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Water Works

AVAM Floods its Space With This Year’s Themed Show

Vixen of the Sea: Nancy Josephson's garishly gorgeous shrine to the Vodou goddess La Siren presides over this year's AVAM show.

By J. Bowers | Posted 10/6/2004

At the American Visionary Art Museum through September 2005

All of us were conceived in it, some of us were baptized in it, 12 million people a year die as a result of disasters involving it, and here in beautiful harborside Baltimore, we have a whole hell of a lot of it. We’re talking about water, and so are the folks at the American Visionary Art Museum, as they roll out their 11th annual megaexhibit, Holy H20: Fluid Universe. As always, AVAM has cobbled together a wildly varied, frighteningly imaginative, downright inspirational mass interpretation of its chosen theme, featuring more than 150 works by an international cast of 40 self-taught artists. And despite an ambitious expansion plan that finds AVAM in flux—the first-floor gallery is being converted to accommodate an expanded gift shop, since the museum will gain extra exhibition space with the addition of the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, slated to open in November—confining Holy H20 to the second-floor gallery doesn’t weaken its eye-popping aesthetic.

Of course, it’s hard for an exhibit to be anything but eye-popping when it combines wooden automata, giant fish made out of bottle caps, and a turquoise-draped altar room to the vodou mermaid goddess La Siren, encrusted with 10 pounds of glitter, 100 pounds of beads, and more sequins than a Vegas showgirl. Heavily influenced by her spiritual path as a vodou initiate, Nancy Josephson’s garishly gorgeous installation takes stylistic cues from drapo vodou, the sacred spirit flags of Haiti, created to evoke and honor the vodou gods. Josephson shares her section of the exhibit space with her personal collection of flags, hand-beaded by Gerard Fortune, Eviland Lelanne, Roland Rockville, and other Haitian notables, but viewers will find it difficult to tear their eyes away from her own shimmering life-sized statue of La Siren, who holds court over an assemblage of seashells, Christmas tree lights, garden gazing balls, wine bottles, Mexican votive candles, plastic Virgin Mary figurines, and other offerings. She stands atop a glittering fountain, edged with Scrabble tiles that spell out the phrase wishing you well, with water trickling through the stigmata on her golden beaded hands, and the overall effect is stunningly spiritual. Josephson’s commitment to her belief transforms her gaudy materials into a quiet, meditative place to sit for a spell.

Chicago-born artist Mr. Imagination (Gregory Warmack) is similarly drawn to shiny materials. His fish sculptures, layered with bottle-cap scales, are presented in a fish-tank atmosphere, hovering above a similarly fashioned self-portrait of the artist asûa lizard. Mr. Imagination has made centaur, deer, and other animal self-portraits in the past, but the negative associations attached to lizards make this piece particularly intriguing, and the show-case-as-fish tank is the perfect accompaniment to his work.

Meanwhile, Scottish mixed-media sculptor Tom Duncan explores water’s playful and painful connotations in equal measure, through large, obsessively detailed automated dioramas that invite visitor participation. Duncan pays tribute to one of America’s favorite seaside resorts with “Dedicated to Coney Island,” a fantastic wonderland of figurines, metal Ferris wheels, and flashing lights that comes complete with a ketchup-red-and-mustard-yellow-striped antique dentist’s chair, and a control panel’s worth of buttons just begging to be pressed. One, labeled emergency energizes a wobbling hot-air balloon, wired to a figurine of a guardian angel that races to rescue some passengers in peril. Another activates the burning bra ride, whatever that is. And the entire diorama is stuffed with visual jokes and unexpected surprises. Giant rubber roaches creep beneath the boardwalk, and bizarre characters tan themselves on the beach. It’s a model train lover’s wet dream. In sharp contrast, Duncan’s “The Slave Ship” is a dark, sobering vision. Cast upon a sea of faux leopard fur, and bearing hundreds of figurines that represent the loss of African cultural identity, discrimination, and other long-term aftereffects of the transatlantic slave trade, Duncan’s ship hides a hypnotically undulating coffin, attached to the bottom of the hold with rusty chains and visible via a mirror.

As with other AVAM megaexhibits, a few of the pieces on offer in Holy H20 require viewers to tilt their heads and squint just so to make everything fit into the overarching theme. Visionary up-and-comer Matt Sesow—who lost his dominant hand at the age of 8 following an accident on an airplane landing strip—is a master of angular lines and jarring color, but the three works on display here seem more influenced by Sesow’s personal thoughts than his reaction to water. And the portion of the gallery devoted to maritime culture is less engrossing than the half that concentrates on water’s spiritual and fantastical connotations. But overall, it’s hard to knock AVAM’s ability to bridge the gap between artist and audience, personality and product, and trash and treasure, year in and year out. You might never soak your contacts, skinny dip, flush the toilet, or scuba dive the same way again.

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