In his sculptures, Lonnie Holley utilizes terraneous materials—sand, stone, iron, the detritus buried beneath them—but remains steadily inspired by water. In “I Am a Part of the Wonder,” a song on his recent album Oh Me Oh My, Holley sings about “the wonders of / a drip of water / falling from the sky.” During a conversation before the opening of his Miami survey show “If You Really Knew,” Holley described to me visible dew on flowers, the palpable Florida humidity. “Every one of these plants is breathing,” he said. “Their roots are acquiring the dampness. A drop of water is a living thing.”
It matters that “If You Really Knew” opened in Miami, a city Holley called “one of the most moisty places in America.” One of the artist’s chief concerns—pollution of the planet’s waters—is tangible in the dampness of the place, a point he reiterated in a public conversation with exhibition curator Adeze Wilford: “I’m concerned about the pollution and waste—what’s in the rain once the precipitation draws it up, how that rain mixes with other waters,” Holley said. Where does waste go when the earth can no longer, as Holley describes, “bite and chew it”?
For Holley, the earth is a woman—he calls her Mother Universe—and he has spent the better part of his lifetime collecting and transforming into artworks that which she cannot digest. His sculptures of found materials are the heart of this 70-work exhibition, which traces the trajectory of Holley’s 40-plus-year career and aims to capture the breadth of his boundless multidisciplinary practice. Spray-painted canvases, quilt paintings, steel sculptures, and an ongoing screening of I Snuck Off the Slave Ship (a 2018 musical film codirected with Cyrus Moussavi) together encapsulate at least part of it. The show also includes an extensive selection of pieces by other Black artists from the South that Holley curated himself: Thornton Dial, Mary T. Smith, Hawkins Bolden, Joe Minter, and Miami native Purvis Young—all of whose works, like Holley’s, were part of the collection of William Arnett, the late collector and founder of Souls Grown Deep Foundation who launched Holley’s career in earnest. (The show serendipitously opened on what would have been Arnett’s 84th birthday).
Minter’s Queen (1998), an anthropomorphic figure with chains where her crown would be, takes on new life standing across from Holley’s In the Cocoon (2021), a wire sculpture shaped like a face in profile, a motif repeated throughout his oeuvre. Holley’s figure, like Minter’s, is draped in flotsam—nylon, rope, string, pieces of trees—and the assemblage appears to billow behind them. It might be hair, or a veil to be cast off. Reflecting on the rubble and household objects alchemized in his work and that of the artists shown alongside him, Holley said, “this is material revival: we all revived these materials, as if they were Christ himself. We were the humans who were concerned about them, who took them out of their deathly place.”
The exhibition begins with Holley’s sandstone sculptures, made in the 1980s (with “stone that the builder rejected,” he said, alluding to Psalm 118:22). Holley’s discovery of sandstone marked a turning point in his formative days in Jim Crow–era Birmingham, Alabama. After two of his sister’s children died in a fire, Holley used sandstone—found among the byproducts of a steel foundry he’d explored—to build tombstones for them. These monuments of love were his first artworks, and he made more, experimenting with shapes and materials to establish different kinds of consistency.
Arranged on shelves that allow for a close look, Holley’s early sculptures range in size from around 8 to 24 inches and, with his recurring facial profile motifs or shell-like whorls, resemble the stone sculptures of traditions including Mesoamerican statues, royal Egyptian reliquaries, and Mesopotamian reliefs. One diptych comprises sandstone slabs, displayed together like plaques (Untitled, 1980s). On the right, two figures lovingly embrace and look upon a child, under a bright sun with carved swirls that indicate its shine. On the left, a face emerges from a strata of small rectangles, a topography of Holley’s imagination.
The sandstones’ contours rhyme with those of Holley’s tall steel sculptures (all Untitled, 2019), which are stacked, like totems, with faces again in profile. They are softly curved and seem to breathe, and they appear again in his spray paint works and quilt paintings (made with acrylic, oil, spray paint, and gesso on quilt over wood). In The Communicators (Honoring Joe Minter), from 2021, the visages are rendered in black and gray, and seem to move, as if Holley has animated Minter’s face, abstractly, over time. In Drifting Souls (2021), a diptych of a mirrored image, the faces float obliquely toward a pink-blue cosmos, like butterflies. In Back to the Spirit (2021), they are overlaid upon each other, swirling like clouds.
These faces might be oneiric representations of the soul, visible shadows of the otherwise incorporeal human spirit. Holley speaks often about the violence inflicted upon the planet—specifically, the way it mirrors the racialized terror of hegemonic powers wreaked on vulnerable people, with cruelty born from the same place. But he speaks just as much about his hope for its future. Though titles like Which Tear Drop Will End the Violence? (2022) might serve as warnings, Holley’s images depict states of transcendence and harmony. They look like heaven, but their scenes are set right here, on earth.
Monica Uszerowicz. “Lonnie Holley’s Earthen Monuments Sing in a Survey Including Fellow Black Artists from the South.” ArtNews. July 31, 2023. https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/aia-reviews/lonnie-holley-survey-miami-1234675341/