OF GOD AND COUNTRY (PMA): A dilettante at large review

The Enemies Within, Late 20th century, Herbert Singleton.

The DAL is having quite a week! First the Orchestra and then the Museum: Philadelphia’s finest institutions providing much enjoyment.

Philadelphia Museum of Art has just opened an extraordinary show, Of God and Country: American Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection; it’s up until January 1, so you have plenty of time—don’t miss this terrific collection of “outsider art.”  The label may be problematic, especially since  the boundaries of “inside” are no longer clearly drawn, but the term “outsider” usually refers to artists who have not been conventionally trained, who don’t fit within the traditional scope of art history. Many of these artists have  lived difficult lives, sometimes homeless, sometimes within the confines of psychiatric institutions, but this exhibition demonstrates us that self-taught genius will out. And such genius will find what in needs: scraps of corrugated metal, old wood, found objects, house paint.

Curator Louis Marchesano has divided the works into four “quadrants”  so that rather than grouping them by  artist, the arrangement reveals the themes and ideas and emotions that preoccupied these people: U.S. History and Life in America, American Landscape, Christianity and Spirituality, and Death and Mortality.

The first quadrant reveals a interesting juxtaposition of patriotism and indictment:  symbols and icons like American flags as well as images of slavery. Especially striking is Elijah Pierce’s Abraham Lincoln as a Black man and Harriet Tubman as the Statue of Liberty.  

Mt Willow in Ozark Range, Jefferson City Missouri, Early to mid-20th century, Joseph Yoakum,.

The second group, The American Landscape, shows us people and animals (don’t miss the surprising and delightful wood sculptures by Felipe Benito Archuleta) and the William Hawkins picture of buffalo hilariously titled,“Boffo.” 

Christianity and Spirituality includes the deeply religious works of Sister Gertrude Morgan who represents herself with Jesus as the bride of Christ, and Howard Finster’s  “Words of Jesus Only.”  His “Dinosaur” painted on wood warns of the apocalypse as each of the dinosaur’s scales is a smiling or a frowning face.

There are now-famous artists—although it is unlikely that they ever knew of their fame—hung throughout the collection. Don’t miss William Taylor’s

“Men Drinking…” (a piece Sheldon Bonovitz—who, with his wife Jill own this collection— mentioned had been rejected by MOMA and is now regarded as a masterpiece). And my favorite artist, Martin Ramirez, who spent thirty years of his life in a mental hospital, drawing and painting hundreds of pictures, among them “Horse and Rider.”

This is a remarkable show; as Jill Bonovitz said, “I hope people get as much joy from [these artworks] as we do….I mean joy in the biggest sense of the word.”  She echoes  Maestro Yannick who at the Orchestra’s Gala also spoke of joy.  How wonderful that these major art institutions have given us much-needed joy.

[Jane and Leonard Korman Galleries and Jaimie & David Field | Marie & Joseph Field Galleries 152-155 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway] May 19, 2023–January 1, 2024; philamuseum.org

One Reply to “OF GOD AND COUNTRY (PMA): A dilettante at large review”
  1. Super article about the super selection from a superb collection. Thank you Jill, Shelly and Toby for the pleasures you add to my life.

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