High Museum Brings Photography and Self-Taught and Folk Art Collections Together to Explore The Art of Southern Backroads

  • ATLANTA, Georgia
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  • November 29, 2018

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Guy Mendes (American, b. 1948), Front Gate, Land of Pasaquan, near Buena Vista, GA, 1982, dye destruction print. Courtesy of the artist.

Take a road trip through the American South this spring

With sculptures, paintings and rarely seen photographs, a new exhibition in Atlanta will explore the unconventional character of the Southern avant-garde

This spring, the High Museum of Art will present “Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads,” an exhibition that celebrates the region’s self-taught artists and offers a rare look at how their worlds converged with contemporary American photography and literature. 

On view March 2 through May 19, 2019, this exhibition is the first collaboration between the High Museum’s folk and self-taught art and photography departments. Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art Katherine Jentleson and Associate Curator of Photography Gregory Harris drew inspiration for the exhibition from an unpublished manuscript for a guidebook of Southern self-taught artists by late poet and publisher Jonathan Williams (1929– 2008), who had road-tripped around the South with photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley in the 1980s and ’90s. Williams intended to publish the manuscript through the press of The Jargon Society, an organization he had founded during his student days at Black Mountain College, which “championed outsiders, mavericks and the neglected.” 

The exhibition will bring the spirit of his book to life with more than 50 sculptures, paintings and other works from the High’s collection presented alongside approximately 100 of Mendes’ and Manley’s photographs, many on view for the very first time. Artworks in the show represent more than a dozen artists, including Eddie Owens Martin (“St. EOM”), Sam Doyle, Mose Tolliver, Thornton Dial, Edgar Tolson, Georgia Blizzard, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Howard Finster and many others. 

Eddie Owens Martin (St. EOM) (American, 1908–1986), Pasaquoyan Man with Ritual Headdress and Levitation Suit, ca. 1965–1975, enamel and beads on concrete over wire mesh. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of the Marion County Historical Society, 1992.9.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Institute 193 will publish Williams’ text as “Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey,” a companion publication featuring short entries documenting his travels, illustrated by Mendes’ and Manley’s photographs, with an afterword by Jentleson and Harris. 

“The High’s self-taught art and photography collections are among the nation’s best, with particular strengths in art of the southeastern United States. ‘Way Out There’ is an unparalleled opportunity to make connections across those departments, and the exhibition and publication will be particularly meaningful to our regional audiences, who personally know these Southern backroads or others like them,” said Rand Suffolk, the High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director. 

Jentleson adds, “With this project, we are celebrating the important but often neglected legacy of unconventional Southern creatives and highlighting how these artists truly embraced and inspired one another. We are thrilled to bring works from our collection together with photographs that will transport viewers to these Southern artists’ worlds. After seeing the show, we hope our visitors will take to the road themselves to explore the way-out-there people and places that inspire them.” 

The exhibition’s first gallery will prime visitors for a virtual road trip through the South with photomurals of shots by Mendes and Manley. Bold text-based graphics adapted from Williams’ poetry will convey the inspiration he drew from roadside signs. The subsequent galleries will be organized roughly by region, starting with the Piedmont plateau, moving briefly through Appalachia, and ending with the Mississippi Delta. 

Along with individual artworks, the galleries will be anchored by environmental installations that will replicate the majesty that Williams, and other travelers, would have experienced firsthand when visiting the artists during their lifetimes. Standout moments will include sci-fiinspired art by Royal Robertson, the multicultural utopia of Eddie Owens Martin, commentary on human nature in concrete and pencil by Dilmus Hall and a feminist gallery of tin-scrap women by Mary T. Smith.  

Mendes’ and Manley’s portrait and landscape photographs from the artists’ homes and yards will also be interspersed throughout the galleries. 

“Mendes and Manley aspired not only to record the distant and difficult to access, but to engage in a layered visual conversation with their fellow artists. The photographs in the exhibition emphasize their impulse to create evocative images while also interpreting and preserving the creations of others,” said Harris. “They so beautifully captured the distinct characters of their subjects and the incredible environments they created.” 

“Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads” will span the first and second levels of the High’s Anne Cox Chambers Wing. The companion publication “Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey” will be published by Institute 193 in spring 2019 and will be available in the High’s Museum Shop. 

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