Last Friday, we made a quick trip up to Waco to see the Kermit Oliver exhibition at Art Center Waco. It was our sixth weekend in a row on the road, with one more to go until we wrap up our 2021 travels this weekend. A marathon! It would have been nice to take a break in this busy season, but we really wanted to see this show. And, originally scheduled through 12/17, it was just extended through 1/22/22, so even if you didn't get a break in the holiday madness, there is still time to see it (and you should.)
Kermit Oliver is an iconic Texas artist local to Waco, and one whose work you may have seen before learning about him - especially if you're an Hermès fan. He was the first American artist invited to collaborate on the brand's luxury scarves, designing nature and wildlife scenes, Native American iconography and other elements of Texas and the American west. My favorite Kermit Oliver Texas Wildlife design features a big turkey - not something I would have thought to want until I saw it on Saturday!
Oliver was also the first Black artist to receive major gallery representation in Houston, in 1970. He moved from Houston to Waco seeking a quieter life, still creating exemplary work while working for the Postal Service. A 2012 Texas Monthly profile features a rare interview with Oliver, and it is fascinating to read his story through more of his own words.
I had read the Texas Monthly article a few years ago, so when I learned that the somewhat reclusive Oliver would be exhibiting in his hometown, I knew I had to go or regret the missed opportunity.
The exhibit itself was large and varied, with Oliver's common themes of nature, religious iconography, myths and portraiture providing a unifying thread. And, the paintings contain allegories, so every piece tells its own story; deeper than its beautifully-rendered surface.
I identified two favorite pieces in the show. Which one I liked best changes as I revisit them in my mind. The first one is "Young Christ with Saint Christopher," depicting a child and a black goat, which I like for the juxtaposition of the fanciful flowers and bells with the gravitas in the child's expression.
The second is "Headboard: Khristopher with Chas' Maize."
The latter was the piece that captured Hermès attention, and won't be sold. The painting is gorgeous, as is all of Oliver's work, and the frame makes it truly special. Oliver carves his own frames, and this one, like others in the exhibition, both perfectly sets off the art and stands alone as a statement piece. Apparently, an Hermès president, by way of a Neiman Marcus executive, agreed.
In interviews, Oliver has spoken to letting the viewer interpret these paintings for themselves, but what's there, visible and implied, contains his multitudes as well. This is especially true for a piece that is not in this exhibition, but installed in Houston's Trinity Episcopal Church, in which the face of Christ is painted as the face of Oliver's son, who was executed on death row. The piece, while controversial to some, serves as a meditation on redemption, forgiveness and unconditional love, evoking thoughts and emotions that are hard for anyone to articulate.
Many pieces in "New Narratives, New Beginnings" inspire the same response, simultaneously universal and personal. To a great extent, you just have to feel these pieces, reading the imagery for yourself. And, while the pieces definitely inspire introspection, Kermit Oliver, so famously a man of few words and prolific images, and many words about him (including mine here) tells us who he is in the pieces he creates. Through Oliver's work, we are are better known and so is he.
Kermit Oliver: New Narratives, New Beginnings is on view through Jan. 22, 2022 at Art Center Waco, 701 S. Eighth Street, Waco. Admission is free.
Trinity Episcopal Church hosts tours of its historic church and contemporary art collection, including Oliver's The Resurrection. 1015 Holman St., Houston.
Houston arts writer and curator Susie Khalil will publish a book on Kermit Oliver's life and work through Texas A&M University Press. The book is co-produced with Hooks-Epstein Galleries, who represent the artist.
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