Review: Parables and Politics & Elijah Pierce’s Art

By Jeff Regensburger For columbusunderground.com  •  


Elijah Pierce is one of the best known artists associated with Columbus. His works are held by major collections and his legacy continues to influence artists both locally and beyond. That's a good thing. He deserves it. There are few artists who've had the impact and influence that Pierce has. The downside to all this notoriety is the tendency to take him for granted; to pigeon-hole him, to think about him in two-dimensional, short-hand descriptors: "Elijah Pierce? Oh yeah, woodcarver, folk artist. Had a barber shop on the east side. Real salt of the earth guy. Religious too, right?"

 

All those things are true as far as they go. What's lacking in this view though is the space around Pierce, his context. What's lost in these generalized notions is the sense of the historical Elijah Pierce; the man who lived in a particular time, the man who was part of and influenced by the events around him. In Parables and Politics & Elijah Pierce's Art (currently on view at Keny Galleries) viewers have the opportunity to reflect on the historical Pierce and the times in which he lived. It's a fascinating exhibit, made even more rewarding by the inclusion of the diptych Joy (c.1930), a long-forgotten work by Pierce on public view for the first time in years.

 

A number of works relate specifically to themes of authority, justice, and punishment. In Presidents and Convicts (1941), busts of our nation's two great liberators (Washington and Lincoln) are juxtaposed against images of life on a chain gang and service to one's country. It's a compelling piece that wryly illustrates the contradictions inherent in a nation that holds patriotism and liberty aloft as civic virtues while simultaneously maintaining the highest incarceration rate on earth (A contradiction, it should be noted, that is particularly relevant to African American males).

 

More specific historical context can be found in Police Dog (1971). Images of the Civil Rights clashes in Birmingham and beyond were widely disseminated in newspapers and on TV. That Pierce would adopt this imagery in his own work demonstrates not just a connection to current events but also a kinship to the topical songwriters and folk singers of the day. Perhaps it's the Columbus connection, but it's hard to look at Pierce's Police Dog and not also think of Phil Ochs' trenchant Here's to the State of Mississippi. For that matter, Nixon Being Driven from the White House (1975) serves as Pierce's fitting coda to Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men, published the previous year.

 

More prescient perhaps is Girl Scout (1942). On its face it's a work that perfectly captures the patriotic fervor of a nation recently plunged into war. In this bas relief carving, a young African American woman in uniform strikes a formal pose. She's surrounded by stars, stripes, and patriotic bunting. Amid this wholesome iconography Pierce inserts the "Double Victory" emblem, a stark reminder that the United States had yet to live up to its lofty egalitarian ideals. The Double Victory Campaign was an African American movement during World War II that advocated for victory abroad and equal rights at home. Girl Scout serves as a reminder that Pierce's political awareness and advocacy were in evidence well before the civil rights movement.

 

On the subject of songwriters, it's clear from The Prisoner and the Warden (1972) that Pierce was acquainted with the story of Lead Belly's 1925 pardon and release from a Texas prison. As the tale goes, then Texas Governor Patrick Morris Neff was so enamored with a song that Lead Belly presented him that he broke his campaign promise and offered the singer a full pardon after serving only seven years of a murder sentence. Beyond this work, it's worth noting that Lead Belly and Pierce shared a similar set of themes in their respective arts. They were both influenced by religious stories, both incorporated elements of news and popular culture in their work, and both addressed issues of justice, incarceration and racism.

 

All this serves to present a more well-rounded picture of Elijah Pierce the artist and Elijah Pierce the man. Too often the "folk" in folk art is read as simple, unsophisticated and benign. That may be true in some instances, but not in the case of Elijah Pierce. Politics and Parables makes clear that Pierce was a complex man living in complex times. His response to the world wasn't that of some simple, ingenuous barber, but rather that of a keen and articulate observer. Elijah Pierce saw his world for what it was, warts and all. That he could reflect it back to us in such rich clarity will be his legacy.

 

Parables and Politics & Elijah Pierce's Art is on view at Keny Galleries through November 3rd. More information can be found at www.kenygalleries.com.

 

Artwork Information:

Elijah Pierce (1892-1984)
Police Dog
1971
Painted bas relief woodcarving with glitter
17″ x 17 3/4″

Elijah Pierce (1892-1984)
Presidents and Convicts
1941
Painted bas relief woodcarving
33 1/2″ x 24 7/8″

Elijah Pierce (1892-1984)
Nixon Being Driven from the White House
1975
Painted bas relief woodcarving
14 1/2″ x 29 1/4″

Elijah Pierce (1892-1984)
Girl Scout
1942
Painted bas relief woodcarving
13″ x 10″

Elijah Pierce (1892-1984)
The Prisoner and the Warden
1972
Painted bas relief woodcarving
14″ x 9″




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