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Democracy Now

At Its Strongest, AVAM's Latest Mega-Theme Show Celebrates Art by The People, For The People

AVAM/Sloan T. Howard
Dalton Ghetti's Alphabet.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/5/2008

The Marriage of Art, Science and Philosophy

The American Visionary Art Museum through Sept. 6, 2009

Suppose you're a sculptor and you realize that the best medium for your work is the thin cylinder of graphite that runs through No. 2 pencils. If so, you've got problems. The mainstream art world will shrug you off as a joke. Your sculptures may be good or they may be bad, but it won't matter. The academics will sniff, the hipsters will sneer, and the guardians of the gates will lock you out.

Dalton Ghetti is such a sculptor, and he has found the one corner of the art world where the weird and uncredentialed can get the wall space they deserve. On the second floor of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, more than 50 of Ghetti's tiny works sit in Plexiglas boxes. Black-framed magnifying glasses hang nearby for museumgoers actually to see the details of the giraffe, the cathedral, the broom, and the Elvis Presley carved into the skinny graphite still embedded in the original pencils.

Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum's founder and the curator of its new show, The Marriage of Art, Science and Philosophy, explains that she first heard of Ghetti in this same gallery. "This woman had come to see the museum from the Eastern Shore with her father," she says, her wavy red hair cascading over her black brocade jacket. "And she was surprised that this kind of art could be in a museum. She told me, 'You should see the work of my ex-husband.' It's so rare that you hear someone speak warmly of their ex-spouse that I was immediately intrigued. We get submissions all the time from people who think their art should be in the museum, and most of it isn't very good. But when I saw Dalton's work, I knew it belonged here."

The 47-year-old Ghetti, a Brazilian native now living in Bridgeport, Conn., was in Baltimore for the show's opening weekend. "I carve very small things, because most people don't look at those things," he said. "This is my way of drawing attention to them. People look at my sculptures and then they look again, more closely, and they say, 'Oh, there's something in there.' We're a fast-paced society, and people don't have time to stop and reflect--it's all go, go, go. Hopefully these pieces make them stop and realize there is beauty in small things."

Ghetti exemplifies the best aspect of AVAM's 14th "mega-show," as the museum describes it--the application of radical democracy to the visual arts. As in all the museum's shows, it doesn't matter what your background is, what your materials are, what your subjects are, as long as you can make us see the world in a new way. Some of the show's pieces are more successful than others, and the batting average is a little lower here than in the museum's best shows--most notably Holy H2O, War and Peace, and Tree of Life--but there is always the refreshing disregard of conventions and preconceptions as the artists go for the jolt of surprise.

The theme of the new show is the way science influences art and vice versa. There are dangling sculptures of celestial bodies, colored-ink drawings of sci-fi battles, quilts based on fractal equations, and solar-powered sculptures. Hoffberger, as is her wont, has had quotes from famous philosophers and scientists painted on the walls. That's mere window-dressing, however. While some of the work fits the purported theme, some of the most memorable pieces don't. Democracy is the show's true theme.

For example, Frank Calloway's vivid crayon and pen drawings of trucks, trains, houses, and animals from early-20th-century Alabama on long strips of butcher paper are quite striking, but they don't have much to do with science or philosophy, even if the artist has scribbled multiplication tables in the margins. Calloway, who has spent exactly half of his 112 years in Alabama mental facilities, took his first-ever airplane trip to attend the show's opening weekend.

"I've done all kinds of work," Calloway said, hunched over in a dark-blue suit in a wheelchair. "Lifting rails for the railroad, mixing mortar for brick masons, driving animals in trucks. Now I make these pictures about those things because I can. I have to have big pieces of paper to get it all in."

"I'm the one who started saving them," added Nedra Moncrief-Craig, director of Calloway's current facility in Tuscaloosa. "They had been throwing them out, but I thought they were beautiful. And when he tells stories about them, the pictures really come to life. All his pictures are from the olden days. He had never seen the ocean, so we took him to the Gulf, and he saw all these modern boats. But when he came home, he drew this picture of an old-fashioned paddleboat. When he took his first airplane trip for this show, he said the plane was just like a house inside."

Contrary to the popular misconception, however, not all of AVAM's artists are mental patients, prisoners, or aging recluses. Ghetti, for example, remodels houses in Connecticut. Michigan's Chris Roberts-Antieau, who has 15 of the best pieces in the new show, first showed her work locally not at AVAM but at the American Craft Council show at the Baltimore Convention Center. Her appliqué fabric pieces do fit in the craft world, but they are so strikingly original in their humor, exaggerated shapes, and dark colors that they are also remarkable pieces of art. You can't imagine them at the Baltimore Museum of Art, but they seem right at home at AVAM.

David Aaron Russo, who has two sculptures and five works on paper or graphite in the show, is a TV producer in Los Angeles. He's not a conventional artist, but he's not a damaged victim either. His pieces all work mazes into the design, and he flew into Baltimore the week before the opening and worked from midnight to 8 in the morning to paint a yellow-and-black maze on one of the gallery's curved walls.

"I'm a big game person," he said. "And I create game shows for television. In my research, I discovered that mazes and labyrinths are the oldest games in the world. But they're more than puzzles--they represent our journey through life. As such, they work well in art. It's a challenge when you look at any piece of art, but when you discover there's a puzzle to be solved and a metaphor about life, it adds a whole new dimension. When you look at a piece of mine, it's not complete until you try to solve it."

The most appealing piece in the show is Seth Goldstein's "Cram Guy," a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that shows a man at his desk trying to study a text. His tiny white brain in his transparent plastic skull flashes on and off as his red-laser eyes scan the page and his white-glove fingers drum on the desktop. From the cat chasing a computer mouse to the caffeinated Coke flowing through a tube to the man's mouth, the piece is full of sharp satire on American cubicle culture. Here is proof that humor can produce insights as effectively as beauty or shock.

"This piece was a reaction to working as a biomedical engineer at NIH for 30 years," said Goldstein, a short, wiry man from Bethesda. "When I retired, I wanted to use my engineering skills to do something fun, to do something for someone else who may or may not use it. The difference between being a scientist and an artist is the latter is released from all restraints. I'm my own boss, and I'm working to make myself feel good. When a piece works, I'm exultant."

If a Connecticut carpenter can make sculptures out of graphite, if an Alabama mental patient can make tableaux out of wrapping paper, if a Michigan seamstress can make tapestries out of cloth scraps, if a Los Angeles producer can make urns out of mazes, if a Montgomery County engineer can make kinetic sculpture out of Home Depot purchases, if each of them can allow us to perceive the world from a new perspective, if these unlikely suspects can make transformative art, how can any of us admit to any limitations?

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