by Laura Hutson
Bill Traylor has long been one of my favorite artists, if you couldn't tell from my gushy Critics' Pick:
The story of artist Bill Traylor is one of the best in art history: He was born into slavery, didn’t start making work until he was an old man, but his art, which wasn’t considered valuable until long after his death, is now heralded as some of the greatest ever created. But even without the grandiose backstory, Traylor’s work stands out. He used discarded scraps (often misshapen, the way a box or an envelope can be after it’s been unfolded and flattened out) instead of canvas, and his figures are cartoonishly deviant — an arch-backed man swigging from a liquor bottle, a man kicking an old lady, a dog with saucer-sized eyes and prominent genitals.
Traylor's graphic sensibility is exceptionally modern, and the ephemeral nature of his work appeals to my love of art that's an ordinary part of life. So initially, I was a little disappointed with the way the work is displayed at The Frist — I wanted something less staid than the shine of polished glass covering each piece, the boring frames, the repetitive arrangement. But that's the difficulty of trying to preserve work that's delicate, and my objectivity may be clouded by the amazing Thornton Dial/Gee's Bend exhibit that currently takes up the majority of the Frist's first floor galleries (I can't stop thinking about "Freedom Cloth"). It definitely made me see the work as antique — a lot of it produced before the second World War, during the time of Laurel and Hardy and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Traylor is one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and the collection on view here is outstanding. "Scary Creature" is an early favorite.