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Magicians of raw matter

Three self-taught artists create more with less

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Mud, Twigs, Tin, and Wood: The Art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Mose Tolliver, and James Arthur Snipes
Ginger Young Gallery
John Hope Franklin Center
Through Nov. 30

"Going to Church" (ca. 1995) by Jimmie Lee Sudduth. 44 in. x 20 1/2 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GINGER YOUNG GALLERY

At the age of 3, Jimmie Lee Sudduth began painting with mud. By the time he had grown up, he claimed he could identify it in 36 shades.

Mose Tolliver came to his art through depression. An accident had left him crippled, and painting was his way out of the darkness. James Arthur Snipes had always made things out of whatever materials he could get his hands on. After half a decade of tinkering, he discovered people liked what he created—and that was all the encouragement he needed. The work of these three Alabama natives is on display in a show called Mud, Twigs, Tin, and Wood at the Ginger Young Gallery at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke.

The exhibit title is apt. The materials that make up the works in this show are elemental, and Sudduth, Tolliver and Snipes emerge as homegrown alchemists, effecting the transmutation of mundane materials into precious objects. At times, these artists come across as shamanic practitioners, whose talismanic works are imbued with spirit and magical intention.

Sudduth wields his medium of mud and paint on wood with a lifetime of mastery and care. He finesses the materials to invoke the local architecture of rural Alabama, from the manor homes where he worked as a groundskeeper for more than 30 years to a modest log cabin to the vibrant church of "Going to Church" (ca. 1995), a single bright red structure, exuberantly painted, which dominates the pictorial space. Sudduth's architectural renderings feel like appropriation, as if the act of depicting these structures is also a way of claiming ownership of them. It is at least resonant that the medium with which these architectural images have been brought into being is mud from the very ground on which their foundations rest.

Also on view by Sudduth are three portraits of women, including a large-scale nude. These lively portraits contain the compelling contradiction of vaguely rendered bodies and lucid, carefully painted faces.

"Girl" (ca. 1985) by Mose Tolliver. 15 in. x 24 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GINGER YOUNG GALLERY

The paintings of Tolliver are marked by his signature graphical style and muted palette of purples, grey-greens and pinks. His backgrounds take the form of swervy organic shapes, punctuated by multicolored dots which energize the space around his figures. Tolliver has cultivated an abbreviated mode of drawing faces as circular forms with long lines that drop from the top of the head down the middle of the face to create a nose, dot eyes and simple lines for a mouth. Most of his work is done on found pieces of wood. It's a pleasure to see how Tolliver resourcefully conforms his paintings to the wonky wooden shapes.

"Tall Man in Hat with Birds" (ca. 1985) frames a single figure, his arms are raised as if to communicate or reinforce the idea of his own tallness. His hat is tall, too. Birds flit about his legs, suggesting that perhaps the man is so tall that birds can't fly any higher than his kneecaps. The open-ended composition offers no further clues of scale, so the rest is left to one's imagination. Such fantastical propositions are part of Tolliver's universe, which includes "Floating Woman" (ca. 1985), a woman comfortably adrift underwater, accompanied by a fish and a penguin. "Self-Portrait with Snake" (ca. 1985) depicts a single figure with a bird flying overhead and a snake slithering up the side of the composition. "Self-Portrait with Snake" feels particularly shamanic in the way Tolliver projects a mobile vision of himself—gripping two walking canes—alongside the snake and bird, which serve as powerful allies of spirit.

Snipes' work is the most sculptural of the three artists, although all of the works in Mud, Twigs, Tin, and Wood retain a sense of "object-ness." Snipes' painted tin cut-outs pop with an almost hallucinatory imagery, reminiscent of visionary indigenous art from the Amazon.

"Mama and Baby Mermaid" (ca. 1998) is a raw, whimsical sculpture. Its surface is a multicolor riot of stripes and dots. Snipes' surfaces are decorated, as if he is celebrating the shapes, fêting them with color. "Albert Macon and His Pet Bird" (ca. 2000) is a construct of simple lines, wavy tin cut-outs, simply painted with confident, brilliant color. (Check out the yellow of the shirt against the midnight black of face and hands—the figures cast fanciful shadows against the gallery walls.) Snipes' references are fascinating because they address the realm of dreams or archetypes alongside characters from his life. The impact is decidedly literary: With a title like "Mr. Brown Hill and Spanish Pea" (ca. 1998) Snipes delivers the charm and concise wit of a short story. Snipes demonstrates the capacity to incorporate a range of materials—gnarled branches and rusted tin, painted and unpainted—to create powerful sculptural statements with a real sensitivity to the intrinsic beauty of his materials.

The space of the Ginger Young Gallery is small, but Mud, Twigs, Tin, and Wood is big. The art of Sudduth, Tolliver and Snipes radiates a spirit of generosity and love. It is admittedly odd to talk about something like "love" in an art review, but it feels like an integral aspect of this grouping of work which so eloquently articulates an inherent joy. Suffice to say this show is a reminder that the basest materials can be turned into aesthetic gold. In this diminutive but worthwhile exhibition Sudduth, Tolliver and Snipes speak to the practice of artmaking as the exultant transformation of mundane materials into something new, beautiful and mysterious.

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