Bill Traylor (1854-1949) may be the most accidental of accidental artists. Born into slavery on the Traylor plantation of Alabama, at the age of eighty-five he was homeless in Montgomery, spending his days on the street, making drawings with found materials. Eventually, some artists, dealers and folklorists found him, and posthumously he became an iconic figure in American outsider art. I’m not sure that the pieces now being shown at Carl Hammer Gallery, who first brought his work to Chicago thirty years ago, would have established that reputation. They’re mostly simple, quick sketches of one or two figures, less complex than his multi-figure narratives. Traylor is not one of those unschooled artists who developed an obsessively elaborate technique. He seems to have gotten in and out of his work rather quickly. His sharply profiled figures of men or animals have an inner vibrancy and strength, like the kind of folk art that gets into art museums. What’s remarkable is how they seem to speak so eloquently for the generations of African Americans who had to scrap, scrape and improvise a life within a body politic that exploited, murdered, raped, despised and feared them. Like simple but eerie ancient petroglyphs, they point to a world that is very strange and distant, yet they remain connected to the world we live in today. (Chris Miller)
Through October 26 at Carl Hammer Gallery, 740 North Wells.