Raw and Wonderful

Menil gives meaning to outsider art

Outsider art -- held up as a model of raw expression, passionate integrity, uncurbed innovation and psychic intensity -- is enjoying a high profile these days. Loosely covering schizophrenics, compulsive "mediums" and untutored artists, it is now a legitimate category that includes curators, scholars and collectors; books and magazines; exhibitions; annual fairs; and even a museum in Baltimore. But who exactly qualifies as an outsider? The insane, the visionary, the quirky, anyone working outside the art world and the social mainstream? And what about "self-taught"? Does it simply refer to the unschooled, to anyone who rejects aesthetic conventions, or to anyone who attempts to invent a visual vocabulary from scratch? Moreover, arts professionals find the terms "primitive," "folk" and "naive" to be frustratingly imprecise.

Folk art refers to works that spring from folk traditions -- things that are passed down through religion, family or the community. Yet much art unrelated to the mainstream comes from deeply personal visions that have little or nothing to do with folk traditions. The term "primitive" can be condescending, and "naive" promotes visions of a quaint and rural past. We come to it to be tickled and charmed, not to be challenged.

Yet anyone looking to "In and Out: Naive, Folk and Self-Taught Artists from the Collection" for easy reassurances should look elsewhere. Touring the galleries at the Menil, which bring together over 120 works, spanning five centuries, reveals why the material is so hard to pin down. It is -- figuratively and literally -- all over the map, by turns improvisatory, naive, primitive, surreal and raw. The show manages to encompass a wide range of sensibilities -- European and American, vocational trade and Sunday hobby, painterly and draftsmanly, decorative and expressive -- and to keep individual achievements very much to the fore.

"In and Out" may not help clarify confusing blanket definitions, but at least it doesn't use them to obscure the distinctions among artists themselves. The aesthetic sense that asserts itself is inevitably complicated, given the breadth of the artists' individual dispositions and backgrounds. For folk art tells us there are no "foreigners." The colors and materials may vary, but their spirits and aspirations are interwoven into one incredibly rich humanity. Significantly, the show represents an affirmation of belief that the world is full of majesty and mystery and is worthy of scrutiny.

Looking at the paintings, sculptures and drawings by these wonderful artists is to sense the presence of minds that are wired in a different way. Here and there, you may even feel yourself approaching the borderline between ordinary consciousness and that wild never-never land of the outsider psyche. There exists in the best of them a passionate and thoughtful density that deserves to be seen, preserved and passed down to future generations. Its legacy is this: Human ingenuity and imagination know no bounds, styles or special training. The title "In and Out" suggests art made from the inside-out, thereby appealing to the romantic impulse -- and also acting as an art that is direct, intense, content-laden and formally inventive. But "In and Out" also acts as a kind of hinge phrase, symbolically swinging open and shut within an honest and very human form of expression.

The show reminds us that only once in a while does one come across a collection that is an original accomplishment. It is more than a mere assemblage of things and represents much more than an investment of time and money. It is the product of an individual mind, a personal vision and a hard-won set of selective principles. It represents many journeys of the spirit and serves as a means of widening knowledge.

Up until her death last January, Dominique de Menil remained absolutely committed to the ideal of art as art, of a museum whose discretion and neutrality would elucidate the connoisseurship it contained. The collection grew from a personally felt passion -- that is, she and her late husband John de Menil bought only what they loved. The Menils viewed art on a wide intellectual scale and had a genius for imaginative, often surprising combinations. Although "In and Out" features works not generally associated with the Menil Collection, the selections reflects the whim and broad curiosity of the de Menils. It's no secret that outsider art has become a recurring reference point for modern artists.

Over 80 years ago, Paul Klee extolled the art of the insane and children's art as key sources of inspiration. The Surrealists jumped on the bandwagon in the '20s -- Max Ernst was deeply interested in the strange, the obsessive and in madness. But Dominique de Menil also purchased objects that fascinated her for their beauty, curiosity, historical interest and for their sheer delight. Early on, she came under the influence of curator Jermayne MacAgy, whose tastes also leaned toward the Surrealists and the fantastic. Through her magical installations and surprising juxtapositions, MacAgy evoked strong links between the Menil Collection as a whole and its many unusual pockets.

That same MacAgy spell captivates viewers upon entering the exhibition, which begins with lyrical combinations of weathervanes and shop signs of the 17th through 20th centuries from both America and Europe. Carved of wood, cut out of sheet metal or cast in iron by local carvers and smiths, most of whom made trade signs as well, the designs required an emphasis on overall pattern, thereby enhancing the characteristics of the profiled creatures -- typically those from farms or the sea.

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