CHARLIE LUCAS (1931 -)
Self-Portrait by Charlie Lucas bears some similarity to the artist’s alter ego, the “Tin Man.” The artist presents himself as the embodiment of two identities, but inextricably linked in ways that cannot be fully understood when viewed as two separate parts. In neurological terms, the left brain is associated with logic and objectivity, and the right brain with intuition and subjectivity. When the artist discovered himself as the “Tin Man,” the right side of his brain merged with the left side, thus combining the physical and temporal side of his being with the potential, transformative side. In a similar way, Self-Portrait is created with discarded materials like car parts that previously lost their use value in terms of time (no purpose for using them), and limited in terms of space (no place to put them). The artist repurposed the materials, and transformed them into the artistic embodiment of his own self-portrait.
Self-taught art, Naïve art, or Outsider art are interchangeable terms that have been used to describe artists who have no formal art training. The lack of formal training by self-taught artists precipitated their relationship, or lack thereof, to the art world. In general, the art world is comprised of museums and art galleries that collect and exhibit art to help legitimize and bring recognition to artists. The work of self-taught artists is outside the “art world” because they do not create art with the intention of exhibiting it in galleries or museums. In some cases, their art is created in situ or made of materials that are immediately available in their native surroundings. Furthermore, their work is often made of fragile materials and vulnerable to decay. Since museums have begun to take an active interest in supporting self-taught artists, the referent “self-taught” has remained, but the definition has expanded to the point where the boundaries between self-taught artists and trained artists have blurred. Today, the formal training of artists has little to no bearing on the quality of art and/or whether or not their art is worthy of being collected or exhibited in museums and galleries.
Charlie Lucas was born in Birmingham, Alabama on October 12, 1951. He did not receive formal training in art, but he developed a penchant for working with his hands at a very young age. As a young man he made toys out of scrap wood, metal and cloth for family and friends, and spent the first 30 years of his life working in the construction field. A major turning point in his life occurred in 1984 when Lucas was disabled from a back injury. During his recuperation, he experienced a revelation that he should devote his life to creating art. He called himself the “Tin Man,” an alter ego that guided his creative process. He began by welding metal sculptures out of found objects and installing them in his yard and along a road nearby. His work captured the attention of two collectors, Judge Mark Kennedy and William Arnett. By 1988 he began to participate in exhibitions in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, New Orleans and other cities across the United States. Self-Portrait can be considered the personification of the “Tin Man.” As the artist stated, “Charlie Lucas is the man that guides the Tin Man. If you cut us in half, you still wouldn’t be able to understand it. It’s like, its like the Tin Man’s wrapped around me and plugging in the holes.”
Self-taught artists, while normally considered outside the mainstream of official art circles, have been reconsidered in terms of their value as artists and their work as art. For example, The Watts Towers by Simon Rodia, the by-product a singular artistic vision, were considered an obstruction, and the city of Los Angeles made plans to demolish it. After the artist’s death, Actor Nicholas King and Film Editor William Cartwright purchased the land and formed a committee with the Los Angeles County Museum to preserve it. Anna Mary Robertson Moses, known as Grandma Moses, did not begin painting until she was in her seventies. The collector Louis J. Calder purchased a group of her paintings on view in a store window, and a year later her works were featured in an exhibition at the Modern Museum of American Art. Bill Traylor is an Alabama artist who spent the later years of his life drawing on the streets of Montgomery. Traylor used materials that were immediately available to him, featuring whimsical figures and animals in dynamic poses and juxtapositions that recall the cultural life of African Americans.
Simon Rodia, The Watts Towers. 1954-1955; Grandma Moses, Sugaring Off, oil on canvas, 1945; Bill Traylor, Man, Woman, ca. 1940-1942, watercolor and graphite on cardboard.
What do you think of the term “Self-taught Artist”? Does it influence how you see the artwork? Charlie Lucas uses found materials to create his art. What does he use? How does his use of materials differ from traditional art forms by formerly trained artists? Charlie Lucas defines his self-portrait as a moment in time when the right brain merged with the left brain. What does the artist mean by that and what can you find in the work that reflects these two aspects of the brain? What is he holding?