Skip to content
Arts & Culture
Link copied to clipboard

A glorious Elijah Pierce exhibit at the Barnes Foundation brings us temptation, salvation, grace

The exhibition contains 105 works, most of them reliefs on wood panels. But many of these contain multiple images, so by the time you are finished, there are more stories than you can count.

Elijah Pierce's "Slavery Time," at the Barnes Foundation.
Elijah Pierce's "Slavery Time," at the Barnes Foundation.Read moreCincinnati Art Museum

The new show at the Barnes Foundation is called “Elijah Pierce’s America,” but it could just as easily be “Elijah Pierce’s Cosmos.”

In a biblical flood of carved imagery, this barber turned preacher turned wood-carving artist and storyteller shows us heaven, temptation, and grace. The devil fishes for sinners using money, dice, and a scantily clad woman. We see Father Time, shirtless and in shorts, running frantically, his scythe tucked under his arm. We see Richard Nixon being chased by inflation, which looks like a fat and nasty dog.

There are elephants, a crocodile, and a couple of Popeyes, one of them Black. God the Father and his son spread grace upon the world, and enslavers use their whips.

The exhibition, opening Sunday, contains 105 works, most of them reliefs on wood panels. But many of these contain multiple images, so by the time you are finished, there are more stories than you can count.

It is not, however, as repetitious as that may sound because Pierce pursued a range of visual strategies, sometimes letting the wood show, often painting and mottling the surfaces of his wooden reliefs, and in some instances mixing several styles and disparate subjects in a single work. Minimalists should look elsewhere.

Pierce was born on a farm near Baldwyn, Miss., in 1892, the son of a formerly enslaved father. As a boy he began carving pictures on trees, and later he learned to cut hair to support himself. He left the farm and spent several years moving from place to place before he ended up in 1923 in Columbus, Ohio, where he spent most of his career.

He worked in barbershops, toured as a preacher, and died in 1984 as one of the country’s most celebrated self-taught artists.

His three careers were closely intertwined. As both barber and wood-carver he used a blade to cut away the excess and let the image emerge. And he used his wood carving to illustrate his preaching. As a video in the exhibition show, he was a practiced storyteller in person, a quality that is evident in his works.

When he operated his own barbershop in Columbus, he set up a room in back to serve as a gallery where he displayed The Book of Wood (1932). This is his account of the life of Jesus in seven roughly 30-by-28-inch panels, each containing multiple scenes, bound as a book.

» READ MORE: His parents were enslaved in Mississippi. Now this important self-taught artist’s work will be part of the Barnes Foundation’s reopening.

He first made it during the Depression when the barbering business was poor, and he wanted something to amaze congregations and distinguish him from others. It was an act of both devotion and entrepreneurship. The nearby Columbus Museum of Art, a major lender to the show, eventually acquired his entire barbershop and its contents including The Book of Wood.

This is the third exhibition in Philadelphia of Pierce’s work, following smaller shows in 1973 and 1994. At the time of the first he was known as a folk artist, and for the second he was called an outsider artist. The Barnes show refers to him as a wood-carver, but with the clear indication that he is an artist who does not need any limiting adjective.

You can see influences in his work — a bit of Egyptian here, William Blake there, even Picasso. He wasn’t schooled, but his eyes were open. Perhaps the closest analogy is the stone reliefs found in Gothic churches and cathedrals, which seek to inculcate religion even as they tell good stories and reflect the society in which they were made.

Pierce does not hesitate to make figures of wildly different sizes to indicate their importance in the story. He was sometimes not concerned with verisimilitude. His White House does not look remotely like the actual building, and it is difficult in his triple portrait, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers to tell Jack from Bobby. But the mule that appears in many of his works, he said, is a portrait of the one he grew up with on the farm.

The exhibition, organized by Nancy Ireson, the Barnes’ chief curator, and Zoé Whitley, director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London, is nonchronological, arranged thematically around themes like “Striving and Surviving,” “Reckoning and Retribution,” and “Joy.” This is in keeping with Albert Barnes’ disdain for biographical or historical context.

Still, you can see development in his work. In his later years, he was less preoccupied with biblical subjects and more concerned with showing the events and forces that shaped his own life.

In Obey God and Live (1956), he recounts what he describes in the video as being a turning point in his life. Commanded to reach for the Bible, he reaches instead for the Sears Roebuck catalog and is immediately struck down and thought dead. The panel’s scenes show his error and tribulation, while spelling out in large letters the meaning of his experience. Still, the lure of consumer society, with its cars and comforts, is visible in many of his works.

Elijah Escapes the Mob (1950s) is a powerful account of a time, when traveling with a baseball team to Tupelo, Miss., that he is mistaken for the murderer of a white man. He was advised to get out of town immediately. So he ran.

In this escape scene, a rabbit seems to be flying in the air after him. I had assumed that the rabbit is there simply to emphasize the speed of his flight. But in the video, he explains that the white people in town would shoot a Black youth like him as readily as they would shoot a rabbit.

Perhaps as a response to the civil rights movement of the time, in the 1960s and 1970s, he made a number of political and historical works, the most striking of which are two versions of Slavery Time, one made between 1965 and 1970, and the other in 1973.

Both show a cotton field in the upper left corner, with brown faces looking forward in the white field of cotton. Elsewhere, enslaved human beings are beaten, others are sold, and Uncle Sam stands at the center, seeming to promise the enslaved a mottled mule. The composition clearly suggests the American flag, though here it is showing our nation’s shame, not its pride.

This is a bitter message not typical of a show that is suffused with generosity and humor. Life is good, Pierce tells us, but God is watching and Satan is real.

Elijah Pierce’s America

Sunday through Jan. 10 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri. through Mon. (open at 10 a.m. for members, closed to all Tue.-Thu.).

Admission: Adults, $25; seniors, $23; college students and youth ages 13-18, $5 (ages 12 and under free).

Information: 215-278-7000 or