Visual Arts

That's All Folk?

If an art collection is the unconscious manifestation of the collector, then two folk-art shows on display in the Valley underscore the enormous disparity in the visions of different collectors in the same genre--a genre that's increasingly popular but still jockeying for position in the world of fine art.

Scottsdale Center for the Arts' "Spirits: Selections From the Collection of Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade" and Phoenix Art Museum's "Common Ground/Uncommon Vision: The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art" not only showcase folk art from the United States and elsewhere, but spotlight two vastly different collecting sensibilities. Both shows also emphasize how shadowy the borders are between fine art and folk art, and how plastic the definition of folk art--any art--can and must be. The Holder collection is a great example of a person's instinctually gathering what he's drawn to without regard to subject matter, popularity, investment value or rigid cultural boundaries. It's also refreshingly unfettered by traditional academic folk-art categories, set in stone by purists who demand that folk art be uncontaminated cultural forms unchanged from generation to generation. That position blithely ignores the fact that even the most remote areas of the world have access to radio and television, powerful and ever-changing windows to other worlds.

And after seeing "Spirits," which is only half of the artist-actor's collection, it's obvious that Holder has collected only what he truly loves, whether contemporary or antique, and that he has unassailable taste.

Since the early Fifties, Holder has gathered both folk art and fine art from Africa, the Caribbean (especially Haiti), Mexico, North America and Europe. Being black, he has gravitated to pieces that reflect a rich African heritage, although his collecting is much more catholic than that.

Among the things that have found their way into Holder's eclectic collection are: contemporary Haitian vodun (voodoo) paintings and metal sculpture, antique and contemporary African ritual sculpture, headdresses, masks and puppets, Mexican dance masks and religious santos, North American visionary and "outsider" art by blacks, whites and Hispanics, two imposing, life-size black angels carved on commission by Cuban-American folk carver Pucho Odio and, even though none is included in the "Spirits" show, modern European paintings and drawings.

Holder is an ecumenical collector who seeks out the mystical, the religious and the theatrical. This is no surprise, since Holder is a well-known dancer, actor, director, stage and costume designer, even composer. Among his Broadway and Hollywood credits is the role of Baron Samedi in the James Bond thriller Live and Let Die, a character fashioned after a vodun graveyard deity. Ironically, he is best known to the public as the Caribbean-flavored "Uncola Man," 7-Up's spokesman of yesteryear. Few fans can forget his shiny, bald pate, that resonant baritone voice or the lemons and limes bouncing through the classic commercial. Born and raised in Trinidad by upper-middle-class, Church of England parents, Holder attended Queen's Royal College in Port-of-Spain and was exposed to traditional Western art and music from an early age. In 1952, he took his newly formed dance company to Puerto Rico for the first Caribbean Festival; there he discovered Haitian popular music and dance, and Haiti's African-based religion known as vodun, with its complicated, animistic pantheon of deities and spirits.

One of the first pieces Holder collected was an elegant, turn-of-the-century French automaton, one of a number of real gems in the "Spirits" show. In the Fifties, he spotted this articulated, black, wind-up figure with top hat and tails in an antique shop between Madison and Park avenues in New York. A true collector, he paid for it with his unemployment check.

Subsequent trips to Haiti, Mexico and Africa whetted Holder's appetite for non-Western art, as well as other nonmainstream art. His fascination with the spiritual, his crossing of cultural frontiers and his genuine fondness for the objects of his passion are the glue that binds Holder's collection together. According to him, "What you collect becomes your friends. Each sculpture and each painting has its own presence and its own power. . . . Living with them gives you a kind of strength."

In sharp contrast to "Spirits" is "Common Ground/Uncommon Vision," the American-folk-art collection of Michael and Julie Hall at Phoenix Art Museum. The show, for the most part, lacks the exuberance and spontaneity of the Holder collection, perhaps because it is constrained by obvious academic considerations--or maybe because much of it proceeds from a somber, Protestant ethic. Or maybe I just have no affinity for American duck and shore-bird decoys, fishing lures, whirligigs and weather vanes, which, even though an inescapable part of my heritage, pretty much leave me cold.

This, in turn, could be because of the proliferation of obnoxious reproductions of allegedly authentic American folk art for sale in cutesy "country" boutiques in every shopping mall and tourist trap from here to Maine. All in all, the Hall collection is just a little too genteel, a little too self-conscious for me.

The Halls' approach to collecting appears to be much more anthropological than Holder's innately aesthetic approach. This, in fact, is its intention.

"Folk art suffers, if anything, from too much mythology and too little real anthropology," Michael Hall has stated pointblank. "I'm interested in the anthropological idea of a folk and the sociological idea of communities and of people evolving histories." That's an interesting attitude coming from a man whose first real brush with art was carving fake Hawaiian tikis and Polynesian masks for resale in Southern California. These days, Michael Hall is a university art professor and his spouse is an art historian. The Halls carefully planned and structured their purely North American collection so as to avoid embarrassing scholastic holes; each acquisition, by their own admission, was tidily crammed into a little categorical cubbyhole traditional to American folk art. And as this not-unpleasantly-presented exhibition demonstrates, their vision is ultimately molded more by academic aestheticism than faith in their own taste. "We were attracted to the folk-art history that was already in place, and it became a very convenient guide," Michael Hall told Russell Bowman, curator of "Common Ground," which originated at Milwaukee Art Museum. "We could take Jean Lipman's book American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone and pore over it and speculate on what we might find that could meet one model or another."
Hall goes so far as to admit, "Modernist art history guided our eyes and guided our check writing, if you want to be that prosaic about it. Formalism was part of the baggage that came with the whole folk-art territory at the time."

That's why it was so hard for Michael and Julie Hall to make the leap to "outsider" art and other folk-art forms to which they later gravitated, such as Odd Fellow Lodge Hall paraphernalia and the "Possum Trot Midget Doll Theatre," a reproduction of which is a must-see in this show. For the uninitiated, outsider art is art produced by "compulsive visionaries . . . self-taught individuals, sometimes mentally disturbed, who have created their work while isolated generally from mainstream culture and particularly from the complex infrastructure of the art world." That's the definition offered by Maurice Tuchman, curator of Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 1992 show "Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art." Tuchman goes on to say that outsider art is most often characterized by "a distinct compulsiveness, a visionary tone, a fusion of edgy uncertainty and anxiety with a firm certitude [and] sense of exorcism." The work of Martin Ramirez, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and the visionary art of the Reverend Howard Finster, several examples of which are included in both "Common Ground" and "Spirits," just don't quite fit into those cut-and-dried categories guiding most of the Halls' phlegmatic folk-art collection. And it's these pieces that are decidedly the most interesting ones in their collection. Unfortunately, the Halls' latter-day conversion to these art forms adds an element of confusion to the collection as a whole, leaving us bereft of any sense of the unity so innate to Holder's collection.

To borrow an old rural-American phrase, if I had my druthers, I'd choose dancing devils over duck decoys anytime.