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Art Review : From The Cotton Fields Back Home

August 14, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

Probably the best thing about inspired naive art is that it lets down all defenses. You can put away your theories, swallow your buzzwords and just enjoy unfettered expression.

Take Clementine Hunter, a 100-plus-year-old illiterate black woman who still paints near the Louisiana plantations where she once worked in the cotton fields and kitchens. She's being honored with an exhibition of her paintings at the California Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park, through Aug. 31.

Some aspects of Hunter's life are uncertain: her birth date, for instance, is said to be between 1880 and 1885. And the year she started painting floats around the late 1930s and early '40s. But her art could hardly be more straightforward.

She simply picks up a brush and puts down remembered scenes from Southern life, interprets biblical themes, invents crazy-quilt portraits or paints bouquets of cheerful flowers. There's little subtlety and sophistication in her work. She often applies pigment straight from the tube and deals with perspective by painting horizontal stripes of action, but she has a sure sense of design and an indomitable spirit.

Though she started painting late in life--making use of materials left at her employer's plantation by a visiting artist--Hunter had a creative background. She had fashioned complicated quilts, hand-tied lace curtains, baskets, dolls for her children and had co-authored an imaginative cookbook. Perhaps it's the self-confidence developed in these achievements that gives her painting its authority.

You don't doubt for a minute that she has witnessed these sunny scenes of women washing clothes (outdoors in boiling pots of water), field hands picking pecans or baling cotton. When she paints "Flight to Egypt" with Mary riding a white horse through a batch of chickens, she gives the story such a real-life twist that you believe the angels soaring overhead will lead the holy family to a plantation stable.

A wall full of florals blooms with bright balls of color. They are monolithic compositions, each with a centered bouquet, but even here Hunter flaunts the range of her primitive sensibility. She conjures up flowers in the forms of pinwheels, textured clumps and spiked exotica.

The overall tone of the show is upbeat--Who can complain about a woman who finds all this beauty in a dirt-poor life?--but she can be terrifyingly honest. Consider, for example, an unflattering portrait called "Sometimes a Woman Is Uglier Looking than a Man." Subjects portrayed in a more abstract manner ought to feel fortunate; she fills in their black-outlined faces with blotches of bright colors, as if she were piecing fabric.

Though some critics and art historians have tried to account for the "African influence" in her work or line it up with Haitian and Coptic art, Hunter will have none of it. She's nothing more nor less than an unpretentious, natural artist. She's aware of her fame but apparently impervious to the art world's need to classify her personal expression.

The exhibition, organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art, is composed of works from the Robert F. Ryan collection, supplemented by pieces from Los Angeles collectors.

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