This exhibition has more than 60 pieces of contemporary Southern art by 34 self-taught artists. These two- and three-dimensional works of art defy labels. While this kind of art has been described as outsider, folk, naive, visionary or nontraditional, none of these terms adequately describes the art that Gitter and Yelen collected. Each artist has created a highly personal statement that represents an individualistic response to his or her environment. The artists do share a lack of formal education, including knowledge of color theory, composition, form and academic convention, and a regional identity. All are from the South, and the majority lives or lived in Louisiana.
Subjects range from the autobiographical work of Roy Ferdinand to Clementine Hunter's documentation of daily life on a cotton plantation. The natural world plays a key role in much of the art, as seen in sculptures by Cyril Billiot and Raymond Coins. As Sainte-James Boudrot's homages to New Orleans traditions suggest, a sense of place is also a major concern for many of the artists.Religious imagery characterizes much of the work, particularly that of Sister Gertrude Morgan and the Rev. Howard Finster. Ecstatic visions, both optimistic and pessimistic, also fill the work of Benjamin “B.F.” Perkins and "Prophet" Royal Robertson. For other artists, including Herbert Singleton and Lorraine Gendron, civil rights and social issues are prominent as either a primary theme or a subtext.
While Clementine Hunter’s work is featured in this show, the Louisiana State Museum also has her nine African House Murals and other large-scale works on display at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum in Natchitoches. David Butler, known as the “Tin Man of Patterson” for the metal cutouts he created to ward off evil spirits, has also received attention from the Louisiana State Museum. His work was showcased in a 2010 show at the Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum in Patterson.
The Gitter-Yelen Foundation Collection at the Louisiana State Museum
In 1998, Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen made a generous gift of more than 100 paintings, sculptures and mixed-media works to the Louisiana State Museum. Their donation forms the core of the museum's collection of contemporary Southern art.
A decade prior, the couple embarked on a journey to collect what Yelen, a leading scholar in the field, has called contemporary American self-taught art. An exhibition of Sister Gertrude Morgan’s paintings and drawings at the New Orleans Museum of Art fueled this decision. In addition to collecting art, they met and, in many cases, befriended a number of the artists featured in Soul of the South: Selections from the Gitter-Yelen Collection. Through multiple purchases and personal relationships, they provided enduring support for the artists and their work.
Gitter, a veteran collector of Japanese paintings, and Yelen, an experienced museum professional, share the Louisiana State Museum’s expectation that this exhibition will demonstrate that contemporary Southern self-taught art has come of age. Nearly all artworks in this exhibition are gifts of the Gitter-Yelen Foundation.