The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson



On Kevin Blythe Sampson By Randall Morris, Cavin-Morris Gallery, NY,NY

On Kevin Blythe Sampson By Randall Morris, Cavin-Morris Gallery, NY,NY

There is finally a plethora of information out about the integrity and the
deep importance of what has become known as the 'yard show' or what I now more realisticllt refer to as spirit yards. Anyone who has
driven through the South has encountered the phenomenon whereby place is
challenged by survival and homeground comes into being as a niche within the
larger landscape.
We know Mary T. Smith's yardshow, we know Thornton Dials' yardshow, Ralph
Griffin, Lonnie Holley, and many others. We don't know by name but we
understand the vision of the unsellable manifestations of wheels, faces,
dolls, bottles, funerary decorations etc that become tips of the hat,
libations and obeisances to ancestors, order, the hearth, and a taunt in the
face of never-ending oppression.

Grey Gundaker was one of Robert Farris Thompson's students when he turned her on to Judith McWillie's deep and immersive work on yard shows, cemeteries and the vernacular art of the American South. She and Judith McWillie are major repositories on the deep sources of the true American art. Their book No Space Hidden is a must for anyone who claims to love African-American art trained or untrained. Her anthology of
essays: Head to the Skies African-American Home Ground (sic) ; (the book is in my office I'll post the correct title tomorrow) as well as her analysis of
vernacular writing: Signs of Diaspora:Diaspora of Signs, Literacies,
Creolization and Vernacular Practice in African America have thrown my
perspectives awry in great ways again. In signs of diaspora she questions
what we mean by illiterate when a culture is so rich and so encoded and so
into language; she disputes this hierarchy of reading as the only literacy
and posits that "Distinct from script literacy on one hand, and oral culture
on the other, these creolized vernacular practices include writing in charms, use of personal or nondecodable scripts, the strategic renunciation of reading and writing as communicative tools, and writing that is linked to divination, trance and possession."

The first book is only about spirit yards. A spirit yard is a homage to
ancestors, shows the relationship of the maker to his community and to
himself, reveals personal virtuosity and creates a sacred ground out of Place
that takes place on the cycle between the home and the cemetery. But what
set me up was a sentence where she explained that yard shows could be
miniaturized and taken indoors and from that small sentence I will never see
the work of African-American self-taught artists quite the same again. It
all stems from this carving out of a place inside another one whether for
home or for temporary shelter. Not everyone has, understands or is aware of
the yard show but I think you will not find an artist in this part of the
field who is not aware of its umbrella with every inch of their being.

It also gave me gift of understanding even more deeply what it is Kevin
Sampson does. I read that phrase and walked into where his sculptures were
and understood for the first time that they were yard shows. That in the
bastardized darkness of Newark he had taken them indoors; that he had been
making them always and that they incorporated into their complex and intense forms everything that was in the Southern yards.

When I first visited him in Newark there was part of a chainlink fence in his
home on which hung dried peppers, chicken feet and dolls. In another room
was a circle on the floor of large stones over which dangled a cross. A
wagon wheel leaned against the wall. Random parts of the house were painted
blue. It didn't shout at you; it was just there if you looked. His pieces
were in different places every time I visited, constantly being reconformed
into the space.

As we got closer I saw the incredible intensity of the cards life was dealing
him. It wasn't quite an urban story it wasn't country it was often surreal
and never letting up on him for one second with its intensity. You could die
laughing and just when that laughter was peaking someone would really die and
a deeper music would take over and yes one or two works of art than joined
the family in a function of remembrance.

And I also have come to realize that his discomfort with the role of artist,
of the artworld, of the reluctance of those close to him to accept him as
artist, of the stark and clear visions of heaven and hell in his dreams, of
his soul restlessness that draws him to feel other peoples lives like an
uncontrollable magnet was also what other African-American spirit yard artists
have gone through everywhere with their communities and their families. I
wrote the other day that Spirit doesn't die, quoting RFT, and it was Kevin I
was referring to, thinking of those who might have trouble with his age, or
his intelligence, or misperceptions of his roots.

The pieces are sections of spiritual landscape that he has reinvented on
earth. That he protects. There are hidden things in the pieces noone will
ever unravel. But there is no piece he does without ancestors, without God
in whatever forms, without Oldtime Religion, without black people in them. I
was glad to see people flock to his pieces this last January even though it
was after five years of wondering why it wasn't seen earlier. He deserves
it. And though we have a friendship that is reverent and irreverent at the
same time I would like to put in a word of respect here for Kevin Sampson as
artist that has nothing to do with marketplace. And he knows how true that
is. Sampson is why I am in this field and a sign to me of the fields rich
and wonderful continuing future. The books mentioned above, the photos in
the Arnett book, and thinking hard about where this field goes for black and
white people have made me understand better the genius some of us non-visual
artists are privileged to see and touch almost everyday. And how satisfying
it is, for people like Dial, for Sampson, for my other deep artist friend Gregory Van Maanen etc that they are alive in their too short hours of recognition.