Wednesday, July 15, 2015

James 'Son Ford' Thomas: The Devil and His Blues 80WSE Gallery

This profoundly moving, beautiful and heartbreaking  exhibition consists of about 100 unfired and mostly delicately colored small clay sculptures by James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas who passed in 1993 and who was also a noted Delta Blues Musician. The show is a little creepy and unsettling what with all those small clay busts and heads (including some of Washington and Lincoln)  that look strange to say the least. Filling one of the three galleries and installed on a large platform at eye level, they glare and stare at us. A smaller gallery has on display many of his hand carved clay coffins with tiny little bodies at eternal rest that might give you a chuckle or a shudder, or maybe both.  One of the  jobs that he had was a gravedigger and these little decapitated heads and skulls recall that activity along with associations of African American folk spirituality known as ‘hoodoo’. They also brought to mind for me Day of the Dead festivities and horrible horror movies. In reality I also think that these macabre bodiless forms bring up the terrible hard life that Thomas and most African Americans lived through in the deep  south in the 20th Century and right up to current times. Maybe this was a way that he got through and absorbed the many awful trials and tribulations of his time. Art and music.  Thomas was inventive, highly imaginative and resourceful in the materials that he found and used including dentures, real and fake hair, eyeglasses and other bits and pieces, and he sometimes sold some of these heads some of which were hollowed out in the back as ashtrays and holders for paper clips. There are also many sweet and gentle small sculptures of birds, snakes, squirrels and fish along with some wonderful clay scenes of everyday life. As I said Thomas was also a musician and his music fills the galleries along with two documentaries on his life and work. This exhibition snuck up on me, having been on Display since June 9th, but I had no idea about it until I read Roberta Smith’s review in the July 10th arts and leisure issue of The New York Times a full month after it opened.  It will remain on view only until August 7th which does not give you much time to see one of my favorite shows of the year.


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