STEVE ASHBY
(1904-1980 | USA)

Steve Ashby was a farm hand and gardener who spent his entire life in a small town in Virginia. His “fixing-up” – wooden figures embellished with fabric, hair, and jewelry and, in some cases,  photographs for their faces – are incredible examples of his ability to synthesize complex situations and scenes without depriving them of a humorous and sometimes erotic vein.

Steve Ashby era un contadino e un giardiniere che trascorse tutta la sua vita in un piccolo paese della Virginia. 
I suoi “fixing-up” – figure in legno impreziosite da tessuti, capelli e gioielli e, in qualche caso, fotografie per i loro volti – sono incredibili esempi della sua capacità di sintetizzare delle situazioni e scene complesse senza privarle di una vena umoristica e a tratti erotica.

Steve Ashby, Untitled, n.d., wood, magazine clipping, fabric, paint, plastic, and metal, Collection of Robert A. Roth Photo © John Faier
Steve Ashby, Untitled, n.d., wood, magazine clipping, fabric, paint, plastic, and metal, Collection of Robert A. Roth Photo © John Faier

The son of an emancipated slave, Steve Ashby was born in 1904 in the small town of Delaplane, Virginia. The second child in a family of twelve, he received very little formal education and he could neither read nor write. 
He lived his entire life there, in a rented former school-house with his wife and adoptive son.
Ashby spent most of his life working as a farmer and gardener until he retired in 1950. 
Only after the death of his wife in 1960 he became fully committed to sculpting. From the catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition Photo | Brut, debuted at La Mécanique générale in Arles, (01.06.2019 – 22.09.2019) it is possible to read that quote:

I wake up with with an idea that keeps me from going back to sleep. So I get up and bring this idea to life.” 

Steve Ashby

He began to produce sculptures which are part figurine, part assemblage: they are carved from pieces of plywood and branches, to which he ingeniously attached found material, such as logs, scraps of hardware, children’s toys, fabric, hair and photographs (especially of faces) cut out of magazines.
Ashby’s “fixing up”, as he called them, combined a crude, expressionistic sculptural style with wry humor and occasionally overt eroticism.
Ashby’s skill at conveying a range of complex expressions and simplifying convoluted ambiences permit him to give intense vitality of his characters, amplified by the mobility of certain parts.
His sculptures express a sophisticated sense of observation and reflect the unique experience of African-American culture, summoning up the themes of domestic professions and working-class recreation with a lively and critical eye. Over the years, some large works were installed around his yard in Delaplane. Some comical ones were activated by the wind and several were dressed in clothing that had belonged to his wife.
His work was greatly admired by the local community but was rarely seen more widely until its posthumous inclusion in Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in 1982. 
It is certainly worth mentioning the presence of his works at the exhibition “Known / Unknown: private obsession and hidden desire in Outsider Art” (Museum of Sex, New York – 19.01.2017 – 16.09 2017) and at “Photo | Brut” (La Mécanique générale, Arles – Les Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles – 01.06.2019 – 22.09.2019).

Figlio di uno schiavo emancipato, Steve Ashby è nato nel 1904 nella piccola città di Delaplane, in Virginia. Secondo di dodici figli, ricevette un’educazione basilare, tanto che non sapeva né leggere né scrivere.
Ha vissuto tutta la sua vita lì, in un ex edificio scolastico in affitto con sua moglie e suo figlio adottivo.
Ashby trascorse gran parte della sua vita lavorando come agricoltore e giardiniere fino alla sua pensione nel 1950.
Solo dopo la morte di sua moglie nel 1960 si dedicò completamente alla scultura. Dal catalogo pubblicato in occasione della mostra Photo | Brut, a La Mécanique générale, Arles, (01.06.2019 – 22.09.2019) è possibile leggere quella citazione:

Mi sveglio con un’idea che mi impedisce di tornare a dormire. Quindi mi alzo e dò vita a questa idea.

Steve Ashby

Iniziò a produrre sculture che sono in parte figurine, in parte assemblaggio: sono scolpite partendo da pezzi di compensato e rami, a cui ingegnosamente ha unito materiale di varia natura, come tronchi, scarti di ferramenta, giocattoli per bambini, tessuto, capelli e fotografie (soprattutto di volti) ritagliati dalle riviste.
I suoi “fixing-up“, come li chiamava, combinano uno stile scultoreo, espressionista, con una vena umoristica ironica ed, occasionalmente, evidente erotismo.
L’abilità di Ashby nel trasmettere una serie di espressioni contorte e semplificare situazioni complesse gli ha consentito di dare un’intensa vitalità ai suoi personaggi, amplificata dalla mobilità di alcune parti. 
Le sue sculture esprimono un sofisticato senso di osservazione e riflettono l’esperienza unica della cultura Afroamericana, evocando i temi delle professioni domestiche e della ricreazione della classe operaia con un occhio vivace e critico. Nel corso degli anni, alcune grandi opere sono state installate intorno al suo cortile a Delaplane. Alcune opere venivano attivate ​​dal vento, mentre altre erano vestite con abiti appartenuti a sua moglie.
Il suo lavoro è stato molto ammirato dalla comunità locale ma raramente è stato visto più ampiamente fino alla sua inclusione postuma in Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 alla Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, nel 1982. Vale sicuramente la pena menzionare la presenza delle sue opere alla mostra “Known / Unknown: private obsession and hidden desire in Outsider Art” (Museum of Sex, New York – 19.01.2017 – 16.09 2017) e “Photo | Brut” ( La Mécanique générale, Arles – Les Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles – 01.06.2019-22.09.2019).

Steve Ashby, Reclining Women in Red, painted wood, © Bonovitz Collection
Steve Ashby, Reclining Women in Red, painted wood, © Bonovitz Collection
Steve Ashby, Women in Red Hat, painted wood, yarn © Bonovitz Collection
Steve Ashby, Women in Red Hat, painted wood, yarn © Bonovitz Collection
Steve Ashby, Woman in Red Dress at Piano, ca. 1973, carved and painted plywood, found objects, magazine cutouts, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chuck and Jan Rosenak and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1997.124.49
Steve Ashby, Woman in Red Dress at Piano, ca. 1973, carved and painted plywood, found objects, magazine cutouts, © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chuck and Jan Rosenak and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1997.124.49
Steve Ashby, "Untitled (Hunter and Victim), n.d., mixed media, Collection of Robert A. Roth, Photo © Jeff Ellis
Steve Ashby, “Untitled (Hunter and Victim), n.d., mixed media, Collection of Robert A. Roth, Photo © Jeff Ellis
Steve Ashby, Untitled (Rocking Bed Cunnilingus Whirligig), ca. 1965-70, wood with polychrome and metal parts, Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca Gallery (Bob Roth Collection)

Links and biographical information:
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington
“Photo | Brut”, Catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition “Photo | Brut: Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie”, debuted at La Mécanique générale, in the context of Les Rencontres de la photography d’Arles, from July 1 to September 22, 2019 , © Flammarion, S.A., Paris / abcd, Paris / American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2019

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