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Presley Ward
People's Gallery
3289 20th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
September 7, 2011 - October 22, 2011

Joie de Vivre
by Kara Q. Smith

“Imagine a very small formal motif and try to execute it economically . . . the essence of the subject must always become visible, even if this is impossible in nature. .... The absence of foreshortening also plays a crucial part in the process.... I begin to execute forms, as if I know nothing about painting or, have I discovered a small, undisputed personal possession, a particular sort of threedimensional representation on the flat surface!”

—Paul Klee, The Diaries of Paul Klee 1898-1918[i]


“There was a time in life I was young and felt so free.

The simple pleasure of wakeing (sic) up was a blessing to me.

I remember looking at the sky blue as any sapphire could be.

 […] But in my youth, my dream and goal was a simple tool, but father taught (sic) me common sense so I would not become some educated fool.”

-        Presley Ward, The Simple Life, 2010[ii]


To speak about the art of Presley Ward, is to either approach or dance around the discursive role of the untrained in the contemporary art world. At the turn of the century, Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879 -1940) was trying to disengage his artistic training so that he could best harness the essence of the apparitions in his brain. Likely influenced by artistic training and the practice of fellow Bauhaus artists, Klee’s conscious suppressing of traditional pedagogical approach to visualizing form created playful and bizarre two-dimensional forms that eventually became treasured for their difference, wit and experimental (read: flat) composition.

Presley Ward. Installation view. Courtesy the artist and People’s Gallery, San Francisco

In my opinion, Klee creates an interesting dialogue with Presley Ward. The native North Carolinian’s current show at People’s Gallery is one of six solo-shows presenting work by artists and non-artists who are operating outside of traditional presenting institutions and systems[iii]. Ward’s drawings are mostly done in pencil or colored pencil on various standard sizes of paper. His images morph from unfamiliar science-fiction-like landscapes and cyborg-like human forms, like Immune to Error, 2005, to imagined still life groupings to the seemingly self-reflexive drawing Role Model, 2008, in which there is a man seen through his bedroom mirror casually sitting on his bed, with two books sitting on the dresser: titled “Holy Bible: and “New World Dictionary.”

Paul Klee. Tragödie auf Stelzen (Tragedy on Stilts), 1912. Versunkenheit (Absorption), 1919,Watercolor on lithograph. Courtesy SFMOMA, San Francisco.

 Both Ward and Klee master a mixture of humor and darkness in their seemingly nonsensical renderings of characters and beings, accentuated by each subtly playful and telling title. And naturally, Ward and Klee have both been casually accused of perhaps suffering from some level of mental illness, which is another art world subject often closely aligned with art harboring the potential to be labeled “outsider”. In his diaries, Klee once wrote: “I am God, so much of the divine is in me, that I cannot die! My head burns to the point of bursting. One of the worlds hidden in it wants to be born. But now I must suffer to bring it forth.”[iv] Clearly resonating from the ego of artist as genius, this is where Ward and Klee sever paths in this dialogue. Ward stated last year, “My imagination scares me sometimes, but you know, my art makes me feel god…It gives me knowledge, takes me to a different place and makes me look for a higher source.”[v] The struggle for Ward isn’t to bring forth the divine inside of him for all to see and gander. Ward is earnest and steadfastly true to himself and finds beauty in the process of creation devoid of existing standards.

Now in the fold of the contemporary art scene of San Francisco, and thus placed in the middle of current exhibition standards and trends, audiences may take in the imagination of Ward in a formal gallery context, re-energizing the century old dialogue about art world outsiders: the exotic, the insane, the self-taught. But hopefully the audience will also benefit from the idiosyncratic work of Ward and the curatorial direction of People’s gallery by experiencing new and exciting exhibition models that, a la Harold Szeeman, emphasize innovative artistic vision, collapsing the didactic hierarchy between big shows and small shows, great artists and lesser artists.  

—Kara. Q Smith

[i] Steinitz, Kate T. [Untitled Review of The Diaries of Paul Klee 1898-1918, Felix Klee, ed. and intro., Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1964.]  The Art Bulletin, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Mar., 1967), pp. 82-83

[ii] Rowe, Jeri. ”Presley Ward: Artistic Defender of the Universe” The Greensboro News and Record. Sep 16, 2011.

(Accessed at People’s Gallery, San Francisco)

[iii] People’s Gallery is a one-year program of exhibitions, talks and screenings organized by Jana Blankenship, Harrell Fletcher and Jens Hoffmann and is associated with the People’s Biennial. [LINK:]

[iv] Seinitz 1967, 83.

[v] Rowe 2011.


Top Image: Presley Ward. Role Model, 2008. Courtesy the artist and People’s Gallery, San Francisco. 

Posted by Kara Q. Smith on 10/5/11

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