Saturday, July 15, 2006

Christenberry at SAAM

The other evening, Thursday the 13th to be precise, the Smithsonian, American Art Museum had a little shindig to celebrate its opening and the dual Christenberry exhibition (the folk art collection he curated and a retrospective of his own work: Passing Time).

I’ve gotten to know Christenberry a little through my work experience at Hemphill Fine Arts the past year and one of the many great things to come out of that acquaintanceship is a redefinition of two words within our lexicon: verbose and loquacious. At a speaking engagement in 2005, George Hemphill introduced Bill Christenberry as a loquacious Southern Gentleman. I had grown up thinking the word meant long winded in a sense where one loves to hear himself talk, whereas verbose just meant wordy. After Bill spoke that morning in mid-May he stepped in the offices of Hemphill and I said, “Bill, I don’t think your loquacious. Verbose maybe, but not Loquacious.” It was an off-hand compliment I thought he’d appreciate. However, being an older gentleman, he’s a little hard of hearing and the wit of the comment was lost.

Bill is a story-teller. There is a story behind every cabin he photographs, behind every dirt road he travels and behind every sign he picks up – some of those he freely admitted were stolen, though he thought “appropriated from their intended origin” had a better charm to their acquisition. And with that twist of vernacular I thought it best to redefine my previous notions of verbose and loquacious. Hemphill was on the money when he called Bill loquacious, because within that previous comment Bill Christenberry placed an eloquent touch on how he came to use the signs within his art work – an eloquence that was drawn out like the hot summer days he came to know in his Southern upbringing.

As a note, verbose I still think to mean wordy, only now I think of it as wordy without the eloquence. A problem my father and I tend to have when speaking freely and unable to edit, as within written texts (though admittedly, I may be a bit verbose in these epistles).

The two shows had a common theme through them – the care of the human hand in the act of visual expression. Through his curatorial work, Bill pulled from the permanent collection of SAAM some remarkably charming works of folk art that not only echoed the found nature of objects Bill had come to know through his own work, but also that sense of story, time, and place that is so evident through all of Bill Christenberry’s work. What tales may be told in a rifle that is bronzed and turned into a weather vane, or in a toy carved after Watergate with an elephant and a donkey on either side of a see saw. Wit and charm.

With rare exception, what the work in the Folk Art section of the museum does not possess is the building methodology of a man’s career with art. Throughout the last few decades Bill Christenberry has returned to locations in the South to photograph lots of land as their buildings age, become abandoned, overgrown and at times demolished and vacant. They exist like people, each with its own history. “Do you know the difference between a juke joint and a honkey tonk?” Bill asked me one afternoon as I visited his studio to collect some work and we go to talking about a Bar-Bah-Que shack in one of his building portrait pieces. Being from Iowa these were words I had heard, but never in any context. A juke joint sounded like a place where one might encounter a juke box. “That’s a good guess,” he suggested. “I’ll give you a clue,” he politely continued, “ a honkey tonk is where the honkeys went.”

Stories like that exist within each article exhibited in Passing Time. They compose the identity and curiosities of Bill Christenberry. They compose the identity of the South. However, knowing the volume of work Bill has produced throughout his career, like the identity of the South, this exhibition is but the tip of something much larger.

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