Bill Rutherfoord climbed down into the basement of his Roanoke home to search for some kind of authenticity and to explore the notion of inherited culture.
Over the next eight years he created a series of 11 large-scale paintings, colorfully detailed and densely populated, that investigates the idea of inherited culture and addresses capitalism.
Those works comprise the exhibition “Allegory of No Region” organized by the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, which is on view at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College through Dec. 10.
The artworks feature the characters Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, made popular in the African American folktales compiled by writer Joel Chandler Harris in the late 1800s. They also feature portraits of Rutherfoord’s ancestors, all of which are used to address the state of the art world and historical perceptions of the South, according to The Roanoke Times. Characters include Confederate soldiers, antebellum men, and people from the Reconstruction era to represent the periods “that have created the southern myth as we remember it in residual form,” Rutherfoord said in a 2014 interview.
Rutherfoord called his work on this series an exercise in nostalgia. His father is a Roanoke native, his mother is from New Zealand, and Rutherfoord was born and raised in New York City.
Childhood trips to Virginia to visit his father’s relatives first exposed him to Harris’ “The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus” featuring Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. His uncle’s mother-in-law would gather all the children into her bed and read the folktales in dialect.
“They left a mark,” Rutherfoord said. “They’re designed to drill into your head.”
Rutherfoord’s artwork also is designed to leave a mark. His paintings invite the viewer into a complex interweaving of narrative, symbol and form. Some pieces portray Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox as competing business men, where Rabbit is susceptible and Fox seems to offer an advantage. It portrays a cautionary tale about capitalism’s need to find an exploitable class of people.
“Of course I was going to use this forbidden narrative to make a point,” Rutherfoord said, adding that he does this in animal form “because it’s easier for us to address our humanity through the animal filter. It makes it kind of cute and cuddly. So these are clichés used to a purpose.”
“Allegory of No Region” debuted at the Taubman Museum of Art in 2014.
The Polk Museum of Art is open Tuesdays – Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays 1 – 5 p.m.