On January 6 in Los Angeles, Ernie Wolfe Gallery opened a show titled “Eddie M and the FAVs,” featuring Ed Moses’ paintings alongside elaborate Ghanaian coffins which the proprietor calls “fantastic afterlife vehicles (FAVs).” Eleven days later, Moses died of natural causes. It seems eerily opportune that this show’s opening was the last public outing ever attended by the nonagenarian abstract painter, a veteran notable of the Los Angeles art scene.
Moses, a longtime friend of Wolfe’s, had staged 11 shows at his gallery since 1985. “He well understood his own mortality, and the potential for celebrating his transition into the Beyond in a festive fashion was always very much a part of his plan,” Wolfe says of this final presentation. “We had spoken many times over the years about doing just such a show.”
Open only on Saturdays and dedicated primarily to African art and artifacts, Wolfe’s gallery is one of Los Angeles’ most eccentric. Going inside is always an experience, whatever is on display. A sense of musty domesticity pervades its dimly lit interior that transports you back in time. Furniture, textiles, and curios represent exotic African locales throughout palpably lived-in rooms that seem as though they never left the 19th century.
The manner of display seems rather casual, with pieces on shelves, tables, even the floor. In contrast with Western conventions of preciousness, African art is traditionally meant for domestic utility or ritual. There is a white-walled gallery space, but eccentricity seeps in even here—a sizable statue of aged appearance lies nonchalantly beside the entrance.
Showing at Wolfe’s gallery gave Moses a chance to present his own work among African art that had inspired him. The day after Moses died, William Turner Gallery, who represented him, announced his death in an e-mail tribute including this quote by the artist: “My thought is that the artist functions in a tribal context, that he is the shaman. When the urban life came in, tribes no longer existed … but there was still a genetic core of shamans, broken loose and genetically floating around.”
Wolfe delights in mixing contemporary American artwork with art and artifacts from Africa. Over the years, he gave Moses rein to experiment with unorthodox context beyond the traditional gallery space. Generally, local artists at his gallery evince some kinship with a non-Western tribal perspective. Exhibitions including notable LA artists have afforded his gallery some contemporary cachet beyond its exoticism.
Wolfe relishes regaling visitors with anecdotes of his African adventures. At openings and parties, he serves “Wild Game Chili” and encourages guests to bring pocket pets if they so desire. He is inevitably dressed in khaki shorts as though embarking on safari, but the effect is un-ironic and somehow totally appropriate. On Saturdays, the gallery is quiet; as visitors mosey about, he follows with obscure back-stories relating to germane pieces.
He has much to say about his current show. “Fantastic Afterlife Vehicles have been an unique and ongoing tradition, largely centered on the coastal town of Teshi, Ghana, for more than 50 years,” he declares. “These figural coffins/sculptures were made to celebrate and/or reflect the achievements or aspirations of the deceased—and were not always welcomed by the local Church, in part because of their celebration of Idolatry. Nonetheless they were very popular among the affluent of the Ga people from that area.”
Wolfe’s first FAVs show in 1991 comprised about a dozen works from the carpentry workshop of Kane Kwei (1924-1992), whom he considers the seminal artist of the tradition. Earmarked for the gallerist’s own use and always on display is a lobster-shaped one from that original show.
“Kane Kwei’s workshop spawned everything that is FAV,” Wolfe explains. The most famous of Kwei’s apprentices is Paa Joe, represented in this show with two of Kwei’s other protégés, Benezate and Theophilus Nii Anum Sowah. The coffins are created of wood nailed together as in barrels; holes are filled with Bondo. Finally, surfaces are embellished with whimsical designs realized by poster painters. The ones in this show feature automobiles and fantastic beasts: a crocodile, a many-headed bird hatching from an egg, a Hydra-like dragon.
When asked if these elaborate artworks are really used, Wolfe replies: “Yes, they were meant to be coffins as in buried in the ground with dead bodies inside…although obviously the practicality of that mission has been slightly compromised by Nii Anum’s ever-growing interest in taking the form far away from the original rectangular box.”
Moses’ stylistic affinity to the sculptural caskets is apparent in pattern and brushwork. His most interesting works in this show comprise limited palettes that jibe with undertones of the FAVs. Vagarious faces materialize in somber ochre, ebony, and mahogany smears appearing earthen or even scatological in timeless affinity to the rawness of olden artifacts.
“[Moses] was for decades a big fan of these uniquely Ghanaian sculptures. . .We spoke in December about our doing a final show,” he revealed to me. “As the fates would have it, my long overdue 40 foot container from Ghana, filled with 5+ years of previously created FAVs, arrived as well, making the inevitability of this juxtaposition all the more perfect!”
For Wolfe, this show marks a new beginning, his first employment of a recently acquired additional building that he postulates as “a veritable chapel to Ed Moses.” It’s hard to imagine an apter final reception for an artist who compared painting to shamanism and never stopped working despite illness and disability. Garishly feting the deceased and shrouding corpses in creative vibrancy, these fancy caskets punctuate quietus with a festive nimbus.
“Eddie M and the FAVs” remains on view at least through April at Ernie Wolfe Gallery, 1655 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. The link to a 3D virtual tour can be found here: http://www.erniewolfegallery.com/current-exhibition/