Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett
October 9, 2016–January 8, 2017
This exhibition, the first solo and retrospective showing of the work of Ronald Lockett, surveyed themes of personal and historical struggle on view in Lockett’s powerful body of work.
Fever Within, 1995
Tin, colored pencil, and nails on wood
Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.1
Lockett created around half a dozen works related to the HIV/AIDS diagnosis he received in the mid-1990s. In each of these works, all titled Fever Within, the rusted and cut-metal strips form a distressed figure who is on the verge of disappearing. She sits with her body folded almost into a fetal position, in a state of vulnerability that resonates with other figures in Lockett’s work, especially the imperiled deer of his Traps series.
Wire, nails, and paint on Masonite
Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.3
Lockett fashioned the deer skeleton in this work from wire that he painted white and then nailed to the background. Facing away from the living world, the skeleton stands in a netherworld of total darkness that lies beyond a deep-blue sky above the green earth. Although the figure evokes death and decay, Lockett also saw it as a symbol of life and renewal, referring to it as a “baby” and titling the series Rebirth.
Civil Rights Marchers, 1988
Wood, metal, rubber, industrial sealing compound, and paint on wood
Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.5
Alabama was an epicenter of the civil rights movement during the early to mid-1960s. In this work, Lockett’s use of swirling paint and embedded objects conveys the powerful atmosphere of the civil rights marches, which were galvanized by the fight for equality but also often marred by bigotry and hate. Although Lockett, born in 1969, never directly experienced the racial terror of the Jim Crow South, inequality and institutionalized racism persisted during his lifetime and continue to erupt in conflict today.
A Place in Time, 1989
Wood, cloth, net, tin, industrial sealing compound, oil, and enamel on wood
Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.10
The appearance of the Rebirth figure in A Place in Time marks a moment in Lockett’s art when he began to quote his own earlier creations. A Place in Time draws on the pictorial conventions Lockett developed in Rebirth and other early works: the use of paint-stiffened cloth to represent earth and the incorporation of scrap lumber and branches to act as abstract cyphers (here, the deer’s body and legs).
Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die, 1996
Wood, enamel, graphite, tin, and industrial sealing compound on wood
Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.16
After incorporating scraps of chain-link fence in abstract arrangements, Lockett introduced animals—particularly deer—into his compositions. The deer symbolize Lockett’s perspective on the limited economic and social options for African Americans following the civil rights movement. They also express the artist’s frustrations with a world he saw as being defined by aggression, exploitation, and greed.
April Nineteenth (The Number), from the Oklahoma series, 1995
Metal, paint, wood, and Splash Zone compound
Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.20
This work comes from Lockett’s Oklahoma series, which commemorates the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Using found roofing and siding tin, Lockett crafted a memorial: “I [wanted] it to be some kind of way of expressing how those people might have felt.… I hope that when people see it one day that they should feel the same way I do.” The grillwork quotes the building’s ruined facade, while the patchwork of rectangular elements evokes the surrounding urban landscape.
Sarah Lockett’s Roses, 1997
Tin and paint on wood
Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.22
Sarah Lockett’s Roses pays tribute to Lockett’s beloved great aunt, who raised both him and his older cousin Thornton Dial, Sr. Sarah instructed both men in faith and history as well as revealing to them the creative wellspring accessible in everyday life, which she tapped into with her quilts, roses, and the meals she made. Her death at the age of one hundred and five devastated Lockett, who honored her memory through references to her quilts and garden in his artwork.
Traps, ca. 1992
Cut tin, steel, nails, branches, plastic netting, and wood stain on fiberboard
Collection of William S. Arnett, L2015.15.16
In his Traps series, Lockett used the predicament of ensnared animals as a metaphor for specific modern-day crises, such as segregation and environmental destruction, as well as the more general human condition of feeling isolated or trapped by the circumstances of birth.
Native American on Horseback, 1980s
Wood, metal, paint, and fleece cloth
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2016.40
Lockett identified with the plight of persecuted peoples throughout history, including Native Americans. In this elegiac work, a lone figure bows his head in anguish as his horse—which Lockett crafted from an old sawhorse of the type used in carpentry workshops—carries him away, possibly in reference to the Indian Removal Act that President Andrew Jackson initiated in 1830, forcing the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations to leave their lands and relocate west of the Mississippi.
Generously donated by Gordon W. Bailey as part of a major gift to the High Museum in 2016, this work is one of six large-scale sculptures included in Forging Connections: Ronald Lockett’s Alabama Contemporaries, which accompanies Fever Within.
The art of Ronald Lockett (American, 1965–1998) is both deeply connected to his life in the American South and transcendently resonant with broader human experience. In visually arresting works assembled from found materials, Lockett used a symbolic cast of animal avatars to address themes of struggle, survival, and injustice that are powerfully relevant today. Lockett took on issues such as the unfulfilled promises of the civil rights movement, environmental degradation, the trauma of war, and acts of domestic terrorism in works whose beauty and weight testify to the resilience of the human spirit.
Revealing one of the South’s best-kept secrets, this exhibition was the first retrospective dedicated to Lockett, whose career was cut short when the artist died of AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of thirty-two. Fever Within featured more than fifty of Lockett’s paintings, sculptures, and assemblages—including works from the High’s collection—that embody the stunning evolution of his artistic practice.
Raised in Bessemer, Alabama, Lockett was heavily influenced by other self-taught African American artists in his close-knit community, including his cousin Thornton Dial, Sr. (American, 1928–2016), who mentored and encouraged him. Fever Within was accompanied by Forging Connections: Ronald Lockett’s Alabama Contemporaries, a companion exhibition of large-scale sculptures that linked Lockett to key artists who emerged from the African American steel communities of Birmingham and Bessemer, Alabama, in the late twentieth century. This exhibition, exclusive to the High Museum, included artworks by Lockett; Thornton Dial, Sr.; Thornton Dial, Jr.; Richard Dial; Lonnie Holley; and Joe Minter, much of which was on view publicly for the first time.
This exhibition was organized by the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was made possible in part by awards from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding was provided by the Southern Studies Fund of the Department of American Studies, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.