The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson



The Roots of the Spirit Kevin blythe Sampson

September 19th - November 26th
September 21st 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM 
The Wiegand Gallery, part of the Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, is proud to announce the West Coast debut of four of the country’s most notable Outsider artists in The Roots of the Spirit: Lonnie Holley, Mr. Imagination, Charlie Lucas and Kevin Sampson. Curated by Martha Henry and Robert Poplack, Director of the Wiegand Gallery, the exhibition sees the foursome’s work reunited for the first time since a controversial 2011 Venice Biennale showing that occurred despite having their invitation to represent the American Folk Art Museum within the framework of the international art world suddenly cancelled. The Roots of the Spirit will include works created while they were in Venice, as well as throughout their careers.
Lonnie Holley, the subject of a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine that tagged the artist as “the insider’s outsider,” and noted the expanding breadth of the artist’s work—which recently has included music and recording—will create a site specific work derived from materials found on the university grounds as part of the exhibition.
The genesis of The Roots of the Spirit goes back to 2011 when the four artists were invited to participate in the 54th Venice Biennale by the American Folk Art Museum in New York and Benetton in Treviso, Italy to create large site-specific installations at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
The inclusion of the four self-taught Outsider artists during the 2011 Biennale promised to be revolutionary because it offered the opportunity to exhibit within a broad international context, all while finding themselves excluded domestically from the American art canon. Due to an unexpected loss of funding, the invitation was rescinded, which drew coverage in the art press, including Artnet, Art Forum, Art in America , ArtClaire, Art Info and others. But the artists—under the aegis of gallery director and curator Martha Henry who against all odds and without funding ultimately managed to secure a venue in an 11th century garden—decided they would still attend.
While Lonnie Holley, Mr. Imagination (Gregory Warmack), Charlie Lucas (Tin Man), and Kevin Sampson have all achieved renown as self-taught African American artists, they refer to themselves simply as American artists. Born in the mid 20th century, they came of age during the Civil Rights movement when deep and abiding racial discrimination was the norm. Lacking opportunities, education, and artist role models, they managed to become artists despite great social and economic obstacles. “Their artworks express their African and American culture, their everyday lives, dreams, and aspirations,” says Martha Henry. “When we look into the mirror of the black experience we have a better understanding of American culture, values and spirituality.
Black artists have played a vital role in distinguishing our culture throughout the world, indeed the black experience is so interwoven into our larger culture that it defines much of what the world perceives today as American.”
Notions of divine intervention and spiritual renewal are at the heart of much of the foursome’s work. It is art that honors ancestors as an antidote to death and private grief. Witness Kevin Sampson’s shrines to deceased friends and relatives; the ancestor thrones of Lonnie Holley and Mr. Imagination; and Charlie Lucas’ metal sculptures that honor his grandparents by their material and method.
Viewing themselves as caretakers of the earth in some profound way, the artists harvest the overflowing debris of contemporary civilization and transform it into art as a means of preserving the rescued materials to teach future generations. Out of the enormous variety of free materials ready to be recycled, the artists choose those that exhibit the potential for being re-instilled with purpose and meaning. “The processes of painting, assemblage, construction and found object sculpture reveal restless minds capable of expression that ranges from the serious to playful,” says Gallery Director Robert Poplack. “The work shows an openness to the spirit of imagination as well as a desire to entertain. Their immersive, layered environments—often located in their yards and inside their homes—need to be experienced to be fully appreciated.”
The materials and methods practiced by these four virtuosos place them squarely within the wider context of the international contemporary art world. Their use of assemblage, found object sculpture and installation invite comparisons to contemporary art practices dating back from the beginning of the 20th century when Picasso and Braque, inspired by African art, began to use found objects in their work. These ideas were further developed in the mid 20th century by many artists including Tinguely, Arman, Beuys, and Rauschenberg, and continue to be expanded today by Willie Cole, David Hammons and many other contemporary artists.
While the regular use of recycled materials puts all four at the heart of the Eco Art movement, Kevin Sampson and Lonnie Holley’s art, loaded with political and social commentary, place them in a long line of U.S. socio-political artists. “As boundaries break down between self-taught and formally educated artists,” says Henry, “I felt it important to celebrate the achievements of these four who emerged from the depths of personal despair to make valuable contributions to the American visual experience.”
Their work can be found in many major American museum collections including: American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY; Birmingham Museum of Art, AL; American Visionary Museum, Baltimore, MD; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; High Museum, Atlanta, GA; and INTUIT: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago, IL among others. \

A catalog will accompany the exhibition

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