Charleston

Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

“I am an artist of America,” declared Lonnie Holley during a talk for the opening of his exhibition at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina. This self-identification was Holley’s response to being labeled a folk artist throughout his career. While the visibility of his work may have suffered due to this label—his most recent solo museum show was in 1994—Holley proves himself in this exhibition as a capable and provocative artist with a large body of work.

Lonnie Holley. Blood on the Shoes of a Civil Rights Worker, 2005; installation view, Something to Take My Place, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC. Photo: Rick Rhodes.

Lonnie Holley. Blood on the Shoes of a Civil Rights Worker, 2005; installation view, Something to Take My Place, 2015. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC. Photo: Rick Rhodes.

Holley’s choice of materials acts as a consistent refrain throughout his career, and this is apparent in the works in the show, which date from 1984 to 2015. Throughout this wide temporal range, his sculptures continually feature discarded goods and reclaimed materials such as wood, wire, and concrete. But many of his materials are loaded with political meanings, including shoes supposedly worn by a civil-rights marcher, a bucket allegedly used by his grandmother for a variety of tasks, and discarded electrical cables from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the site of a massacre in June 2015. At his talk, commenting on his choice of materials, Holley was quick to point out that he never works with visual preconceptions of sculptures; instead, each is the result of working with the various materials he finds.

Lonnie Holley. Something to Take My Place, 2015; installation view, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC. Courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Photo: Rick Rhodes.

Lonnie Holley. Something to Take My Place, 2015; installation view, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC. Courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Photo: Rick Rhodes.

At times Holley’s materials—as well as titles—electrify what are otherwise subdued, formal compositions. Pervading the exhibition are references to blood. Blood on the Shoes of a Civil Rights Walker (2005) features two petite, ragged shoes attached to a painted slab of wood. The shoes have red stains indeed, but these seem to be paint. In Memory of the Blood and Mama and Papa’s Blood (both 2007) are two powerful sculptures that evoke shed blood in both title and aesthetic. Other works feature interesting materials, including You Put the Clown Suit On (1993), featuring an old, tattered clown costume, hanging as if it were crucified; somewhat lightheartedly, Holley created a wire outline of a face for the work, much like in some works by Alexander Calder.

(from left to right) Lonnie Holley. Changing My Walk (Honoring Andrew Young), 2004; wooden chair, shoes; 36 x 17 x 20 in. The Catholic Ladies’ Picture, 2005; wood pallet, found picture frames, metal grate, log, wire; 52 x 26 x 25 in. Mama and Papa’s Blood, 2007; cloth, paint, metal lattice stand; 46 x 20 x 11 in. Leaving You Alone, 2004; chair, metal hangers, shirt; 33 x 26 x 29 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC. Photo: Rick Rhodes.

(from left to right) Lonnie Holley. Changing My Walk (Honoring Andrew Young), 2004; wooden chair, shoes; 36 x 17 x 20 in.; The Catholic Ladies’ Picture, 2005; wood pallet, found picture frames, metal grate, log, wire; 52 x 26 x 25 in.; Mama and Papa’s Blood, 2007; cloth, paint, metal lattice stand; 46 x 20 x 11 in.; Leaving You Alone, 2004; chair, metal hangers, shirt; 33 x 26 x 29 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC. Photo: Rick Rhodes.

Beyond Holley’s use of charged materials, other works excel almost solely due to their formal rigor. Before the Dam Rock (2006) consists of a long, thick wire that stretches upward more than seven feet, counterbalanced and kept upright by a small boulder. The work’s balancing nature further evokes sculptures by Calder and Jean Tinguely, and the contrast between the mass of the rock and the lightness of the wire is enthralling. Grandma’s Bottomless Bucket (1999) is a poignant wall-based sculpture of a jagged tree branch penetrating an old metal pail. While Holley’s materials may shape the way he works, many of his compositions are simple yet strong.

What is particularly striking is Holley’s ability to oscillate between creating sculptures that appear intricately haphazard and making ones that are restrained and quietly poetic. Making Something to Take My Place (2008) is an energetic composition that includes wood, wire, rubber hoses, cloth, and an old gasoline pump, among other things. Many of Holley’s works share this chaotic style, including Table for Discussion (2005), which features an enormous jumble of rusty barbed wire, and Like a Slave Ship (2008), a large sculpture made of bent metal and wire.

(from left to right) Lonnie Holley. Grandmama’s Bottomless Bucket, 1999; stick, bucket, cloth; 60 x 11 x 4 in. Making Something to Take My Place, 2008; gas pump, rock, rubber hose, wood, metal, sticks, cloth, wire, grass; 56 x 35 x 25 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC. Photo: Rick Rhodes.

(from left to right) Lonnie Holley. Grandmama’s Bottomless Bucket, 1999; stick, bucket, cloth; 60 x 11 x 4 in.; Making Something to Take My Place, 2008; gas pump, rock, rubber hose, wood, metal, sticks, cloth, wire, grass; 56 x 35 x 25 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC. Photo: Rick Rhodes.

Not far within the gallery, however, stands Changing My Walk (Honoring Andrew Young) (2004), ostensibly an homage to the former politician and civil-rights leader from Holley’s native Georgia. Far from the deliberately disheveled nature of the other works, this sculpture consists of an old wooden chair, on which are two different types of shoes. Key to this work is the lack of manipulation of the materials; unlike some works, in which Holley struggled to shape wire and other materials, Changing My Walk is more like a readymade assemblage.

At the gallery talk, after giving insight into a sculpture or two, Holley would smoothly ask the audience, “Can you dig it?” His cool demeanor is certainly reflected in his ability to make works that weave between the tranquil and the chaotic. As an exhibition, Something to Take My Place illustrates a complex artist who defies categorization.

Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley is on view at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC, through October 10, 2015.

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