Major retrospective features rarely seen works by virtuoso woodcarver Elijah Pierce

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Major retrospective features rarely seen works by virtuoso woodcarver Elijah Pierce
Elijah Pierce (American, 1892–1984), Slavery Time, c. 1965–70. Paint, glitter, and pearl on carved wood 28 1/8 × 34 13/16 in. (71.5 × 88.4 cm) Cincinnati Art Museum. Museum Purchase: Lawrence Archer Wachs Fund, 2006.117

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- The Barnes Foundation is presenting Elijah Pierce’s America, a landmark exhibition featuring the rich and varied sculpture of woodcarver Elijah Pierce (1892–1984). On view in the Roberts Gallery from September 27, 2020 through January 10, 2021, this is the first major retrospective of Pierce’s work to be presented outside his home city of Columbus, Ohio, for more than 25 years.

Born on a farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi, Pierce joined the Great Migration and settled in Columbus, Ohio, in 1924. After years spent working as a barber and preacher, in 1954 he opened his own barbershop, which became a social hub and functioned as his studio. Pierce created a unique body of work over the course of 50 years, producing his virtuoso woodcarvings in moments between cutting hair. His work features remarkable narratives—religious parables, autobiographical scenes, episodes from American politics, and includes figures from sports and film, with subjects ranging from Richard Nixon to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and from Hank Aaron to Warren Beatty. Pierce once said, “I’d carve anything that was a picture in my mind. I thought a pocketknife was about the best thing I’d ever seen.”

Co-curated by Dr. Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator at the Barnes, and Dr. Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery in London, Elijah Pierce’s America features more than 100 rarely seen works created between 1923 and 1979, including painted bas-reliefs and freestanding carvings. Using wood, corrugated cardboard, crepe paper, house paint, aluminum foil, glitter, and rhinestones, Pierce created extraordinary objects that expressed his faith, values, and perspective on the world. His art reflects the complexities of life in 20th-century America.

“Today Dr. Albert C. Barnes is best known as a visionary collector and pioneering educator, but from the turn of the 20th century, he was also a fierce advocate for the civil rights of African Americans, women, and the economically marginalized,” says Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President. “Barnes’s commitment to racial equality, social justice, and education, which he believed was the cornerstone of a truly democratic society, is the historical legacy that we have worked hard to extend and grow in everything we do at the Barnes.”

“In Elijah Pierce’s America, we are looking at Pierce as the artist he was—not as a ‘folk’ or ‘outsider’ artist simply because he was self-taught,” says Zoé Whitley. “One of our goals with this exhibition is to raise key questions about the writing of art history: are self-taught artists automatically considered ‘outsider’ even if they were denied formal education by circumstance and social status? Within the history of early 20th-century art, how can we begin to recontextualize the contributions and innovations of self-taught artists? Through his woodcarvings, Pierce not only succeeded in telling a personal history alongside the history of African American people, but also revealed a dynamic visual history of the United States.”

Elijah Pierce’s woodcarvings strike a chord with the diverse aesthetics present in the Barnes collection. As a collector, Dr. Barnes was interested in art for its formal characteristics and was not concerned with artists’ social origin. As a result, the Barnes collection is home to many works by artists with little or no formal art school training, including Paul Gauguin, Horace Pippin, and Henri Rousseau. In his display, Dr. Barnes placed renowned canvases by Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne alongside household items he collected, such as furniture and wrought-iron objects, overturning traditional hierarchies to reveal universal elements of human expression.

“We are proud to present this long-awaited exhibition, which honors Dr. Barnes’s commitment to championing artists regardless of their training,” says Nancy Ireson. “The COVID-19 health crisis, which required our current temporary closure, forced us to adjust our exhibition schedule and delay the opening of Elijah Pierce’s America until September. We are incredibly grateful to the lenders for their flexibility and for the opportunity to keep this important exhibition on view until January 2021. This is an exciting opportunity to celebrate an important yet under-recognized figure whose work still deeply resonates today.”

Exhibition highlights include:

• The Book of Wood (1932), the tour-de-force volume of biblical scenes for which Pierce is best known, featuring seven large, didactic polychrome reliefs

• Major and rarely exhibited large-scale works from private collections, including Joy (1930s–1940s) and Bible Stories (c. 1936)

• Works inspired by Pierce’s biography and his calling as a pastor, including The Place of My Birth (1977), The Archangel Michael (1948), and Prayer (1966)

• Vividly allegorical works featuring animals, including Monkeys at a Card Table (1938–1940) and The Little Elephant (c. 1923), the earliest carving he made as a gift for his wife

• Works documenting Pierce’s take on popular culture and sports, including Popeye (1933) and Archie Griffin (1976)

• Works chronicling American political themes, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers (1977), Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.) (c. 1968), Watergate (1975), and Abraham Lincoln (1974)

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