Art Eyewitness Essay:
Meditations on Death and Mortality
in the Of God and Country Exhibition
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd
When the Saints Go Marching In is one of the most famous and popular of African-American Spirituals. It has been so widely embraced as a standard of the jazz repertoire, a favorite of pop and rock n' roll singers and even as a chant at British rugby football games that the religious nature of “The Saints” can easily be forgotten.
A key work of art in an exhibition currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art addresses the heavenly focus of “The Saints”. It also treats the very special earthly locale where this immortal song originated – New Orleans.
The carved wood relief, sculpted by Herbert Singleton, depicts a funeral procession, making its way through the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. Members of an African-American church and an accompanying brass band escort one of their congregation on the journey to immortal life.
Going Home: McDonoghville Cemetery is featured in the fourth and last gallery of the Of God and Country exhibition. This exhibit presents works of Outsider Art from the collection of two Philadelphia patrons of the arts, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. I commented upon the first three galleries of Of God and Country in an earlier review. But – as I discussed there – I felt that the weighty subject matter of the concluding gallery deserved detailed study and reflection.
The final gallery, fittingly enough, is all about Death and Mortality.
As I mentioned in the earlier review, many of the artists whose works appear in Of God and Country were devout Christians. Many had difficult and stressful lives. Herbert Singleton (1945-2007) spent thirteen years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary on a drug charge. He was also the victim of a vicious beating by police officers. For people living lives of adversity and privation, death is often a release, an act of spiritual liberation. That is the sentiment evoked by When the Saints Go Marching In and in Singleton's Going Home.
Oh, when the trumpet sounds its call
Oh, when the trumpet sounds its call
Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.
Death wears many masks, however, and touches the emotions of people in very different ways. If this final gallery in Of God and Country has a unifying theme it is, ironically, the bewildering diversity of interpretations which artists devote to the subject of death.
The art works on view in the Death and Mortality gallery are certainly an eclectic mix, with memorable creations by Jon Serl, Eugene von Brueuchenhein and Howard Finster. Purvis Young's Funeral and Horses provides a somber contrast to Singleton's Going Home.
Leroy Almon's ironically titled Life updates the Vanitas tradition of classic art with macabre, Outsider immediacy. A small mirror is positioned for the viewer, just below the “Skull and Cosmetics” motif.
The transition from the art works in the earlier galleries to these dealing with death is generally smooth and effective. This is especially true for the works of Christian art which are displayed just before one enters the Death and Mortality gallery. There is – or seems to be – one exception.
Simon Sparrow's mosaic, Assemblage with Faces, is a real “show-stopper”. The enigmatic faces which emerge from among the swirls of glitter and Star Wars figurines grab on to one's imagination. This is a tremendous work of art and it is hard to pull yourself away from it.
So far, I have made three visits to the Of God and Country exhibition. Each time, visitors are congregated before Sparrow's sensational mosaic. By contrast, the Death and Mortality gallery appears to be generating less interest. While I was there, a number of visitors took a brief “look-see” before making quick departures. At several points, the gallery was empty, except for me.
I may be reading too much into this situation, but I wonder if the placement of Assemblage with Faces makes it difficult for visitors to properly appreciate the art works in the following gallery. Or might the subject of death be too emotionally charged in the aftermath of Covid-19?
Whatever the answers to these questions, there is plenty to reward a lengthy visit to the Death and Mortality gallery.
Howard Finster (1916-2001) created some of the most vivid images to appear in the Of God and Country exhibition, including its final gallery. A Baptist minister in the American South, Finster said that he had a vision from God bidding him to paint sacred art. Finster obeyed the divine summons, though many of his thousands of paintings strain the boundaries of traditional religion and art to the breaking point.
Along with painting apocalyptic dinosaurs, Finster carved and painted this elaborate clock frame, commenting on the passage of time.
Even more mind-boggling is a shadow box filled with angelic figures and ghostly faces – and more messages. This amazing piece was created in 1982 and is entitled Heaven is Worth It All, #2,798. It invites comparison to Simon Sparrow's Assemblage with Faces, no small achievement.
“You don't see my paintings,” Serl once said, “you feel them.”
Jon Serl (1894-1993) brought a tremendous sum of life experience to his paintings. He was born in Olean, New York, to a theatrical family. He was active in the Vaudeville circuit, at one point working as a female impersonator known as “Slats”. Later, in Hollywood, he provided voiceover for silent film stars challenged by the “talkies”. During the Depression years, he made a living as a migrant fruit picker.
Serl's employment resume, however, does not explain his wonderfully strange images. If he had visions, like Finster, he did not dwell on the experience. Serl started painting late in life and painted what he felt. Some critics have categorized his work as “expressionist” but it would take a great deal of effort to fit Serl into any “school” of art except his own.
Otherworldly entities, birdlike creatures and haunted individuals populate Serl's paintings. Between Two Worlds shows what appears to be funeral home viewing for a man lying prone, the top of his coffin pushed back to allow a gathering of ethereal mourners to pay their respects.
Between Two Worlds is not going to allow its audience to walk away with just one explanation, however.
Is life, indeed, but a stage and when the show is over, it's over? Or is there an other, more mysterious, reality to come in the next act?
The final gallery of Of God and Country raises serious questions like this. And the incredible artists whose work we see on view attempted to come to terms with death and mortality from their own, unique perspectives.
Herbert Singleton's Going Home: McDonoghville Cemetery shows the prosaic, real world appreciation of death. A Christian congregation in New Orleans bids an extravagant farewell to one of their number, after which they will get on with their lives.
Joh Serl presents - or seems to – the point of crossing over, from this world to the next, but leaves it to us to decide how valid his images are.
None of this may mean a great deal, if we view life and death in Cosmic terms. Is our brief existence in a universe of planetary systems, of stars going supernova, all there is? Such is the realm evoked by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's The Grand Mass of Titanium—Voyages Through Space—No. 815 (1959).
Cosmology, however, is cold comfort to most people when they finally come face-to-face with Father Time.
If we, as human beings, live with our heads in the clouds, our feet always remain on the ground. Every step we take is ultimately directed toward that point when each one of us must confront and make peace with our mortality.
Such reflections come naturally after spending some time in this extraordinary exhibition gallery. A debt of gratitude needs to be accorded to Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz and the curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They have shared with us provocative works of art on a subject which none of us can ignore, however much we try.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd and Ed Voves, all rights reserved.
Introductory Image: Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the Of God and Country exhibtion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing Howard Finster's People and Time Come Together . . . , #16,977. The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Herbert Singleton's Going Home: McDonoghville Cemetery. Date Unknown. Alkyd industrial paint, including metalic paint, on carved red cedar with yellow pine battens: 12 3/4 by 60 inches (32.4 x 152.4 cm) The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, Promised Gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Purvis Young's Funeral and Horses, late 20th century. Paint on wood construction, record sleeve displays.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Leroy Almon's Life, 1990. Paint and mirror on carved wood. The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the Of God and Country exhibtion, showing Simon Sparrow's Assemblage with Faces, date unknown. The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Simon Sparrow's Assemblage with Faces (detail), date unknown. Glitter, paint, and other found objects on wood; artist-made painted wood frame: 56 1/2 inches × 8 feet 11 inches × 3 1/2 inches (143.5 × 271.8 × 8.9 cm. The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Howard Finster's People and Time Come Together..., #16,977, 1990. Paint on wood cutout: artist-made frame of Douglas fir branded with artist-made metal stamps: Framed: 15 1/4 x 15 inches (38.7 x 38.1 cm) The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Howard Finster's Your the Clock That Counts My Time Away, #16,294, 1990. Carved, stained, and burned wood; paint and Sharpie permanent marker on board; General Electric clock. Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Howard Finster's Heaven is Worth It All, #2,798, 1982. Shadowbox construction of wood with acrylic sheet front, painted inside and out; artificial flowers; metal chains; cut sheet-metal figures: 28 x 19 1/2 x 3 3/4 inches (71.1 x 49.5 x 9.5 inches) Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, Promised Gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Jon Serl's Between Two Worlds, late 20th century. Oil on board, artist-made frame: 24.25 x 26.25 inches. Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz.
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's The Grand Mass of Titanium—Voyages Through Space—No. 815, (detail) 1959. Oil on Masonite: 24 x 24 inches. Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Elijah Pierce's Father Time (detail), 20th century. Paint, glitter, and varnish on carved white pine with corrugated cardboard background: 18.5 x 12 inches. Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, Promised Gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.