Exhibit of the week
Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor
An untitled Traylor: Hazards everywhere
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., through March 17
Bill Traylor’s paintings and drawings “stamp themselves on your eye and mind,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. A former slave, born around 1853, the Alabama native picked up pencils and brushes when he was already in his 80s and living on Montgomery’s streets. Over the next few years, he whipped out 1,200 works that were saved by a white patron and then finally discovered by the larger art world in the 1980s. Some 150 of those pictures, most created on discarded cardboard, are currently hanging at the Smithsonian, and they’re marvelous. “Traylor’s style has about it both something very old, like prehistoric cave paintings, and something spanking new.” His human figures are crisp, athletic-looking silhouettes; his birds and animals elemental. The images, often enough, seem forever “just around the corner of being understood.” But they’re “magnetically beautiful.”
“The reputation of Traylor’s art will always be intertwined with his biography,” said Andrea Kirsh in TheArtBlog.org. Besides being the only self-taught artist born in slavery to create such a large body of graphic work, he produced it at a time when a black man would be risking his own safety if he created art that was too provocative, especially art he displayed while he worked at a small desk in a doorway on the street. His images often appear to speak in code to other black Montgomerians, and the Smithsonian exhibition does an excellent job of unpacking the work’s metaphors and its references to African-American storytelling traditions and religious motifs. The violence of the Jim Crow South is evident in the abundance of snakes and snarling dogs in Traylor’s pictures. His rabbits, meanwhile, are frequently interpreted as runaways, and birds in flight seem to represent freedom.
One drawing serves as an outlier in more ways than one, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Untitled (Lynching) is a rare direct depiction of racial violence, and it also appears to be a rare attempt by Traylor to depict 3-D space. “It’s one of his least accomplished drawings,” yet you have to wonder if he was trying to capture the darkest side of white culture by borrowing a signature technique of Western art. He’s better when working in his own idiom, creating figures that can seem crude and even childlike individually but combine to produce a coherent reflection of the America he knew. Traylor’s vision is so potent, it makes the real world look like his art—“which is a greater accomplishment than making art that looks like the world.” ■