|Magazine Home | News | Features | Reviews | Books | People | Horoscope|
by N. F. Karlins
|The buzz from the Outsider Art Fair continues in a slew of gallery and museum shows throughout New York. A good place to start is the "Private Worlds: Classic Outsider Art from Europe," on view through Feb. 28 at the Katonah Museum of Art, just a train or car ride from Manhattan. Outsider art in Europe is synonymous with Jean Dubuffet's "art brut," or raw art, and is mainly the product of either psychiatric patients or spirit mediums.
Work by 19 such artists have been selected by John Beardsley, co-curator of the seminal "Black Folk Art" at the Corcoran, and Roger Cardinal, from the University of Kent, England, who coined the term "Outsider Art." The exhibition is compelling, fascinating, and, yes, unsettling. The work of four artists in particular is simply too good to miss.
Usually considered the most important of European Outsiders is Adolf Wölfli, who has a whole museum in Berne, Switzerland devoted to his prodigious output of intricate colored pencil drawings, illustrated musical scores and other writings. He spent about 25 years in a psychiatric hospital churning out drawings crammed with endlessly inventive combinations of abstracted designs that include bird and animal forms, musical notes, and manifestations of his goggle-eyed alter ego, St. Wölfli II.
The lush, highly saturated colors in the romantic, rose-filled, nipple-baring drawings by Aloïse Corbaz are as operatic as her voice was early in her career. A talented singer who had music and drawing lessons (not all Outsiders are that outside), she was a tutor at the German court early in the century, but spent the second half of her life institutionalized as a schizophrenic. Figures from history and the opera, often based on printed sources, carry on torrid love affairs in her colored pencil and collage works on paper.
Carlo Zinelli, born near Verona, Italy, was deemed a psychotic and confined as a result of his WWII experiences. Figures, animals, birds, or abstractions, often in ranks of four, inhabit his mixed media or gouache drawings. Even though some figures have numerous holes in them, his strikingly original and complex compositions always seem so perfectly balanced that they are a joy to explore. He is especially good at using black with white alone or, more commonly, with a limited palette of colors, often including yellow, ocher and red.
It's easy to see why Frederich Schröder-Sonnenstern's eerie, psychosexual drawings would be favorites of the Surrealists. Although he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, the artist managed to gain some measure of fame in his lifetime. In examining the disturbing images of his colored pencil drawings, what's most remarkable technically is his exquisite sensitivity to hue and shading.
The selection of artists for "Private Worlds" is idiosyncratic, of course, but perhaps a tad strange in that there is no sculpture, only one textile and no mention of environments, such as France's monumental confection of concrete and stones, the Palais Idéal. Don't forget that Beardsley has written a good book on environments around the globe. Still, there is plenty to see, like works by eight of the artists from the Prinzhorn Collection at the University of Heidelberg, one of the few early collections of art by psychiatric patients to have survived, rarely shown in the USA.
If you can't go to Katonah (and even if you can), stop by the Ricco/Maresca Gallery where "Masterpieces from the Collection of Robert M. Greenberg" is on view through March 6. Examples of Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz and Carlo Zinelli from Greenberg's voluminous holdings are included along with other European and American pieces. Drossos P. Skyllas's eye-popping oil Bishop (ca.1950-55) proves religious painting can still be awe-inspiring, a notion seconded by two granite-carved angels by Will Edmondson. Other standouts in the American selection are drawings by Bill Traylor and Henry Darger.
Darger's work can also be viewed at Galerie St. Etienne, where "Henry Darger and His Realms," is on view through Mar. 13. The exhibition contains some of the most complex and esthetically satisfying works by this Chicago recluse, who was discovered to be an artist only after his death. With little formal education, this intelligent, deeply disturbed man was haunted by his early separation from his only sibling, a sister, and became obsessed with the mistreatment of children. He wrote the longest American novel (a long title shortened to In the Realms of the Unreal), an apocalyptic battle between good, as personified in the seven Vivian sisters, and evil.
Darger spent about 60 years composing his novel in longhand, typing it, and eventually illustrating it. His multi-paneled mural-like drawings are made of pastel-colored watercolors over outline drawings of figures copied from books, magazines, and comic books. Fantastic dragon-like creatures, distortions of scale and cloned figures give the pieces an ominous feel. Many are quite violent with torture scenes and hacked body parts. The way that the weather frequently reflects the violence or portends its arrival is, however, quite magical. Many of these wall-mounted images are double-sided, so look at the photos next to them to get an idea of the reverses. (As the little-girl heroines are often pictured nude with male genitalia, this may not be a suitable show for the kiddies.)
In Soho, the Phyllis Kind Gallery is spotlighting both American and European self-taught artists, through Jan. 30. Sava Sekulic (1902-1989), born into poverty in what is now Croatia, was inspired by his father's advice to create something for himself. He taught himself to read, write, and paint. The exhibition includes a couple of oils, but mostly mixed media drawings on paper. The best are the most surreal, such as a drawing of a pig-man riding a fish.
Pascal Verbena works in his native Marseilles, where early Christian crypts inspired this former sailor and avid fisherman to create driftwood tabernacles. His weathered, pale brown wood constructions have lots of drawers and cubbyholes and carved clay plaques. Ask for help in exploring the hidden carvings, toys, found objects and natural materials hidden within them.
Downstairs at Phyllis Kind is a multi-tiered salon-type installation called "The Great Folk Art of Texas." It ranges from the intricate abstract patterning of Hector Alonzo Benavides's drawings to the late Reverend Johnnie Swearingen's depictions of black life in rural East Texas. Well-known pieces like Frank Jones's "haint houses" and Charles Dellschau's flying contraptions are part of this must-see, high-voltage mix.
"In Sight: Portraits of Folk Artists by Chuck Rosenak," through Apr. 30, a wonderful grouping of photos and letters recently donated to the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art in New York by researcher-collectors Chuck and Jan Rosenak, includes portraits of two of the Texas artists in Kind's show.
The newly discovered drawings of Lewis Smith (1907-1998) are on view at American Primitive through Feb. 20. Yellow, orange, red and green are favorite colors for his outline drawings of female wrestlers, this Ohio artist's most interesting work. His father toiled for the railroad and gave him a free train pass, which inspired depictions of trains and diners. The diners all have the same format -- stools before a counter with extensive menus, many containing gibes at politicians. Some of these crayon, pen and ink drawings are erotic, others funny and funky, but all worth a visit.
"States of GRACE: Artists of Northern Vermont," through Feb. 14 celebrates the work of the Grass Roots Art and Community Effort that gives non-directive art workshops to the young, old, and institutionalized in Vermont. The show at Margaret Bodell Gallery in the East Village contains several pieces by Gayleen Aiken, perhaps the best known of this group, whose folksy descriptions of her life and fantasies include an imaginary set of cousins.
Also in the East Village is "Outsider Artists of HAI (Hospital Audiences, Inc.)," through Feb. 7 at La Mama La Galleria. Melvin Way's inscrutable alchemical formulae, Ray Hamilton's enigmatic figures, and Rodney Thornblad's casts of thousands, as in his colored pencil drawing Trojan War, are just a sample of the lively and very rewarding material here.
Not institutionalized and very much a part of her community while she was alive (at least after some initial resistance to her house and garden environment) is Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), the subject of a full-blown retrospective, "The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do," at the Museum of American Folk Art. People, animals, plants, architecture, religious symbols and imaginary hybrid-creatures all find places in the wildly diverse yet all-of-a-piece oeuvre of this Georgia artist. The drawings plus a handful of paintings, chewing-gum sculpture (remarkable in every way) and other three-dimensional objects are never less than first-rate thanks to curator Lee Kogan, also the head of the Museum's Folk Art Institute.
Rowe's densest drawings are her best. Forms twist in and out of ambiguous figure/ground relationships, telling part of a story that each viewer must complete. Areas of pure, intense color are syncopated against sections of small, repeated patterns.
Rowe is always in her works, either as an abstracted yet real presence, represented by a part of her body, as in Peace, in which the artist's hands are superimposed on a slice of landscape with a blue animal, or in the guise of an animal or hybrid-animal figure, as in Cow Jump Over the Moon. She describes the everyday life of an Afro-American rural community as it is being absorbed into an urban area, her religious faith and her own dreams in compelling, fresh images.
Baruch College's Sidney Mishkin Gallery is presenting "Louis Monza: Self-Taught Painter, Sculptor, and Printmaker, 1939-1984" from Feb. 5 through Mar. 3. A special preview with a lecture by Dr. Susan C. Larsen, who knew the artist, was arranged for attendees of the Outsider Art Fair on Jan. 22. Monza came to the States from Italy and began to paint while recovering from a broken back at age 41. Energized by WWII, his most stunning achievement is a series of about forty oils based on his political and social views concerning the war. Roughly a quarter of these works are at Baruch with his "The Comic Tragedy," showing the influence of Picasso's Guernica.
Monza had only one major show in his lifetime, but continued to make art from 1939 until his death, learning how to handle new media up into his seventies. His late colored pencil drawings are especially beautiful and often have a satiric bite. With his immense output, this mini-retrospective will hopefully inspire a more exhaustive museum show soon.
The Cavin-Morris Gallery is presenting a double-header, "Just Off the Freeway" through Feb. 13. The show features a selection from Sanford Darling's House of One Thousand Paintings. These depictions of the South Seas usually contain palm trees, native huts and distant mountains. The mysterious sea is always black. Darling painted them after his wife died. Painted in oil on varying sizes of board, they at one time adorned his California home inside and out. Unfortunately, his environment died when he did, yet some of the feeling of that place remains in the small room in the gallery.
"By Any Means Necessary," also at Cavin-Morris, pulls together an impressive group of sculptures from the African diaspora. Included is work by the Haitian cut-steel-drum master, Georges Liautaud, the Philadelphia Wireman and the black-painted wood and accessorized figures of Bessie Harvey.
One of the most exuberant colorists among self-taught Europeans is Anselme Boix-Vives (1899-1969). The Luise Ross Gallery is presenting "Anselme Boix-Vives: World Vision; Peace Through Work" through Feb. 27. Born is Spain, but making his home in France, Boix-Vives produced a plan for world peace in response to the wounded veterans he observed after WWI. At age 62 he began to paint the world around him, and a peaceful future that included living on the moon. His staccato brush strokes of brilliant, pure color produced some of the happiest paintings anywhere. His subjects range from the Virgin Mary to Josephine Baker.
Not far from Luise Ross is K.S. Art, open on weekends and by appointment. Now on view there is a group show called "People," featuring Kerry Schuss' latest find, Jonathan Lerman. This autistic 11 year-old suddenly began to draw about two years ago, turning out self-assured charcoal drawings that hold their own amidst work by Freddie Brice and Howard Finster.
More traditional folk art is on offer in an excellent display of Shaker art and artifacts at the PaineWebber Art Gallery. "Shaker Gifts, Shaker Genius: The Collections of The Shaker Museum and Library" through April 2 comes with an informative free brochure written by the Shaker Museum's curator, Erin Budis, who also organized the show. Shaker "spirit drawings," oils by a self-taught painter, plus the spare furniture, tools and clothing for which the Shakers are noted are placed in the context of Shaker life with lots of photographs. The biographies of individual Shakers are a good, uplifting read.
Once the Museum of American Folk Art opens its Contemporary Center, contemporary "self-taught" artists will be available throughout the year rather than just during a frenzied period in the winter. The new building on 53rd Street (just down from MoMA) opens in early 2001, and this material will finally receive the attention it's due as an important part of art history.
American Primitive, 594 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
Archives of American Art (AAA), 1285 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10019.
Margaret Bodell Gallery, 13 East 7th St., New York, N.Y. 10003.
Cavin-Morris Gallery, 560 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
Katonah Museum of Art, Route 22 at Jay Street, Katonah, N.Y. 10536.
Phyllis Kind Gallery, 136 Greene St., New York, N.Y. 10012.
K.S. Art, 73 Leonard St., New York, N.Y., 10013.
La Mama La Galleria, (HAI) 220 West 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10036.
Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, 135 East 22nd St., New York, N.Y. 10010.
Museum of American Folk Art, 2 Lincoln Square, New York, N.Y. 10023.
PaineWebber Art Gallery, 1285 Avenue of the Americas, 10019.
Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th, New York, N.Y. 10011.
Luise Ross Gallery, 568 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
Galerie St. Etienne, 24 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019.
In the bookstore: