Sculptor, painter, musician and educator Lonnie Holley was born in Alabama in 1950. He is one of a group of contemporary artists, among them Purvis Young, Ronald Lockett and Holley’s close friend Thornton Dial, whose work has its roots in Southern African-American vernacular art and architecture.
Holley’s own art is particularly indebted to the tradition of the yard show—the embellished yards decorated with wood, concrete, plants, roots, paint and cast-off objects seen throughout the American South. For 18 years, Holley’s one-acre property outside of Birmingham served as a yard-show-like multimedium environment incorporating his paintings, sculptures carved from industrial sandstone (a by-product of Birmingham’s steel industry) and found-object assemblages. It was bulldozed in 1997 to make way for a proposed addition to the Birmingham airport; Holley now works out of a studio in Atlanta.
With the exception of one 2011 sandstone carving, this crowded exhibition of a dozen pieces was limited to assemblage sculptures made in the last 10 years. Into these essentially abstract constructions, Holley introduces political, autobiographical and poetic narratives that address our relationships to nature, technology and one another, among other subjects.
As in the work of Dial, the materials in Holley’s assemblages may have formal, pictorial or metaphorical value—or all three at once, as in The Cause of the Accident (2011), the centerpiece of which is a blown-out truck tire. As a shape, the tire interacts with the circular forms of a hubcap and a loop of thin wire in a serene arrangement that pairs flow and stillness. As an object, it is evidence of an incident, perhaps a fatal one. As a symbol, it serves as a cautionary reminder of the laws of cause and effect.
Recurring elements are emblems of motion (in addition to tires, there are steering wheels and truck gears), power (electrical cords and plugs), communication (telephones and telephone wires), danger (barricade tape, red paint), labor (workman’s tools and ladders) and frequently art. In High Class Chair (2011), for example, an arrangement of a gilded picture frame, a classroom chair, a piece of electrical cable and a crude wooden cross is dedicated to the late art critic and scholar Thomas McEvilley, a champion and explicator of Holley’s work.
Two especially strong sculptures emphasize human interconnectedness. The Catholic Lady’s Pictures (2004), a bouquet of empty picture frames sprouting from a piece of firewood set on its end, is—according to a statement by the artist—a portrait, of sorts, of the neighbor who once owned them, while the fugitive face in profile in Mother P (2011), two interlocking pieces of scrap metal threaded through with a squiggle of wire, stands in for unnamed forebears and their histories.
Gabriel’s Horn (2011) features a square grid of wire fencing hung with an assortment of objects, including a battered metal horn. The work encompasses a more global vision of community—one in which we ignore our common humanity and the consequences of our actions at our peril. About this piece Holley has written that the horn symbolizes the act of alerting others to danger. The implication here is that this is the job of the artist, but, as Holley adds, “Gabriel was a messenger in biblical times, and I wanted to show that maybe that kind of spirit exists in all of us.”