Review Summary: Book of Revelations...
A few years ago, in July of ’21, there was an exhibit of Lonnie Holley’s paintings and sculptures at the De Kooning House in Long Island. The collection, titled Everything That Wasn’t White
, oversaw an array of neo-primitivist paintings encase a roomful of Holley’s by-now famed sculptural mutants, golems raised together from carbon refuse and industrial scraps, themselves encased in a post-ironically stark white room. It’s difficult to imagine how unlikely Holley’s rise as a person and an artist was, and how especially improbable that revival has been coming out of the Jim Crow-era Bible Belt to end up in the Smithsonian, that currently holds three of Holley’s pieces.
Even a cursory look through the prime points of Holley’s life is itself an exhibit of post-colonial human tragedy. Born into abject poverty, one of 27 kids, he entered the modern enslavement paradigm of America early, cycling in and out of ‘residential’ schools, foster care, reform programs, prison and homelessness. He spent two years in a brutalized all-black reform colony that essentially left kids to wither and die, and from there was bounced to one of The South’s many labour programs that attempted (and partially succeeded) in resuscitating plantation slavery for another generation. From there, he was eased into America’s ‘invisible’ class – working bad jobs for worse money and drifting through the country, finding jail at intermittent intervals. At the end of the 70’s, he returned home for the funeral of his nieces who had perished in a house fire to find that the family was so destitute, there was no money for a plot or a tombstone. The make-shift grave marker Holley carved became the starting point of his ascendance.
This story has been well-trod in print and the media, since aside all else, it is very good PR for an artist in a society that has turned both homelessness and hypertrophied brutality into fetish. And it is a decidedly easy connective line to trace between Holley’s found object art made of human dross and debris, and the condition of being black in America. Yet it’s a line that remains unfortunately viable to this day, in an age of gerrymandering and police killings. Where Forrest Gump-esque Oscar-bait movies candy coat slavery and beloved directors recreate Blaxploitation flicks on a big-budget scale. Holley’s exhibits were always built to be an enveloping, totally immersive experience. In 2012, he added another sensory aspect to his body of work. Oh Me Oh My
is his latest musical document of contemporary oppression, one that for the first time, sees him break out of depicting the broader, unifying tenets of surviving in the modern world as a black person, and look inwardly and personally into everything that has led him to this.
As soon as the prettily gospelled gloss of opener “Testing” frays itself out, Oh Me Oh My
begins its agonized heave. “I Am a Part of the Wonder” adds another highlight into Holley’s growing compendium of songs named after strangely positive affirmations. Whether it’s done knowingly or earnestly has never been completely clear. What does matter is the hypnotic swirl of electronics, pulsing bass and squawking brass that he concocts here. Moor Mother’s sternly propulsive doom tresses with his granular croon perfectly. For anyone who’d been following the meteoric rise of afro-futurism in the modern art landscape, it’s hard to conceive a better foil for Holley, her apocalyptic vision and his survivalist hope locking into beautiful murk.
The dense, stifling forward shove of “Mount Meigs” becomes the early apotheosis of the album. An account of making it through that reform school, the song grows more and more viscid with instrumentation, the suffocating rhythm enriched with odd strands of noise that mirror Holley’s statues, mounds of detached detritus plaiting into a living, breathing new form. In the midst of Holley attesting to having all curiosity beaten out of him and how the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children produced no scholars, he, almost as a toss-off, half-mutters the most shattering lyric of the album - “I want to go home.”
“I Can’t Hush” is all atmosphere, a thick electronic drape hanging over Holley’s words that only grow more heart-breaking as the album moves along. Though he circles most of it back to hope, that hope appears more and more exhausted with every passing note.
Oh Me Oh My
does not let up for the entirety of its run, wringing the listener utterly. Even for those unfamiliar with Holley’s life and work, the album’s hopeful aspirations grown out of consummate tragedy can be a harrowing experience. And for good reason. This album is a report of loss, deep and personal and historic, yes, but most importantly, tangible and true. It does not assemble or depict existential abstracted emotions, and for all of the hulking, likely permanent distress behind it, doesn’t linger on depression or self-actualization. It just tells you what it was and how it is. And the man behind it, born under punches, un-bitter, who at 73, is still alive and needed.