(January 31, 1993):
p. 8 G.
“Elijah Pierce’s Works Bursting with Humanity.”
By Lesley Constable
Art often has the power to cross boundaries - of time or
place, gender or race, politics or religion - and speak a universal language.
Elijah Pierce's woodcarvings speak such a language.
An exhibition of 173 of Pierce's works, ''Elijah Pierce,
Woodcarver,'' organized and presented by the Columbus Museum of Art, is on
display through May 16.
Pierce's contribution to art, especially in Columbus, is
immense. In this exhibition, it is apparent that Pierce founded a style of art
indigenous to Columbus. Aspects of Pierce's style have been picked up,
embroidered upon and become subsumed into the work of many younger Columbus
Since Pierce's ''discovery'' by the mainstream art world,
around 1970, many words have been attached to his woodcarvings and particulars
of his life and times. Still, in this handsome and comprehensive exhibition - a
pleasant sojourn through a series of separate yet integrated gallery spaces -
the art is what speaks.
The exhibition features Pierce's important religious works,
works that helped establish him, even in his lifetime, as a ''world class'' folk
artist. Where this exhibition excels is in showing the range of his work, his
humanity and especially his humor.
In its presentation, the Columbus Museum of Art has given
Pierce's work an appropriate weight and sense of its status.
The exhibit is displayed to let the works shine through.
They are allowed to speak for themselves. Signage, informative and engaging,
augments the works, never detracting from them.
There is much to ruminate upon, even for Pierce
aficionados. Many works from public and private collections nationwide, works
rarely or never shown, hang beside those from the museum's collection, the
country's largest public collection of Pierce's carvings. We are fortunate that
the museum was so rigorous in its early acquisition of Pierce's work.
Much credit must go to exhibition organizer E. Jane
Connell, curator of European art, and co-organizer Nanette V. Maciejunes,
curator of American art.
Works are harmoniously grouped in separate but overlapping
categories housed in a series of mini-galleries, giving a palatable yet in-depth
taste of the range and scope of Pierce's work.
The categories/galleries are: autobiographical works;
free-standing carvings; secular relief carvings; tableaus; religious reliefs;
message signs; moral lessons; and Pierce, the Universal Man.
Initially, Pierce became known for his religious works.
Works that are particularly evocative and brimming with Pierce's highly
personal, yet universal, spiritual vision include the relief carvings: Christ
Walking on the Water, ca. 1970; Suffer the Little Children, n.d.; Adam and Eve,
1971; Obey God and Live (Vision of Heaven), 1956; Mother's Prayer, 1972; and
Saul on the Road to Damascus, 1948 (from Death on the Level diptych); and, the
diminutive tableaus: Sacrifice of Isaac, 1952; and Abraham Sacrifices His Son,
Pierce was a barber and a lay minister, as well as a
woodcarver, until his death in 1984. He seemed to effortlessly weave all three
callings/occupations into one.
Pierce's religious works, his ''Sermons in Wood'' as he
called them, still do the job of educating, illuminating and passing on a rich,
interwoven fabric of moral and spiritual teachings.
In both his religious and secular works, Pierce celebrates
''everyman.'' Although having to do
primarily with Christian iconology and replete with biblical settings, Pierce's
religious works are as evocative of universally held spiritual beliefs.
These are by no means dour religious or proselytizing
statements. They have more to do with an everyday, working faith that is both
simple and complex.
This exhibition also offers a reconsideration - a new-found
appreciation - of his ''secular'' works, particularly those having to do with
humor. Humor, not religion, is the glue that holds these works together and
holds us, as fellow humans, to the works. It is humor - acceptance of life as it
is - that ultimately gives Pierce's works their grace and extended, universal
In viewing whimsical, instructive and in some cases close
to ribald parables, we experience Pierce's easy humanity and grace and, through
him, experience our own. These include: Devil Fishing, n.d.; Three Ways To Send
a Message: Telephone, Telegram,
Tell-A-Woman, 1980; The Pickup, 1973; Monday Morning Gossip, 1934; Man in an
Outhouse, 1975; You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Can't Make Him Drink,
1973; and Crocodile and Unwary Cow, ca. 1945.
Pierce enjoyed every aspect of life. Other notable works
are: Presidents and Convicts, 1941; Nixon Being Driven From the White House,
1975; Popeye, 1933; Indians Hunting, 1943; Alligator, 1974; Grim Reaper, 1974;
Picking Wild Berries, n.d.; and Martin Luther King (Love), ca. 1968.
All of Pierce's woodcarvings, no matter their subject
matter or ultimate meaning, are works first and foremost about kindness,
followed by dignity and humanity.
An impressive and comprehensive catalog includes insightful
essays written by those notable in the field: the late Robert Bishop, historian
John Moe and collector/critic Michael Hall. Let's hope this catalog sets a
precedent for other such well-produced exhibition catalogs.
The exhibition will move on to Studio Museum in Harlem,
N.Y.; Dallas; Philadelphia; and Santa Fe, N.M.
In tandem with the catalog, ''Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver'' should help to more firmly establish Pierce's place in art history as a catalyst or indicator of much that has followed in contemporary art.
Above, Crocodile and Unwary Cow, ca. 1945; right, Angel,
You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Can't Make Him Drink, 1973
Above: Alligator, 1974; right, Three Fishermen; below, Obey God and Live (Vision of Heaven), 1956
REPRINTED, WITH PERMISSION, FROM THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH