Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die: The Studio Education of the Junk House by Ronald Lockett at MARCH, New York

By May 24, 2023
In a painting a dear sits in the mid-ground of green mountainous landscape. Branches that look like traps lay on top of the painting.
Ronald Lockett, Traps, 1990; oil, enamel, metal, plastic fencing, branches on wood, 48 by 71 1/2 by 1/2 inches. All images courtesy of MARCH and Cary Whittier.

The artist Ronald Lockett died in 1998 from AIDS-related complications when he was thirty-two. He was born in Bessemer, Alabama, where he also died. During his life, he constructed tableaus, paintings, and assemblages that referenced traps and hunting, and in doing so, explored themes of life, death, cruelty, and survival. He did not attend art school, but instead learned in the studio of his uncle (who was actually his older cousin), the prolific outsider artist and vanguard Thornton Dial. The exhibition Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die: The Studio Education of the Junk House on view at MARCH gallery touches on all of this, hinting towards a snapshot of Lockett’s life. 

In this painting, white skeletons fall on a black background beside flat blocks of color in green and blue.
Ronald Lockett, Holocaust, 1989; enamel on wood panel, 48 by 48 by 3/4 inches. All images courtesy of MARCH and Cary Whittier.

Spread across two rooms are a dozen or so works spanning from 1989 to 1998 with lighter works (beige backgrounds, landscapes, scenes) in one room and darker paintings with black backgrounds in the other. Deer appear frequently and so do skeletons. Two works titled Rebirth, one from 1987 and one from 1990, feature the skeletal frame of what may be a deer standing upright atop a black background next to an equally skeletal landscape: a block of blue for sky above a block of green for grass. In another work titled Holocaust, skeletons on a black background near a minimalist landscape appear to fall from the sky. In a video from 1996, the artist discussed watching a movie about the Holocaust and waking up in a pool of sweat. Subsequently, he began painting while thinking of mass graves, crowded train cars, and concentration camps. Talking about Rebirth and Traps Lockett addresses his strong feelings about the slaughter of animals, specifically for the use of fur. Like the deer in his paintings, feelings and sympathies run rampant throughout the artists’ work.

A delicate painting with birds painted and drawn, with one nude white figure in the distance.
Ronald Lockett, Hiding Places, 1990; enamel on wood panel, 48 by 32 1/2 inches. All images courtesy of MARCH and Cary Whittier.

Beyond life and death, the exhibition could be viewed as an examination of relationships. How do we as people relate to nature? Lockett responds, sometimes cruelly, as seen in paintings showing traps with deer caught in them. How do we relate to each other? Sometimes monstrously, once again, the skeletal mass grave painting called Holocaust. But the narrative is made more complicated by moments demonstrating grace, solitude, and even some sense of utopian optimism. Paintings Escape and Untitled show deer undisturbed and Hiding Places, is almost idyllic with sea birds and one lone naked figure who seems to wade deeper in the distance.

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Even in moments suggesting violence there is pleasure, something that if we allow ourselves to take it there could be erotic. There’s freedom, like in the painting, Untitled, where animals and humans are studded across a marbled abstract enamel background, offering a sense of disorientation. There is something latent, evasive, and hard to pin down. There is freedom and restriction within the paint and repurposed industrial materials. 

That being said, the elephant in the room is and will always be AIDS, both in this exhibition and throughout all cultural production of the late 20th century. Today, we are three years into a global pandemic that killed millions and moralized even more, but this was in a time of Wi-Fi and split-second innovations of limitless virtual connection. Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die…  is an exhibition of work by a man who lived and died in the same town he was born, who painted skeletons and referenced cages while experiencing HIV and AIDS in the rural South in the late nineties. Other elephants in the room: Blackness (particularly in the South), poverty (particularly rural), morality, and isolation. Lockett’s sexuality is none of our business, and yet… In all the pictures featuring human figures (white ones…while we’re at it) none of the bodies ever touch. The only human figures we see make contact are skeletons, and the only two black figures in the exhibition are wolves.

In the painting two black wolves face out among a snowy scene.
Ronald Lockett, Winter Snow, 1990; enamel and wire on wood panel, 48 by 47 1/2 by 2 inches. All images courtesy of MARCH and Cary Whittier.

Returning to relationships and metaphors, the necessary and the inevitable are two ideas that come to mind. Another one is codependency, particularly between the predator and prey. Wolves need to eat deer to survive and deer, if not hunted, will starve from overpopulation. Like all relationships, ecology is a seesaw. We have two opposing forces in play; there is conflict, pursuit, escape, and entrapment, it’s almost like a romance.

Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die: The Studio Education of the Junk House, an exhibition of the work of Ronald Lockett, is on view at at MARCH in New York, NY through May 28.

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