On view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill is “Everything That Wasn’t White: Lonnie Holley at the Elaine de Kooning House,” an exhibition of 35 paintings, works on paper, and sculpture by artist and musician Lonnie Holley (born 1950). Organized by Alicia G. Longwell, Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chief Curator, Art and Education, the show opened April 24 and remains on view through September 6. The exhibition features a selection of works created during the artist’s five-week residency at the Elaine de Kooning House in East Hampton in November 2020.
For his exhibition, Holley combined recurring imagery drawn from his life, as well as found objects, and unconventional materials and approaches to create his highly personal, layered works. He made over 100 pieces during his residency that build on his decades-long creative approach and visual language. In addition, the artist began exploring new methods: He stretched quilts over wood frames as the basis for a series of mixed-media paintings and created paintings on canvas at a much larger scale.
Completely self-taught, Holley was born in Jim Crow-era Birmingham, Alabama — the seventh of his mother’s 27 children. He spent his early life in foster homes and forced labor. From age 11 to 13, he was consigned to the notoriously punitive Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children for violating a Birmingham curfew. The 1970s were defined by a series of odd jobs and relocations until he returned to Birmingham in 1979 for the funeral of young niece and nephew who tragically perished in a house fire. To memorialize the children when there was no money for a tombstone, Holley found a piece of sandstone and carved it into a loving tribute. In that transformative moment he discovered a new path — creating visionary narrative sculpture from found objects to commemorate people, places, and events.
Holley’s work is filled with recurring imagery and motifs imbued with cultural and artistic metaphor. Anonymous profiles, chains, fences, Egyptian iconography, and references to enslavement and redemption reflect his life experience and ancestry. His use of evocative materials extends to paintings on quilts and mixed media works on paper, where stencil, silhouetting, and spray paint enable layers of meaning. Poetically descriptive titles — such as “Fragile Like a Child,” “Working to Loosen our Chains,” “I Can’t Breathe (I See the Air But I Can’t Get It),” and “My Lord, She Saw Our Freedom” — read like the litany of a life of struggle and defeat, as well as faith and grace.
“Everything That Wasn’t White” includes 10 sculptures made largely from objects found on the de Kooning house property. In “The Memory of Grandmama’s Way” (all works created 2020) green vinyl-coated garden fencing is bent into a circular pen that either embraces or encages symbols of normal family life — quilt pieces, swatches of fabric, and diaper pins. Holley’s signature profiles, fashioned from wire, appear throughout, tightly wound into the structure.
Movement is palpable in the quilt painting “I Can Always Fly.” Small, faceless profiles at the bottom of the quilt seem to extract themselves from the oppressive pile, separating and enlarging as they billow upward from the weathered, leathery surface. In “Blood from the Fields Back Home,” profiles rendered in deliberate and evocative shades of red, brown, and orange stare off in all directions, as a watchful eye holds steadfast in the background.
Throughout his career, Holley has created work rooted in spirituality and what has been called an Afro-Atlantic aesthetic that has challenged the contemporary art world to expand its boundaries. His work has been collected by museums across the U.S., including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Whitney Museum of America Art, New York; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania.
For more information on “Everything That Wasn’t White: Lonnie Holley at the Elaine de Kooning House,” visit parrishart.org. The Parrish Art Museum is at 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill.