A seated nude of ambiguous gender, fashioned from strips of rusted tin, floats in an expanse of the same distressed metal. Titled The Fever Within, this image was made by Ronald Lockett (1965–1998) in 1995, three years before his death from AIDS-related causes. Born into a close-knit extended family in the declining industrial city of Bessemer, Alabama, Lockett was one of a network of local artists that included his cousin and mentor, Thornton Dial (1928–2016), and his friend Lonnie Holley. Without formal training (in Lockett’s case, deliberately so) and working largely with found materials, Lockett, Dial, Holley and peers like Joe Minter took their visual language from traditional black Southern vernacular art forms like the scrap quilt and the yard show but adapted it to speak of personal philosophies, social issues and the African-American experience.
In a career that lasted only a decade, Lockett produced about 400 pieces. This, the first retrospective of his work, which travels to New York from the Ackland Art Museum of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, includes some 40 of Lockett’s paintings and relief sculptures. As curated by Bernard L. Herman, professor of Southern Studies at UNC, the show demonstrates the speed with which Lockett’s work matured.
Though mentored by his older friends, Lockett’s output was very different from either Dial’s assured assemblages or Holley’s jazzy multimedia installations. More figurative, more delicate and more emotive, it addressed the problems of the next generation of African- Americans and, on a more personal level, Lockett’s own struggle with depression. From the beginning, Lockett conflated the shrinking prospects for young black men with other instances of entrapment, and institutional racism with other forms of terrorism. In a gallery devoted to early works, a depiction of a burning house (a reference to the KKK’s infamous “night riders”) hangs near the 1988 relief construction Holocaust, with its cut-tin skeletons tumbling into a mass grave. A later series called “Traps” laments man’s despoliation of the natural world, but its tin-and-scrap-wood deer and other animals tangled in real chain-link fencing also serve as a metaphor for the lack of a way out of towns like Bessemer.
The last part of the show presents a series of quiltlike compositions, created from metal and rusted iron grillwork, commemorating the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Nearly abstract, they nevertheless communicate the horror of the event (and the horror, perhaps, of Lockett’s own diagnosis, received in that year). Nearby are Lockett’s last, glorious monochrome compositions, in which sheets of recycled metal serve as backdrops for images of animals and people delineated with punchwork and filled in with strips of tin . Offsetting the somberness here is a loose grid of brilliantly colored, painted metal squares, each sporting a cut-tin rose—a homage to his beloved great aunt, Sarah Dial Lockett.
While more hermetic than the work of his peers, the message of Lockett’s art—that black lives matter—is as clear and powerful as theirs, and it’s more timely than ever.