Arts

If they dont have a story behind them, whats the use? Elijah Pierce’s woodcarvings portray America in the 20th century

Elijah Pierce's The Kennedy Brothers (1977) Kennedy: Columbus Museum of Art

The woodcarvings of the US artist Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) are usually relegated to the folk art departments of museums. But when Nancy Ireson, the chief curator of Philadelphias Barnes Foundation, first saw them in 2018 she was amazed she had not encountered the work before. Ireson asked her fellow curator Zoé Whitley, the director of Londons Chisenhale Gallery, what she knew about Pierce. “Neither of us had come across his carvings in the siloed contexts of so-called fine art exhibitions of 19th and 20th century artists,” Whitley says.

The pair began researching Pierces work and have co-curated Elijah Pierces America, an exhibition at the Barnes Foundation of around 100 works created between 1923 and 1979. It is his first major survey since a 1993 show mounted by the Columbus Museum of Art in Pierces Ohio hometown.

Elijah Pierce's Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.) (date unknown), made using paint and glitter on carved wood Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

Born in Mississippi to formerly enslaved parents, Pierces lifetime spanned segregation, the civil rights movement and the rise of American popular culture. “My carvings look nice,” Pierce once said, “but if they dont have a story behind them, whats the use of them?” He moulded portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., the house he was born in, scenes from the New Testament, and images of slavery and brutality. Pierce then brightly painted these carvings, sometimes adding glitter, pearls, shells and rhinestones. “Every piece of work I carve is a message, a sermon,” he said.

The artist often made composite scenes that were later sold separately as individual works. Since this exhibition draws from multiple public and private collections, a monumental work called Joy (around 1930s-40s) will be reassembled and displayed in a major institution for the first time.

Elijah Pierce's Watergate (aroRead More – Source