The Discordant Rise of Lonnie Holley

Despite a soaring performance at the Dallas Museum of Art, the self-taught artist is still too often treated as an outsider

Sixty-nine year old Lonnie Holley – who released his third album, MITH, last year; whose sculptures were featured in Lynne Cooke’s acclaimed ‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ (2017) at the National Gallery for Art, Washington D.C.; and who has been the subject of profiles in The New Yorker and The Guardian, amongst others – is currently enjoying a level of recognition unprecedented in his long career. He carved his first sandstone sculptures in 1979 – tombstones for his sister’s lost children. But only now is this self-taught, African-American artist from Birmingham, Alabama becoming what one might call a star.

Nevertheless, as became painfully clear at a concert last week at the Dallas of Museum of Art, his success in certain quarters – and the received meaning and import of his mesmerizing, singular work – is still far from assured, vulnerable to mishandling by well-intentioned but misguided supporters.

Holley was invited to perform as part of the SOLUNA Festival, a successful initiative of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra intended to forge collaborations between institutions in the city’s richly endowed arts district, as well as to foster new audiences. At the DMA, a collection exhibition, titled ‘America Will Be!’ and expansively themed around ideas of landscape, included a carved sandstone sculpture by Holley alongside gifts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the preeminent collection of work by self-taught Southern artists, established over decades by William Arnett, who was one of Holley’s first patrons.

Holley’s performance, in the museum’s unatmospheric auditorium, responded to the exhibition only as much as every improvised performance by Holley responds to its situation – that is to say obliquely, but completely. He rarely performs songs from his records (‘I’ve already played that,’ he often says in response to requests), and never the same way twice. I sat down to talk with Holley a few hours before he went onstage, and he told me he had not seen the exhibition yet, and had nothing in particular to say about it. Instead, he revealed that he had been gathering notes during and before his arrival in Dallas, and had been thinking about the situation on the Texas border with Mexico, and the torrential hail and rain storms that had blown through the region the night before. On the Thursday just before Easter, his second song featured the plaintive refrain, ‘Is it really a good Friday?’

Lonnie Holley, ’American Landscapes’, 2019. Courtesy: Dallas Museum of Art

Lonnie Holley, ’American Landscapes’, 2019. Courtesy: Dallas Museum of Art

Accompanying him was his sometime collaborator Dave Eggar, a cellist whose versatile jazz stylings offset the spacey digital chimes of Holley’s keys. Eggar’s cello stuttered and scratched discordantly one moment, then soared and swooped the next; meanwhile Holley’s lyrics rose above, seemingly oblivious to the sonic pandemonium below. Most words were stretched over multiple notes and tonalities, swelling with vibrato, riffs and runs. Holley is also the best whistler I have ever heard. His music is often compared to that of Sun Ra or Gil Scott-Heron, but he confessed that he is influenced more by the sounds of the fairground around which he grew up, and the soundtracks of movies he watched at the drive-in cinema – influences which I myself find hard to trace.

Holley told me that his ambitions for his work – both visual and musical – are inclined these days towards the educational. Not having attended school himself, he now finds himself performing for ‘intellectical thinkers’, as he put it – teachers who are ‘establishing the human brain.’ Two songs into his performance, he was joined on stage by three students from the POINT Ensemble ­–­ an improvisational group at the Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, along with their teacher, who gamely contributed to Holley’s score, following a so-called master-class with Eggar and Holley just the day before.

In person, Holley is a grand, magisterial presence; onstage he shrank behind his keyboard. Adding to this impression was the presence of the two voluble white men who flanked him – Eggar, on one side, and his manager, Matt Arnett (son of William), who delivered an introductory spiel to the performance while Holley – who should have commanded the stage – sat meekly between. At the end, Arnett bounded up again to moderate a Q & A, frequently cutting in to add his own observations, including a ‘shout out’ to his collector dad, who, as he put it, ‘discovered the quilts of Gee’s Bend’, amongst other masterworks by self-taught African-American artists.

While the museum context might have suggested the need for an alternative format to Holley’s usually charged live shows, this superfluous explication both before and after his performance came off as patronizing and infantilizing. Nobody needs to explain or apologize for Holley’s unique, experimental music or unconventional presentation. An art museum is where people of all stripes expect to find unusual stories, sights and sounds. Holley is making what may be the best work of his career, and it is this work that should be allowed to come first, and which should have the last word.

Main Image: Lonnie Holley, ’American Landscapes’, 2019. Courtesy: Dallas Museum of Art

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.

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