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Modern Primitives: Simple Art in a Complex Age


The most beloved part of the Cahoon Museum of American Art's permanent collection is the folk paintings of Ralph and Martha Cahoon. Now, the museum is presenting an exhibition that puts the Cahoons' work in context with that of other important American primitive artists of the 20th century. "Modern Primitives: Simple Art in a Complex Age" will run through June 21, 2003, and feature works by some 45 artists.

"Modern Primitives" represents a rare opportunity to see a significant overview of American folk art of the past century, including pieces by many artists who were working well before the Cahoons turned from furniture decoration to easel painting in the early 1950s. Many of them took up painting late in life, such as J.O.J. Frost, a restaurateur who, after his retirement and wife's death, took up the challenge of recording the history of his native Marblehead in paint. '"The Storm of 1868" is one of his many depictions of ships tossed at sea. (left: Diane Pedersen, New England Winter, acrylic on board, courtesy of American Folk, Chatham)

One truly extraordinary addition to the show is a meticulous colored pencil drawing by Joseph Pickett, a Pennsylvania carpenter who died in 1918. Although only a half-dozen of his works have survived, his painting "Manchester Valley" (in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art) has been reproduced so frequently that he is one of the country's most famous folk artists. Like "Manchester Valley," the drawing, titled "The Old and the New," pictures a train chugging through a landscape.

Of course, no survey of 20th-century primitive art would be complete without a painting by Grandma Moses, who's represented by an appealing snow scene. Anna Mary Robertson Moses began painting memories of her life in rural upstate New York in her 70s and was easily America's most famous folk artist when she died at age 101 in 1961. There's also a painting by Earl Cunningham, who made a living variously as a tinker, seaman, automobile repairing, chicken farmer and antiques dealer, first in Maine, then in Florida. Recalling two of Ralph Cahoon's favorite motifs, "Sunrise at Lighthouse" pictures a lighthouse and a sailing ship under one of Cunningham's typically fruit-colored skies -- in this case a hot pink.

A number of artists who could be considered contemporaries of the Cahoons worked outside the mainstream. Clementine Hunter, sometimes called "the black Grandma Moses," was a kitchen and laundry worker who began painting in a wooden shack. She recorded her childhood among plantation workers in such simple, but vibrant scenes as the show's "Saturday Night at the Honky Tonk." After a career as a garment cutter and candy manufacturer, Polish immigrant Harry Lieberman began painting pictures reflecting his Jewish heritage and knowledge of the Old Testament, Cabala and Talmud. "Rachel's Lament," with its large gathering of figures, is typical of his work. Religious conviction also figures strongly in the paintings of Sister Gertrude Morgan, a New Orleans street preacher who dressed all in white. As is typical her "Mother Eliza Hudson" combines words and images in an expressively childlike manner.

Another very significant "outsider" artist was Justin McCarthy, a reclusive Pennsylvanian whose images have all the raw energy of some of the century's best figurative abstractionists. His "Peggy FIeming" shows the skater at three different spin positions.

Also well represented in the "Modern Primitives" show are many of the best primitive artists working today, including Warren Kimble and Linda Nelson Stocks, whose paintings are widely known through their reproductions on calendars and cards, and Will Moses, the great-grandson of Grandma Moses. Outstanding talents who live on the Cape and islands include Janet Munro, Rosebee, Elizabeth Mumford, Jayne Shelley-Pierce and Barbara Moment.

A high quality checklist featuring images of many works in the show is being published in conjunction with the exhibition. Funding has been provided by the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod; a new Chatham gallery called American Folk; and an anonymous donor. The sponsor of the "Modern Primitives" exhibition itself is Gretchen Reilly of Cotuit.

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