Against the Light
Before our program: a disclaimer.
A long-faced journalist with a thick, brushy mustache flickers on to the screen. He is well-lit against the yawning, void-like backdrop behind him, a production choice that spells out both the limits of our knowledge and the “humbly” wider view of journalists themselves. Today he’s appearing in a different capacity, not to deliver the news but to qualify it—even his mustache looks like an asterisk. The program you are about to watch is not endorsed by the affiliate station and at odds with the community it depicts. You are invited to watch with scrutiny and to stay tuned after the broadcast: Eastern Kentucky has a response.
The CBS 48 Hours special, “Another America” is an infamously bleak portrait of Appalachia; a grim supercut of abject poverty, shuttered industry, and ecological collapse interspersed with interviews of the doomed people who endure it all. In this framing, Eastern Kentucky isn’t a geographic region so much as the site of a decades-long disaster, a slow-motion curse that’s origins lie in the distant past and that’s enormity makes the scope of the present impossible to ever fully comprehend. It’s a portrait of a place that’s both unbearably close and weirdly remote, brutally clear-eyed about human fallout but blurry and unforgiving about the people themselves. If this is such an awful place, one thinks, why would anyone want to stick around? If holding onto a way of life means taking so much indignity in stride, why bother having a sense of pride at all?
Because America is founded on lofty, impossible idealism rather than faith, race, or geography, when national pride cannot be affirmed through prosperity, it’s often secured through defense mechanisms. For decades Appalachia has been the uncanny other at the heart of the American Dream: too near to invade, too complicated to ever claim. In its regionalism and folk culture, Appalachia resembles a pre-modern America before wealth; in its de-industrialization, reactionary politics, and environmental crisis it resembles an ominous America to come. It is demonized, othered (“Another America”), and suppressed until its crises are either too dire to ignore or too delicious to pass up mocking.
In Mike Ousley’s painting The Last Mountain Man (2021), a film crew ambushes the bewildered-looking title character outside of his log cabin for what the viewer imagines to be another squalid little news segment. A buckskin holdout against modernity, he’s a perfect embodiment of regional pride but staring down the camera lens he’s as vulnerable as the animal pelt he’s clutching in his hands, helpless to keep himself from being reduced to a backwoods curiosity or nightly news meme. This small interaction is played out against the larger frame of Appalachia itself, which Ousley depicts as a dusky haze of purple mountains, ancient pines, and swirling winter light. The journalists will have bagged their clickbait but in doing so will have missed the forest for the trees.
With In Some Dark Holler, his debut show at Stellarhighway, Mike Ousley fills in the world outside of the camera’s frame. His Appalachia is a psycho-scape of stories told and re-told, passed down through generations and adapted to periods thick and thin. It is a landscape haunted by haints and boogers, goat-men and granny witches, where God is king and the devil lurks menacingly in the darkness. Unlike the weary, resigned fatalism of 48 Hours, Ousley suggests that the region’s self-reliance lends itself to a singular kind of magical thinking, that the heightened awareness of one’s isolation brings a greater recognition of how alive and malevolent nature can be. Folklore is incredibly functional: what better way to communicate the dangers of your world than to personify them? In this way Ousley’s Appalachia bears more in common with Japan or Iceland than other self-mythologizing American hubs: societies deeply informed by folk culture where magic exists at the margins of the knowable.
In his approach to folk art, Ousley is fluid rather than ethnographic, taking liberties as a storyteller to embellish and heighten his paintings to maximum effect. The Ballad of Omie Wise (2021) takes its name
from a murder ballad but is synthesized with Ralph Stanley’s song “River Underground” in depicting the drowning death of the title character. The mixed associations trouble the scene Ousley paints, is she the faithless lover of “River” or “Omie,” the pregnant village innocent? Ultimately what’s most illuminating is the work itself: the sweep of raging white water, the helpless woman crying out, and the lamp-holding murderer looking out on his crime from the jagged, moonlit shoreline.
American folk art tends to be panoramic and Ousley’s is no exception. Holy Ghost Tent Revival and Pool Party (both 2021) are wide-view, bold-colored snapshots of people at worship and play, dispatches from a broader human comedy that occasionally make Ousley’s work remind of Pieter Brueghel or James Ensor as much as Grandma Moses. Like those artists, darkness lurks at the edges of Ousley’s painting, giving a dimension of menace and mystery to even wholesome-looking scenes: see Backroad Nip Joint (2021) where the initial party atmosphere is soured by the sight of a vomiting, keeled-over man and the towering woods that frames him.
Even if it’s tempting to compare Ousley’s work to conventional art world figures (Lessons In Stone (2021) is a dead ringer for early Alice Neel; few people have painted woods lovelier, darker, or deeper since Marsden Hartley), it would be wrong to characterize Ousley as anything but a Kentucky painter. His work draws deeply from the holler and is infinitely proud of it. His generosity in turn is to pay back the riches of his heritage and to illuminate a corner of the world that has been pointedly left obscure.