Waco painter Kermit Oliver gets a fitting career show in his hometown art center

Waco painter Kermit Oliver is hardly unknown.

His deeply allegorical work was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. There was a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2005. And curator Dave Hickey selected him for SITE Santa Fe’s fourth International Biennial in 2001.

Despite this storied history, Oliver has remained peripheral to the Texas art world and is best known as the postal worker who became the first American to design a scarf for the French fashion house Hermès.

Born into a family of ranch workers in Refugio, Texas, in 1943, Oliver would go on to study at Texas Southern University in Houston. Having decided against a career in teaching, and although exhibiting with Houston galleries, he took a job with the U.S. Postal Service. In 1984, he and his family moved to Waco. He continued to paint, and he continued to work for the Postal Service.

This untitled 1975 painting from Kermit Oliver is crowded with animals, a domesticated version of the biblical passage from Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … and a little child shall lead them.”
This untitled 1975 painting from Kermit Oliver is crowded with animals, a domesticated version of the biblical passage from Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … and a little child shall lead them.” (Cody Willins / Highline Photography)

Now, his hometown has mounted a comprehensive survey of his work, “Kermit Oliver: New Narratives, New Beginnings” at Art Center Waco. This is the first exhibition for the center at its new location, and around 50 works spanning Oliver’s career are displayed through a somewhat cumbersome series of spaces.

One room is dedicated to his work with Hermès, for which he has designed 17 different scarves since the 1980s. This incredible relationship arose through connections with Shelby and Lawrence Marcus of the Neiman Marcus dynasty, who directed Jean-Louis Dumas, then the artistic director of Hermès, to Oliver’s work.

The resulting scarves are encyclopedic poems for America and often specifically Texas. A corpulent and regal turkey occupies the center of Faune et Flore du Texas (initial version released in 1986), surrounded by a bestiary of Texas creatures — jackrabbits and armadillos, owls and egrets — their cameos braided by arabesques of Texas flora.

In an interview for Texas Standard, Oliver talked of his delight at finding foreign stamps while working at the Postal Service and how they provided an insight into other cultures and their art. These scarves feel like enlarged stamps, resplendent in a series of motifs that mythologize a particular, deeply American cultural history.

A regal turkey occupies the center of Kermit Oliver's "Faune et Flore du Texas," surrounded by a bestiary of Texas creatures.
A regal turkey occupies the center of Kermit Oliver’s “Faune et Flore du Texas,” surrounded by a bestiary of Texas creatures.(Cody Willins / Highline Photography)

One finds delight in this exhibition by encountering Oliver’s lifelong quest to find meaning through painting and nature. Often the protagonists for this are animals, an echo of his childhood spent on a ranch. An untitled painting from 1975 is crowded with creatures: a wreathed cow occupies most of the painting; a cat sits improbably on its back, and beside it, a child holds a stick with a songbird at its top.

This self-portrait is called "Kermit Oliver, Into the Woods." (Cody Willins / Highline Photography)
This self-portrait is called “Kermit Oliver, Into the Woods.” (Cody Willins / Highline Photography)

This peaceable kingdom is a domesticated version of the biblical passage from Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … and a little child shall lead them.” These allegorical devices are common within Oliver’s work — both biblical and classical — yet there remains an ambiguity.

The significance of the individual motifs and their totality is not settled. The work is not a simple illustration but melds the personal with the fantastical, the pastoral with the profane.

Details

“Kermit Oliver: New Narratives, New Beginnings” runs through Jan. 22 at Art Center Waco, 701 S. Eighth St., Waco. Free. Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. artcenterwaco.org.

Robert G. Mull

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