Looking at the paintings of Purvis Young, I kept getting the sense, sometimes unsettling, that I'd seen some of the imagery before. A few dramatic strokes of blue and green paint on paper, for instance, summoned Salvador Dali's take on Don Quixote. Another spare piece on glossy, wrinkled, black paper, featuring simple lines and smudges of white and gray offset by a round splotch of peach-colored paint, had the feel of Asian art. The artist's signature, which looked to have been hastily applied to the left side, reinforced this feel by echoing the calligraphy of an Oriental print.
Elsewhere there were portentous swaths of black that made me think, perhaps unaccountably, of Robert Motherwell, and in other pictures, little hieroglyphic markings suggested Keith Haring. Ghostly elongated faces in some paintings recalled the work of the Saint Soleil school of Haitian art.
If we were dealing with one of those trendy contemporary artists who traffic in wholesale appropriation -- say, David Salle or Julian Schnabel -- this sense of dejà vu would hardly be surprising. But Young is about as far as you can get from artists of that sort, both in subject matter and in technique. Aside from receiving some basic art instruction during a brief prison stint in the early '60s, he's entirely self-taught, and if his work sometimes appears to play off other, better-known art, it seems less a matter of homage or appropriation than one of osmosis.
Young, a 54-year-old African-American, was born in the Liberty City section of Miami and raised in the equally rough neighborhood of Overtown. Years ago he might have been described as a "primitive" artist, a term later supplanted by the more accurate "naive." Since 1972, when writer Roger Cardinal coined the term, much naive art has also come to be known as Outsider art, a label typically tied to work produced by the mentally disabled, prison inmates, and others who are literally outside the mainstream of American culture.
In the late '40s the French artist Jean Dubuffet called naive art and the art of children Art Brut ("raw art"), and declared it superior to the work of professionally trained artists. He wrote that Art Brut was "art at its purest and crudest... springing solely from its maker's knack of invention." It wasn't long, of course, before museums and galleries picked up on such art and began displaying and selling it.
Young has been the beneficiary of the popularization of Outsider art. He was the subject of a 1993 show at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, and in 1996 his jubilant piece Good Bread Alley was used on a poster for the Olympic Games in Atlanta. The piece had originally been part of Young's Good Bread Alley Project, for which he attached hundreds of his pictures to the wall of an abandoned, dilapidated building in the Overtown area north of downtown Miami.
Since then Young has been included in "Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology," a traveling group exhibition put together by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. The show also features the work of Grandma Moses, probably the best-known of all self-taught American artists. Young's work was recently on display at the Webber Gallery in Lake Worth, and one of his paintings is being used for the poster of the upcoming 19th Annual Sistrunk Festival in Fort Lauderdale.
The artist's most consistent and enthusiastic local support has come from Fort Lauderdale's Gallery 721, where owner Larry T. Clemons displays 30 or so of Young's works at any given time. Clemons was instrumental in helping Young get the Atlanta Olympics commission, and Young's work will be prominent in Souls Grown Deep: African American Art of the South, a book on which Clemons is working.
Although Young's stock in the art world has risen considerably, he continues to create his paintings in much the same way he always has, by sifting through the detritus and rubble of the streets of Overtown, retrieving scraps of wood, paper, cardboard, metal, and furniture that he then paints, often using acrylic-enamel house paint and sometimes oil paint. Pen and ink, crayons, and markers are among the tools of his trade as well, and sometimes he takes discarded books and ledgers and paints individual pages in them.
Young also "frames" some of his painted images with irregularly shaped pieces of discarded lumber that he hammers together, with nails and staples left jutting from the wood. Occasionally he even adds secondary images to these chunks of makeshift frame, resulting in miniature paintings within paintings.
Young's style is deliberately unrefined, with the pigment applied in crude, bold strokes that allow the surface below -- whether wood, paper, or Masonite -- to show through. The range of colors is extremely limited, and there's very little specific detail, although the basic forms are usually identifiable. His primary subjects are human figures and horses, which Clemons says symbolize freedom for the artist. From time to time, however, Young presents urban landscapes, with trucks barreling down the street and tenement buildings looming in the background.
Sports such as basketball and football also figure in some of the paintings, although the artist abstracts them, boiling them down to a few simple brush strokes that suggest, rather than portray, the activity at hand. The Asian-tinged picture referred to above, for instance, turned out to be a highly stylized portrayal of an athlete playing basketball.
According to Clemons, Young also visualizes certain things using an idiosyncratic set of elements that may not be readily evident to the casual viewer. Human figures with halos, for instance, are Young's way of representing earthly angels, while figures with winged heads are angels from heaven. Likewise, the large, ominous black splotches in some pictures are meant to be giant eyeballs, the artist's metaphor for a Big Brother-style establishment that monitors and tries to control the "little people" in the streets.
Like so many naive or Outsider artists, Young has to contend with preconceptions and misperceptions of his art. Many people are quick to dismiss such art, because it doesn't conform to their notions of what art should be. Taken on its own terms, however, the art speaks for itself, even if it's in a vernacular that's somewhat unfamiliar. Consider the rawness, the urgency and intensity, the sweeping movement and energy, of Young's paintings, and you'll see exactly what I mean.
The works of Purvis Young may be seen at Gallery 721, 721 E. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-765-0721.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the South Florida art and theater scene.