Raw and Wonderful

Menil gives meaning to outsider art

There's a terrific dragon weathervane of embossed tin from France with carefully articulated wings, claws and coiled tail, in addition to an elegant peacock of wrought iron with delicate beak and fully stylized plumes. Conversely, the crude fish weathervane from Maine is covered with mica chips to simulate shiny scales. Among the dozen or so shop signs is a cagelike wire bodice that hung outside a 19th-century corset shop, a French blacksmith sign incorporating various types of horseshoes, as well as a giant wishbone and an oversized pair of wooden scissors.

The earliest works in the exhibition illustrate marvelous imaginations at work in pieces by European craftsmen, including a 14th15th-century iron chain installed vertically from ceiling to floor; a group of votive figures; an iron image of St. Elroy, the patron saint of blacksmiths; and a latch in human form. To be sure, there is nothing "folksy" about this show. The works are spread out across expanses of white wall and accompanied by a minimum of information -- a strategy that emphasizes the works' formal properties and downplays the motives behind their creation.

The exhibition continues with a selection of paintings by Andre Bauchant (18731958), a horticulturalist and nurseryman from Tours whose delicate compositions of landscapes and flowers display an obsession with mythological and spiritual subjects. In The Fifth Day of Creation, God appears as a gentle, white-haired figure robed in blue and carmine tunics. His arms are outstretched to flocks of exotic birds swarming in the trees and skies, with schools of fish plying the waters below.

An unusual Horace Pippin Crucifixion painting reminds us of the dense, vivid fabric the artist wove of religion, historical myth and popular culture. Here, Christ is portrayed with dark beard and chest hair clumped into a "V" formation of staccato strokes. Blood flows from his wounds and along the sides of pink flesh in neatly rendered rivulets of paint.

Overall, the design of "In and Out" functions as a progressive visual exercise in connections. The strong sculptural quality of three circus-wagon figures, once lavishly gilded, seduced prospective audiences by advertising the romantic adventures offered by Barnum and Bailey. Similarly, the magnificent cigar-store sculpture of a black man in stovepipe hat and red-white-and-blue checkered pants is compelling in its unrestrained exuberance and faithful, solitary stance. Another unknown artist obsessively collaged thousands of cigar bands to make a folding screen of intricate floral and geometric design.

Increasingly -- and this is where the show begins to raise questions about the premise of self-taught or outsider art -- one is struck by a radiant force of will, a palpable sense of courage and compulsivity. Each artist has a mission. Each one has a message. The best examples are eerily hermetic, conjuring autonomous, secret worlds.

Take the German-born C.A.A. Dellschau (18301923), whose aeronautical notebooks contain highly detailed collages and watercolor drawings of elaborate flying machines. Filled with a sort of private symbology of images, codes and encrypted writing, the fragile works describe magnificent "aeros," which look like hybrids of sailing ships, dirigibles and balloons from the fantastic world of Jules Verne or the land of Oz. Dellschau moved to Houston, retired in 1890 from his saddlery job and began constructing large-format scrapbooks and writing "diaries" of the activities of the Sonora Aero Club. For more than 20 years, Dellschau labored carefully, using clipped and collaged news articles, pencils, compass, gouache and watercolors on layers of butcher paper, sacks and newsprint to reproduce the innovative airships of club members.

As artists like Dellschau are identified and we come to know more about them, we are enlightened by the incredible degree of personal vision their works emote. Theirs is not a struggle to merely achieve a creative act through painting, drawing or sculpting; rather, theirs is a genuine reflection of the innermost soul through fears, phobias, loves and obsessions. It is as if art has connected them to the very nerve of their universe by becoming the sole conduit of their messages, their visions. Not all of these messages are comfortable. Sex, violence, religion and politics are as readily depicted and intensely probed as are stylized renditions of animals, landscapes or the human figure. And it is this intensity, this lack of concern for conventions that delivers an honesty in expression that can shock one moment and infiltrate a sense of being the next.

Henry Darger (18921973), the subject of a major retrospective last year, was a janitor who secretly created mural-sized watercolors, pencil drawings and collages. He made them in sweet children's picture-book style, showing sadistic mayhem as little girls equipped with penises battle murderous soldiers.

Felipe Archuleta's unforgettably fierce carved menagerie uses raw, graphic qualities to capture the essence of the animal world. His Lion, for example, evokes a beast that is both innocent and pure as well as bestial and terrifying.

To be sure, the struggle over categories loses its urgency in the presence of images such as Joseph Yoakum's writhing, organic landscape, which possesses the quality of a dream, or the dynamic, silhouetted images of animals and people by Bill Traylor, or the mirrored construction of Howard Finster, which incorporates tiny dolls, plastic beads and painted angels along with Bible quotations and apocalyptic sermons. Some artists say they were called to make art by visionary apparitions or mysterious voices. Others, those diagnosed as psychotic, experienced fantasies, paranoid beliefs and hallucinations as more real than ordinary reality and became unable to function in mainstream society.

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