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It Doesn't Matter If You Know About Art If You Know What You Like

EMERGING: Brian Payne's silhouette self portrait.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/9/2008

Incidents in Color

At Load of Fun through Jan. 11; closing reception 5-9 p.m. Jan. 11

"Visionary" art is far too often a crock of hooey--not the work itself, the very term. Take a quick gander at the words frequently associated with it: "outsider," "folk art," "untrained," "self-taught," "naive," and so on. Yes, this vocabulary aims to separate the so-called visionary work from the more institutional tradition of art-school training and mainstream art-history aesthetics, but way too often these delineating qualifications sound condescending--as if what you see is the best the so-called visionary artist could do given his or her mental faculties or cultural sophistication.

So resist the urge to ghettoize the work on view in Incidents in Color as visionary. The 58 items come from students at the Providence Art Institute in Millersville--part of the Anne Arundel County-based Providence Center that provides services to help people with cognitive disabilities lead more independent lives. The included artists come from the classes of institute art manager Bart O'Reilly, a 32-year-old artist and Dublin native who has lived in the United States for four years, currently in Baltimore with his wife.

"We have about 160 students that participate at different times of the week," O'Reilly says. He is instantly affable, his conversational voice only betraying a slight Dublin accent. "The center has about five different buildings all over Anne Arundel County, and they come for regular classes during the fall, spring, and winter, and during the summer they do special workshop classes."

O'Reilly brings in visiting artists to lead Friday classes for a month. "The visiting artists are usually specialists in one area--sculptors do sculpture classes, a printer does printmaking," he says. "So the students learn new media and techniques."

Incidents in Color showcases those techniques--and the students' wide array of ideas. Spread around Load of Fun's ample first-floor gallery, the show is loosely divvied up into sections--patterns against one wall, mosaics on another, silhouettes against the front wall--though such headings are more suggestions than stiff taxonomies. Color's works mirthfully defy being pigeonholed.

In some, watercolor washes bleed into amorphous landscapes. In others, meticulously detailed script becomes a squiggly road map of red, blue, green, and orange lines as if an imaginary highway map to some densely paved countryside. In another, fabric polygons become a stained glass-like composition.

The only element truly tying the works together is the lively, almost drunkenly joyous use of color. There is no fear of brightness; nobody is gun-shy of hot color-keyed fluorescents or pink and purple hues. If they look good next to each other, so be it--who cares about the suggestions of color complements?

"The title came to me after working with them for so long," says O'Reilly, who's been with the Institute for a year now. "When I first came to work with them I had all these ideas that I wanted to do and lessons. And then I realized that they have their own way of working and they're very interested in color. And the reason I called it Incidents is because everything is kind of this once-off little engagement with something, and then they stop and move on to the next project. It came from looking at their work more than me having a concept."

And that's where interpretive bias and condescension starts to rear their familiar heads. To call the works in Color nonrepresentational, nonidiomatic, or any such other descriptive arrows from the standard critical quiver is missing the point. You don't have to don kid gloves to talk about the work nor forgive the artist of his or her mental state to appreciate it: What's to like and not like is, as with any other piece of art, hanging on the wall in front of you. You just have to look and see if you respond. And it's hard not to respond to the series of silhouettes against the front wall. For these large-scale works, O'Reilly asked the student artists what color they'd like for the background of the piece, painted it, and then traced his or her silhouette against it. They were each allowed to complete the piece however he or she saw fit. Some squiggled irregular shapes and drips inside their bodies. Another saw concentric shapes to chase inside. Another wanted to put a little white monkeylike creature right up where his brain would normally sit. Each turns into this fascinatingly nuanced image that feels like a personality portrait. If they're not something you'd hang over the sofa in the living room or behind the front desk at the office building, well, that's OK--just don't blame the creators for not conforming to your ideas of art. H

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