“I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail”
–Robert Johnson “Hellhound On My Trail”
As the end of the summer gallery season quickly approaches and temperatures reach their boiling point, the blues, as Robert Johnson (or was it the devil?) croons, is falling down like hail. Perhaps completely unbeknownst to their galleries, two exhibitions–James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues at 80 Washington Square East Galleries and Cy Gavin: Overture at Sargent’s Daughters–create a complex and captivating cross-generational dialogue on the blues, its distinct aesthetic and continued relevance to contemporary art and the African diaspora.
Born nearly 60 years apart, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, a Mississippi Delta blues musician and folk artist, and Cy Gavin, a Pittsburgh-born, New York-based emerging artist pursuing his MFA at Columbia, seem to have very little in common at first glance. However, Thomas and Gavin’s art–despite its difference in medium–shares significant similarities from a haunting form of spirituality and mysticism to their dual investigation of the indestructible connection between personal and collective histories, particularly for black Americans.
Curator Bennett Simpson’s exhibition Blues For Smoke at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (which traveled to the Whitney Museum where I saw it) was one of the first to highlight the blues in contemporary art. While I can’t say I loved that exhibition or agreed with all its curatorial choices, his understanding of the blues as a tool for visual analysis, as well as a genre of music, is undeniably important.
Even so, there are many different definitions of the blues, including Howlin’ Wolf’s assertion that the blues is “when you ain’t got no money.” For James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas and Cy Gavin, the blues as an aesthetic seems to originate from the thin boundaries between life and death, the physical world and the spiritual one, familial stories and historical narratives, light and dark and joy and grief.
The first major exhibition of James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas’ work since his death in 1993, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues showcases not only Thomas’ prolific unfired clay sculptures but also his pioneering Delta blues music. While best known for his contribution to the Delta blues, Thomas’ art became more recognized as a part of the seminal exhibition Black Folk Art In America, 1930-1980. With Thomas’ voice on record echoing through the gallery space, the exhibition allows viewers to take Thomas’ multidisciplinary creations as one body of work, bolstered by two incredible documentaries on Thomas-‘Sonny Ford:’ Delta Artist and James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: Artist.
Sculpting clay from the local soil, Thomas’ sculptures are deeply entrenched in his Mississippi surroundings–it’s wildlife, heritage, religion, community and history. For example, one display reveals a selection of small mammals and birds that are not only native to Thomas’ Delta landscape but also significant to hoodoo, in which Thomas believed and practiced.
Not only sculpting the flora and fauna of Mississippi, Thomas also depicted local life in the Delta, constructing busts of members of his community using glasses, hair and marble eyes. For Thomas, death was also as much of a part of life as the rest of his representations. Reflecting his former job as a gravedigger, Thomas created skulls with real human teeth or dentures, as well as small dioramas of the dead in coffins.
While many of his miniature busts represent his friends and neighbors, Thomas also sculpted iconic figures such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in order to sell as ashtrays and pencil holders. Using cotton hair on George Washington’s bust, Thomas references the oppressive and traumatic history of the cotton industry in Mississippi from slavery to the more contemporary sharecropping.
While James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas clearly appears to be more obviously tied to the blues, Pittsburgh, as experienced through Cy Gavin, certainly also has its own type of post-industrial Rust Belt City blues (I say this as a Pittsburgh native myself). In his first New York solo exhibition, Gavin’s masterful, rich and haunting paintings mirror a similar mysticism and historical relevance to Thomas’ busts.
With brightly colored, almost hallucinatory backgrounds that are more reminiscent of the fantastical swamplands of the deep South than the urban decay of Pittsburgh, Gavin’s paintings present amorphous ghostly black figures with occasionally realistic torsos and limbs. Employing a mixture of tattoo ink, umber and translucent blue to create the almost impossibly dark black color, Gavin’s figures resemble spirits or some other type of otherworldly beings.
The exhibition’s press release explains that the sudden death of Gavin’s father, with whom he had a fraught relationship due to his sexuality and art, led Gavin to begin to research his family history. Finding the documentation lacking, he turned to folklore and collective African American and Western African history in order to construct a personal history for himself from the larger collective narrative.
Not only do Gavin’s paintings reflect African American spirituality and history, but he also references West African religion in his paintings. For example, several paintings feature staples on the bodies of the figures, mirroring the nailed Nkisi Nkondi, a Kongo spirit vessel.
Using unexpected materials including his fathers ashes, Gavin, like Thomas, forges a powerful link between the personal and the political, as well as the spiritual. Viewing Gavin’s paintings and Thomas’ sculptures together, the intergenerational connections made between these two masterful artists reveal a continued engagement with the blues and its legacy.
And for good measure, why not end with James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas singing the blues: