Small in scale and humble in presence, Beverly Buchanan’s “shacks” made of cardboard, foam core, found wood, and tin are both prosaic and instructive. Inspired by homes and structures occupied by and often hand-built by the poor and working classes, they offer engaging, intriguing narratives about life, class, race, and heritage spoken in the vernacular of Southern Black culture. “Shacks and Legends, 1985–2011,” a recent mini-retrospective that also included works on paper and photographs, made a strong case for entering Buchanan (1940–2015) into the contemporary canon.
The earliest pieces dated from the mid-1980s, when Buchanan moved to Georgia to begin her art career after working as a healthcare educator in New York and taking classes with Norman Lewis at the Art Students League. Her enthusiasm for expressive abstraction can be seen in a painted cardboard House from 1985. Two other works, Miss Tiny Aiken’s Shack (1987) and Untitled (Tobacco Barn) (c. 1987), also painted with broad strokes of acrylic and fabricated from foam core and nails, overlay the homey picturesque of working-class practicality with a meditative aura of struggle and lack.
Buchanan then began using local Georgia heart pine to create delicately balanced assemblages exploring the richness and sensuality of natural hues and grain patterns. Posing as shacks and houses with tin roofs and front porches, these unpretentious sculptures promote the value of making do with what is at hand, as well as the strength, dignity, and resiliency of home. Some of them, like Esther’s Shack (1988) and Hasting’s House (1989), testify to the pride in ownership and the importance of shelter that Buchanan also celebrated in documentary photographs. Another sculpture, Tin and Wood House (1995), allows for an intimate glimpse into an interior.
Paying homage to the oral tradition of Southern experience, Buchanan attached written “legends” to some of her structures, imbuing them with stories and characters drawn from memory and the imagination. A particularly personal example, Orangeburg County Family House (1993), includes the names of family and friends written in Sharpie on the exterior, along with found materials such as bottle caps and a license plate that provide a ledger of growing up in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era.
The painted foam core structures of Buchanan’s later works harken back to her early expressive tendencies, with bright colors and basic shapes revealing her interest in the decorative and abstract potential of architectural form. At the same time, bold oil pastel renderings of single buildings reflect the great pleasure that Buchanan, whether working in two or three dimensions, derived from observation and fashioning things directly by hand. In works made with thin sheets of commercial lumber, she experimented with the evocative possibilities of process, including stacking and gluing or burning the wood and inverting the built structure, as in Turned Over House (2010).
As acts of reclamation and reconstruction, Buchanan’s shacks affirm the importance of overlooked traditions and the perspective of Black experience in rural America. In Homebody, an engaging installation in the gallery’s back space, Abigail DeVille created a dialogue between her personal project of recycling, remembrance, and recuperation and Buchanan’s work. Combining earlier installations of collected detritus and personal mementos (including tiles from the floor of her grandmother’s apartment in the Bronx) to meditate on migration and family history, DeVille constructed an environment of memory and homage. Sharing the self-effacing modesty of Buchanan’s shacks, DeVille’s assemblage testified to the important meanings of what is left behind and to the beauty, pleasure, and privation of experiences and perspectives marginalized for far too long.