artist was in his early thirties when he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1998. The book is a companion to the eponymous exhibition organized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum, and shown at the American Folk Art Museum, the High Museum of Art, as well as at the Ackland over the course of many months in late 2016 and early 2017. For those who were unable to attend the exhibit, this book remains as an essential record of the issues evoked by Lockett’s life and work. The included essays bring a critical perspective to the racialized history of folk, outsider, vernacular, and self-taught art in America, while simultaneously contributing to the growing corpus of scholarship on the Birmingham-Bessemer group of contemporary artists.

After editor Bernard L. Herman’s acknowledgements, readers first encounter page upon page of striking, full-color plates—sixty, in total—which guide readers to meet Lockett through his artwork first, and then as an individual later through the five essays utilizing a variety of scholarly lenses: that of folklorist, artist, art historian, African American studies scholar, curator, art critic, and often, simply as human beings with deep personal connections to the artist and his community. There is, notably, much conjecture about Lockett throughout the book, particularly regarding artistic influences and decisions the artist made—a necessity when the subject was known to be reticent in life and was deceased at the time the research was completed. Inference and speculation are balanced, however, by a depth of fieldwork and careful research pursued by Herman and the other authors, including their use of interviews recorded with Lockett prior to his death, and information gleaned from Lockett’s friends, relatives, and surroundings.

In the first chapter, Herman's descriptive writing brings to life aspects of Lockett's large, sculptural, and dimensional “paintings” (often, late in his life, including rather little applied paint) which photographs cannot fully capture. He guides readers through Lockett's artwork chronologically, describing themes and materials that were of primary concern in Lockett’s artistic development while working in the Pipe Shop neighborhood in Bessemer, Alabama. Herman is well positioned to take on this work, particularly given his previous writing on the art of Thornton Dial—also a Pipe Shop resident—who was Lockett’s primary artistic mentor. Herman provides details of Lockett’s biography and elucidates the topics the artist engaged with in his artwork, from religion to large-scale historical tragedies, to environmental degradation, or, on the more intimate side, personal mentors and relatives. For the second chapter Colin Rhodes, an artist himself, continues this work by focusing on process, artistic skill, and material, locating Lockett in relationship to artists who have worked in similar veins in terms of material and process. Rhodes also addresses Lockett's reputation for being quiet and contemplative, regarding this thoughtfulness and constant watchfulness as indicative of an internalized dialog, a performative practice of art-making, rather than a process of learning artistic technique. 

In the third chapter, “Quotidian Remains,” Sharon Patricia Holland shares both personal experiences and subjective musings on representational aspects of Lockett's work. In her essay, she deftly brings together considerations of blackness in relation to HIV/AIDS, LGBT life, nationalism, and the racial implications of terms such as "outsider," "self-taught," and "folk" in American art, adding crucial context to Lockett's creations. Within her chapter, Holland considers both animals and alcohol as politicized subject matter, and provides social and historical background for understanding Lockett’s artwork. Jentleson and Lax, then, expand on this contextualization in chapter 4. Their contribution traces the history of American collectors, museums, galleries, and critics engaging with (variously and problematically termed) self-taught/folk/outsider/visionary/vernacular art by black artists, and places the early exhibitions of Lockett's work within that stream of historical experience. They then juxtapose Lockett's work thematically with that of American contemporaries, albeit those who were working in a different cultural context (read: lesbian and gay artists in New York responding to the AIDS crisis). In pairing disparate artworks with similar subject matter, including flowers, gender, love, and democracy, Jentleson and Lax seek new dialogs through unique recontextualizations.

Finally, Paul Arnett (likely known to many readers for his work with the women and quilts of Gee’s Bend) provides his personal reminiscences of his own friendship with Ronald Lockett and his knowledge of Lockett’s artistic education. The focus of the chapter, however, is the insight into Lockett’s complex relationship with mentor Thornton Dial, juxtaposing the two artists’ styles and methods, alluding to the depth of their years-long artistic dialog.

Engaging and visually striking, Fever Within is a book that should be read by scholars concerned with the study of American folk art. In addition to providing insight into the life of a talented artist of the Birmingham-Bessemer school, the essays included here will direct readers to points of critical engagement with issues of race, class, health, and queerness in the study of art and folkloristics.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.