Art review: ‘Fever Within’ a striking testament to power of empathy


Self-taught art reminds us that there is incredible creativity and ingenuity at work even in the smallest, most obscure sliver of rural America. Artist Ronald Lockett, the subject of a wonderful solo exhibition at the High Museum, lived the “folk” art mythos to some degree, making his work in a tiny Bessemer, Ala., neighborhood with the cartoony name of Pipe Shop.

A cousin to celebrated self-taught artist Thornton Dial, Lockett honed his craft under Dial’s watchful eye. Included in the exhibition is Dial’s tribute to his cousin who died of AIDS in 1998, a kind of Edenic garden forged of found materials — carpet and rope and fake flowers — whose centerpiece is a majestic deer, standing in for Lockett.

Lockett also lived by the self-taught artist’s creed that, in his cousin Dial’s words, “having nothing is having everything.” Like Dial, Lockett used what was close at hand: time-weathered wood, chicken wire, nails, sticks and the rusted metal abundant in his steel factory neighborhood. The ultimate gesture of creative reuse, Lockett transformed neglect and waste into a potent language that tackled big issues.

“Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett” is the first solo exhibition of Lockett’s work and a refresher course in the ability of artists outside the hubs of L.A. and New York to alchemize limitations into remarkable, resonant work. But Lockett is also a reminder that self-taught artists created deeply thoughtful, politically engaged art to rival the work of any art-school educated artist.

Placed next to contemporary artists in a group show, his mixed media works in wood, metal, paint and assorted detritus could easily be assumed to be cut from the same cloth. Lockett tackled homelessness, domestic terrorism, racism, genocide but also offered up homages to Princess Diana and his beloved great-aunt, Sarah Dial Lockett, who raised him and whose orbit of quilts and roses Lockett fashions into a moving tribute on view here. There is a quiet and gentleness to Lockett’s work that gets under your skin, a sadness in his depiction of “Homeless People,” black figures radiating halos of white energy like heat waves that you realize is Lockett’s way of showing the divide, the force field that separates them from the world.

Despite limited prospects, Lockett was a visually sophisticated, highly moral and empathetic artist who forged allegories in mixed media works like “Traps,” of racism, persecution and cruelty from scenes of deer waylaid in wire traps and in his deeply affecting odes to a natural world in peril.

The deer, as the show’s exhibition notes, was Lockett’s avatar. It stood in for a sense of hemmed-in helplessness that Lockett perhaps felt in the face of being poor, black and HIV-positive in the rural South. But it also stood as a representative of all creatures, human and animal, trapped, mistreated, trying to make their way in a hostile world. In early works like “Holocaust” (1988) or “Rebirth” (1987) of a hunched, skeletal animal passing against a backdrop of green fields and blue skies into a landscape enshrouded in darkness, Lockett affirms that the world is twofold, and that normalcy and blue skies can coexist with despair.

In an age of bluster, divisiveness and rage, “Fever Within” is a necessary tonic. This powerful, important show is a memorial to the quiet, thoughtful act of creation and the power of empathy.

RELATED: Review: Technology versus nature in photographer Struth’s High exhibit



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

SNL tweaks Atlanta’s Amazon H2 bid with jokes on traffic, Waffle House, Paula Deen
SNL tweaks Atlanta’s Amazon H2 bid with jokes on traffic, Waffle House, Paula Deen

Leslie Jones, Kenan Thompson and Aidy Bryant are part of a skit where “SNL” mocks Atlanta’s effort to get the Amazon HQ2. Posted Sunday, January 21, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog In a relatively under-baked skit that aired after Weekend Update last night, “Saturday Night Live&rdquo...
John Legend blames Trump for government shutdown, calls him racist
John Legend blames Trump for government shutdown, calls him racist

Grammy and Oscar-winning singer John Legend is claiming that President Donald Trump and his team’s alleged racism are behind the government shutdown. Legend, who has vocally criticized Trump Sr. and Jr. both in the past, tweeted the following just after midnight Saturday: “The reason the government shutdown is that Trump...
Mo’Nique calls for boycott of Netflix over gender pay disparities
Mo’Nique calls for boycott of Netflix over gender pay disparities

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – JANUARY 25: Actress Mo’Nique attends the 83rd Academy Awards Nominations Announcement held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on January 25, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Posted Sunday, January 21, 2018 by RODNEY...
TV best bets with the Grammys, Toni Braxton, Will Ferrell
TV best bets with the Grammys, Toni Braxton, Will Ferrell

LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 12: Host James Corden speaks onstage during during The 59th GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on February 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS) Posted Sunday, January 21, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog The...
Concert review: Miranda Lambert showcases ferocity and tenderness at Infinite Energy Arena show
Concert review: Miranda Lambert showcases ferocity and tenderness at Infinite Energy Arena show

About an hour into her set, Miranda Lambert told the sold-out crowd at Infinite Energy Arena, “I’m trying to be on a mission to make you feel all the feels.” And with that, she stood alone in a spotlight with her acoustic guitar for the aching, “Tin Man” (“If you ever felt one breaking, you&rsquo...
More Stories