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Asa Ames Exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum in New York
Phrenological Head, Attributed to Asa Ames (1823 - 1851) Evans, Erie County, New York c. 1850. Paint on wood 16 3/8 x 13 x 7 1/8". Collection American Folk Art Museum, bequest of Jeanette Virgin, 1981.24.1. Photo by John Parnell, New York.

NEW YORK.- The exhibition Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing is the first devoted to the three-dimensional portraits carved by the elusive artist between 1847 and his death in 1851. Ames’s sculpture has been written about, published, and seen individually in group exhibitions, but this presentation is a unique opportunity to examine eight of his twelve known sculptures in an intimate, jewel-like installation. Although Asa Ames’s oeuvre was small, this exquisite group of polychromed carvings in wood, on loan from public and private collections, represents some of the most beautiful and sensitive American sculptures of the mid-19th century. Organized by Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator and director of exhibitions, the exhibition Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing is on view at the American Folk Art Museum from April 15 through September 14, 2008.

Asa Ames (1823-1851) immortalized family members, neighbors and friends in the vicinity of Evans, Erie County, New York. Included in the artist’s small body of work are portraits of young men and women, and children. Sensitively portrayed as either life size bust-, waist-, or full-length figures, they have few antecedents in early American folk sculpture because of the private nature of the portraits. Like much painted portraiture of the day, the representations are iconic in their pared-down simplicity and absolute frontality, lending to the air of timelessness that imbues the carvings.

The life-size, full-length figure of Susan Ames, carved in 1849, depicts the artist’s niece, his brother Henry’s daughter. As in all his work, Ames accurately described details and texture of clothing and hair through precise carving and the application of paint. In this regard, it resonates with conventions of painted portraiture. However, as a fully realized volumetric sculpture, it occupies space and sheds light on the gestures that are often seen in folk portraits of children. This sculpture moved west with the family and was recently rediscovered in the Boulder History Museum where it had been placed by a descendent in the 1960s.

One of the major works in the museum’s collection is the mysterious Phrenological Head. It was probably carved around 1850 during the time that Ames lived in the household of Dr. Harvey B. Marvin, a physician and practitioner of alternative therapies. The carving has the specificity of a portrait and depicts a young child with delicate features wearing a red dress. The deeply carved puffed sleeves contrast with the rhythmic linearity of the pleated bodice and skirt. The child’s impassive expression becomes a blank canvas for the phrenological map that is marked on her head, closely following the chart popularized by the Fowler brothers.

Ames’s work is usually discussed within the genre of ship and trade figure carving. His own sense of himself as an artist may be gleaned in the Federal Census of 1850, where his occupation is listed as "sculpturing." This has prompted a consideration of his art within a broader framework of sculptural traditions, from Renaissance marble busts, primarily of male children, to classical-inspired marble statuary in the Italianate tradition by Horatio Greenough and Hiram Powers, to those associated with the rural cemetery movement that was burgeoning in the 1840s. According to Ms. Hollander, the Seated Female Figure with Lamb and Cup evokes a popular image in cemetery carving, a sleeping child with lamb. “This figure has an ecclesiastical appearance…usually identified as female, the child may instead represent John the Baptist with attributes of banner or scroll, the Lamb of God, and a shell for baptizing. Erie County was known for religious revivalism in the 19th century and the Ayer family, for whom the memorial was carved, had converted to Methodism. Their religious beliefs may have contributed to the representation of this carving.”

The forthright Head of a Boy probably portrays one of the artist’s brothers. In the life-like humanity of its gaze, the viewer gleans a sense of what the artist himself may have looked like. The direct simplicity of the presentation, without drapery, pedestal, or flourishes, creates a dynamic and naturalistic engagement with the viewer in the tradition of Renaissance marble sculpture, rather than highly embellished portraits in wood in the shipcarving tradtion.

“Although details of Ames’s history remain shrouded in shadow, the work of his hands illuminates the meaningful and personal nature of the lives he captured so beautifully in wood,” comments Ms. Hollander.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a number of public programs have been arranged. A Symposium: “Talks in 3-D” (5/3), Saturday Seminar: A Curatorial Lecture and Tour (5/17); and a lunchtime talk “Phrenology and Its Images” (5/21). Please contact the education department for details.

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