Allison Meier at Hyperallergic has a fascinating look at The American Folk Art Museum’s exhibit of classic secret society folk art.
From her piece:
Much of the exhibition contextualizes this long-hidden art in the history of the societies, such as their charity work. The Odd Fellows, formed in 18th-century London, were organized as a benevolent group to support the sick, orphans, and those who died without money for a funeral. One of their mission statements is proclaimed in red and gold on a large wooden sign: “Bury the Dead.” There are also axes indicating how the Odd Fellows saw themselves as “pioneers in the pathway of life”; staffs topped with a heart in the hand were a reminder to be open to others.
Enigmatic, evocative, and often simply strange, fraternal references are a rich part of contemporary American popular culture. But the seductive mystique of secret societies, with their cryptic signs, gestures, and arcane rituals, has been inculcated in our American experience since the early eighteenth century. Before the age of mass production, the artist who painted a portrait or embellished a piece of furniture might have also decorated a parade banner, an apron, symbols on a chart, or a backdrop for a fraternal lodge. More important, he or she encoded the ideals of fellowship, labor, charity, passage, and wisdom—the core of fraternal teachings—into the many forms associated with fraternal practice. The iconic art and objects showcased in Mystery and Benevolence relate the tenets of fraternal belief through a potent combination of highly charged imagery, form, and meaning. The exhibition explores the fascinating visual landscape of fraternal culture through almost two hundred works of art comprising a major gift to the American Folk Art Museum from Kendra and Allan Daniel.
They currently have an exhibit on early American dead child portraiture, which had a whole iconography to it.
• Folk Art Relics from the Golden Age of America’s Secret Societies (Hyperallergenic)