Perhaps one of the most hideous and horrendous comments for an art dealer is the word of “primitive”. Not any more! The current exhibition of Thomas Chambers at the American Folk Art Museum draws the attention of both visitors and scholars into paintings of gaudy colors and brutal repetitions. It surely expanded my intellectual curiosity and may prod me to pick up a primitive painting on the floor of an antiques mall next time. But after the initial excitement recedes, will the public interest last?
It is too misleading to sell American folk art as a precursor of modernism. It is true that expressiveness are both means and goals in American folk art as well as modern art. However, in the former case, the artists had to struggle to realize their forms of expressions, thus unconsciously putting more freshness and vigor into their work than those who were able to work with ease. If a viewer may not be able to tell means and goals in modern artworks, he would have no such troubles in primitive paintings. In them, one can easily trace the honesty and intensity exuded from the untrained painters who took their technical problems seriously and attacked them with their genuine inventive methods.
Chambers, like other primitive painters, excelled in his own highly individual style. Possessing little faculty to expand his subject matters, he relied on what he had mastered: The formulaic clouds against bright sky, the curvilinear geometric shapes of rocks and cliff and the repetitive stiff waves similarly to what Japanese artists rendered on lacquer-ware in Meiji period. The artificial light contrast does have a wow effect at the first sight, but my mind soon was saturated with similar pictures that in the end no single picture could stand out except the person behind each canvas.
During the visit, I joked to Geo and said that such a visit was dangerous because we would be confused about what good art is. But the real danger lies in the overreaching media critics who elevated primitive paintings to such an intellectual level that merits scholar attentions to link it with modernism. Chambers did not pave the road to American modernism. It is the abnormality of such art within the mainstream of 19th century American Art that triggers our psyche which has seen enough bright-colored, geometric prone and heavily patterned pictures: enough only in terms of our modern time from flea markets to Chelsea galleries, but not if we had found a prophet.
But Chambers was not a prophet. He is solely an American in his struggle of making a living as an artist. Not being able to travel extensively, he adopted William Bartlett’s engravings and selected only elements that are suitable for his techniques. When commissions were spare, he provided his service as a fancy painter for furniture or tinware. For him, perhaps there was not much difference because highly stylized ornamentation is what he really offered to his customers. If he had been born half a century earlier, he would have been able to sustain demands for his artistic talent. Back then, portraiture, especially primitive portraiture was still preferred by conservative American. Although he would be too bold for those customers because while he flattened the space, he deepened and saturated colors to an audacious originality. The surface of his paint gives an extraordinary visual pleasure and is seldom muddled to lose any freshness. But colors alone do not make a picture which would appeal to mid 19th century Americans who became more and more cosmopolitan. His rediscovery in the 1940’s was no coincident because it was only then when our traditional judgment of high art was fundamentally challenged.
In the exhibition, paintings by Cole or Doughty are used to draw parallel comparison. Fancy furniture are also included to expand our experience of Chamber’s’ career. But no modernism is mentioned. Philippe De Montebello once commented:” It is the judicious exercise of the museums’ authority that makes possible that state of pure reverie that an unencumbered aesthetic experience can provide.” The curatorial perspective is to reconstruct the career of a painter with almost no historical documentation through arrangement of his works with other artworks and material of his time. The pursuit of Thomas Chambers is to decorate and to please, to demonstrate patron’s wealth and their own pursuit of pleasure and wealth. It reminds us that visual art was originally created for the sake of pure visual sensation. I am wondering how many artworks in MOMA, which is actually next door, would bring such visual joy?