Ronald Lockett’s (b. 1965, Bessemer, Alabama; d.1998, Bessemer, Alabama) body of work is defined by cycles of rebirth. Though Lockett only lived to be thirty-three, his short career yielded a distinct visual language, imbued with symbols of majesty and masculinity, pop culture and found materials reflective of his immediate surroundings. Though Lockett had the opportunity to attend the Atlanta College of Art, he chose to apprentice himself to great American artist Thornton Dial, his uncle by marriage. Dial, who continues to be celebrated for his eloquent meditation on history, experience, and materiality, guided the development of his nephew’s visual language and perspective.
While his mentor had decades of life experience, Lockett found himself struck by the absurdity of a seemingly post-disaster world. He sought to understand reality through the failures and tragedies of history, depicting specific events such as the Holocaust, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the crimes of the Ku Klux Klan, and the bombing of Hiroshima. Many works employ the archetype of the buck, employing themes of masculinity and freedom. Animals shift between quivering life and skeletal decay, trapped within frames or leaping out from metal fences; abstracted metal collage creates impenetrable walls, often adorned with flowers or figures but inescapable nonetheless. A paradoxical utopian vision is innate to these scenes, glimpses of release or redemption emerging through the darkness: primeval creatures rest in awesome landscapes, diptychs evoke a baptismal effect. Lockett’s work reckons with injustice and doom, simultaneously serving as vessels for resurrection.
Themes of unavoidable, impending death became intrinsic to Lockett’s work after his diagnosis with HIV in 1994. Masterworks like Fever Within, the rusting, metal ode to a deceased friend, and English Rose, a memorial to Princess Diana, were born from this period. Art historian Paul Arnett wrote, “As an artist, Ronald was finally reborn through his resignation to a permanent exile from communal memories. Fed a diet of historical junk food, he swallowed it and somehow thrived, wringing something individual and raw and wounded and alive from those romantic stereotypes and half-real reminiscences. His art began in despair and ended in tragedy, yet in the meantime, it explored areas that neither vernacular nor mainstream contemporary arts proper have, as a rule, been able to reach on their own.” Lockett died from AIDS-related complications in 1998.
In 2016, a significant solo exhibition of Lockett’s work was presented by the American Folk Art Museum, accompanied by a monograph, Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett. He has exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA), the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond, VA), the New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA), the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY) and the American Visionary Art Museum (Baltimore, MD), among others. His work resides in various public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY), the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (San Francisco, CA), Minneapolis Museum of Art (Minneapolis, MN), the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY), and the Gadsen Arts Center (Quincy, FL).