Brand of Outsiders
AVAM tackles freedom with its usual big heart and wide berth
The signature image for the current year-long exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum, the icon for all its publicity, is a human-scaled Statue of Liberty constructed from Louisiana driftwood. It's an apt representative for a show called Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and the notion that the untrained artist, Adam Morales, who collected his materials during boat rides through the Atchafalaya Swamp, suits the museum's romanticization of the outsider artist.
But it's not Morales' biography that makes his Statue of Liberty so memorable; it's the visual power of the piece itself. For this isn't a case of unusual materials assembled to create a passing resemblance; this is a sculpture that seems to vibrate with motion and personality. The gray pieces of driftwood have been carefully selected and screwed tightly together so their curves suggest the rippling folds in Lady Liberty's toga and the swirling flame in her torch. Her heavily browed eyes seem wary of resistance to her open-border policy. Every piece of wood looks carefully chosen.
"I don't stick just any piece in there," Morales explained at the exhibit's media preview. "I've got so many body parts in my backyard I could fill up a football field. I have driftwood that looks like necks, arms, legs. I can see images in the driftwood, so I know which ones to bring home. If I find a tree knot that's been hollowed out like an ice cream cone, for example, I know that's a torch. When I need an arm, I'll fill up a wheelbarrow with possible pieces, bring it out to the sculpture and see if one will fit. If not, I'll go back and refill the wheelbarrow with more pieces until I find one that fits just right."
There's a temptation to exempt the outsider artists that AVAM showcases from the usual aesthetic judgments that we make in other museums--as if they could never live up to such standards or as if they transcend such considerations in some mystic fashion. Such a patronizing attitude slights the genuine achievement of someone like Morales--or some of his fellow artists in the show: Purvis Young, Thornton Dial, Danny Hoskinson, and others.
It also lets the show's weaker artists off the hook. Pursuit of Happiness, like all its predecessors, has its share of clunkers, weak works by artists who appear to have been included more for their biography than for their art. It's impossible to appreciate the true triumphs of outsider art until one can recognize and dismiss its failures. And this show is a mix of the brilliant, bizarre, and boring.
Among the boring are the small, undistinguished watercolors by Clifford Odets and Andrew Romanoff, which feel included only because one was a famous playwright and the other the grandnephew of Czar Nicholas II. There were also derivative surrealist paintings by Saddam Hussein's personal physician, Ala Bashir. These were depressing examples of the museum's tendency toward celebrity worship.
Like many contemporary art shows, the AVAM exhibit seems to have included several artists more for their concept than for their finished art. Richard McMahan, for example, had the idea of reducing the greatest art works in world history to meticulous miniatures and hanging them in his tiny museum galleries. Intriguing, yes, but the results are no more compelling than most dollhouses.
But these weak links are overwhelmed by the show's high points. The four large paintings by Purvis Young are some of the most powerful art works AVAM has ever displayed. Young, a self-taught artist from the Liberty City area of Miami, is one of the most collectible outsider artists alive, and for good reason, for he is a genius with paint, no matter how unconventional his background or technique.
"The Struggle" seems to depict the 1980 Miami riots with an anguished face in the foreground, burning buildings in the background, and wriggling silhouettes spilling over onto the frame. A definitive visual rhythm ties the different elements together as if all the rioters were moving to the same music. Even better is "Carrying the Locks," a Matisse-like painting of six shirtless men in fauvist colors dancing with giant locks held over their heads. The contours of the willow-like figures echo each other so rhythmically that one can almost hear the music as they try to boogaloo their way out of oppression.
Alabama's Thornton Dial creates large, two-and-a-half-dimensional works with swirling dark colors layered over both the canvas and the found objects that lift off from the background. He uses this format to suggest wild animals or poor people trying to break through a dark chaotic world. Happiness includes two major Dial works--one of a shadowy Adam and Eve lost amid red-white-and-blue Christmas trees and one of skinny, striped orange-and-pink tigers frolicking in black-and-white foliage.
Young and Dial are well known, but the show, curated by Roger Manley, also introduces lesser known artists. Dick Lubinsky would have remained unknown forever if someone hadn't discovered his small paintings amid his rat-pack detritus in his New York apartment after he died, but the salvaged pictures look like classics of the Ash Can School. The late Danny Hoskinson invented his own art form by melting PVC buckets with a blow torch and shaping them into gargoyles, painted with faces, lit from the inside and stacked into totem poles. The strangeness of his technique, though, was ultimately less important than the pure id in the faces he created.
Perhaps the most bizarre of many bizarre things were the two walls taken up by the meticulous illustrations of Renaldo Kuhler. Kuhler was 17 when his family moved from upstate New York to rural Colorado in 1948. A few years later Kuhler rebelled against the conformity of the '50s in general and the culture-deprived emptiness of his valley by creating his own imagined world: Rocaterrania, a small principality on the St. Lawrence River between Canada and the United States.
He made painstakingly precise, hand-colored drawings of the Rocaterranians--both celebrities and common folk, both balding tailors and gorgeous young women--their architecture (both the sewage plant and the opera house), their religion, their politics, their film industry and their peculiar Cyrillic alphabet. Each individual picture, usually a torn-out notebook page, is interesting, but the impact accumulates as one examines the dozens of drawings.
An entire world does materialize, one that yields more and more details the longer one lingers. While Kuhler was under his parents' control, for example, Rocaterrania was ruled by a corrupt monarchy reminiscent of the Czars. When he left home to go to college, eventually becoming an illustrator at a North Carolina science museum, Rocaterrania experienced two revolutions and a flowering of democracy and the arts.
"I wanted to be a city boy, not a cowboy," Kuhler explained at the media preview. "I wanted to get away from the boredom of ranch life; I wanted to be around culture, but there wasn't any culture around. So I created my own."
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