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Self Made

Education? These Creators Don’t Need No Education To Make Art

Margot King's "Passage"

By John Barry | Posted 7/19/2006


At the Creative Alliance at the Patterson through July 22

Dan Van Allen’s Self-Taught was conceived long before Art School Confidential made its brief run, but you can’t help wondering if they’re both making the same point. You got talent but need recognition? Get arrested for murder one.

The first sculpture you run into in the exhibition is “Card Boxes” by Guatemalan-born Julio Cesar Aguilar-Mendez, which has that peculiar charisma. Mendez is currently awaiting trial on murder charges, and the sculpture was submitted by his public defender.

But Mendez’s small, carefully crafted boxes are what Self-Taught is celebrating. The cards are carefully, methodically arranged; when they open, they contain small strips of paper with numbers—although Van Allen says that in an earlier incarnation they featured Bible verses. But you can’t look at it without thinking about the moment when Mendez found the artist inside himself. If most exhibits develop context or a theme, this show is a celebration of the moment of discovery, which, in its most innocent form, probably took the artist—or his lawyer—by surprise.

Strictly speaking, though, Self-Taught isn’t just a collection of people who haven’t been near art school. There are a few art degrees scattered throughout and even a few sculptors whose work has been exhibited around Baltimore. And there are a few Creative Alliance members as well. But in this collection of 45 artists, you’re being told to browse through the bios, withhold judgment, and enjoy the level playing ground.

One wall, for instance, is largely taken up by work from Art Enables, a Washington-based school that uses art as a therapeutic mode of self-expression. Most of the work is done with ink outlines and paints. If “self-taught” brings up visions of naive folk art, this work pretty much fits the bill. Carefully drawn, with precise line work, the surprises include Olivia Mitchell’s “Yesterday”—a meticulously drawn postcard rendition of New York, complete with the twin towers. While the paintings have a whimsical, charming quality, the collection is a celebration of the mission of the program.

But on another wall, the composition “A Healthy New Habit” by Kelly Walker takes the task of self-definition to another level: Her framed mixed-media work features a double-ended phallus with a nun balanced on each end. So much for naiveté.

And then, some of the self-educated have the benefit of a year or two of art school. Holly Klink’s “Blackbirds Coming,” for instance, is a skillfully rendered use of mixed media. A flock of birds on the horizon gradually melts into the painting, then gets absorbed in a cloud of plastic beads. Flowers, both painted and plastic, create a multilayered, textured effect. There are certainly fingerprints of art school here, although, as the artist notes, she left to pursue her own style.

Richard Merrill’s wood sculpture “Butterfly-Lionfish Thing” has the confidence of a local artist who has found his niche and has been using it for some time. Merrill’s three-legged winged monster, constructed with strips of wood, toothpicks, and metal, is certainly familiar to anyone who’s been to the Intertribal Powwow at Ferry Bar Park. Chad Jones’ “Upper Temple” is a fascinating winding sculpture that grows out of a found tree trunk.

Richard Eisenmann’s “Chambered Nautilus,” a mobile of gradually descending and diminishing branches, meanwhile, presides over the entrance to the exhibit with weightlessness and delicacy that adds an interesting dimension to Self-Taught. Another work that hangs from above, Melissa Moore’s “Cocoon,” fades even more easily into the background: a clear plastic container with a human figure—also clear—barely visible inside. Adam Newby’s “Budwizer Jesus,” constructed with peeling tin cans and found metal, is provocative, but in a tried-and-true way.

On the whole, it’s not that difficult to figure out how all these artists got in the same room. For some, the art is therapeutic; for others, it’s obviously the chance to even old scores. The unifying principle—that the artists haven’t been taught, and that the art comes from within—is a little shaky, given that many artists like to say that about themselves. In Self-Taught, it’s an experience in which we’re all invited to participate.

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