Lost in Space
Horror vacui — "fear of space" — rules the day in "Seeing Stars: Visionary Drawing from the Collection" at The Menil Collection, with practically every millimeter of space covered in a number of amazingly obsessive works. Visionary artists, also referred to as "intuitive," "outsider" or "naive," are generally people without formal training, pursuing highly personal art independent of the art world, sometimes from within the confines of a mental or penal institution. In a gallery painted a rich, nocturnal blue, curator Michelle White showcases this rarely shown segment of the Menil's collection, one which complements the museum's Surrealist focus.
Swiss psychiatric patient Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) is the poster child for visionary art as well as for "fear of space" drawings. His fantastical works, densely packed with abstracted images, patterns and mandala-like forms, impressed and influenced the likes of André Breton. Breton and other surrealists were drawn to visionary artists, seeing them as having a direct line to the subconscious — a kind of "noble savage" romanticizing often applied to visionary artists, especially those with psychiatric issues. It's simultaneously glorifying and patronizing, acknowledging the power of visionary artists' work while implying that it simply fell out from some cerebral storage cabinet the artists accidentally unlocked.
Born in 1864 in Bern, Switzerland, Adolf Wölfli was orphaned at age ten and sent to live in a series of rural foster homes where he was physically, emotionally and, some sources say, sexually abused. He became an itinerant farm laborer at 16 and briefly served in the military, until he was convicted of attempted child molestation and imprisoned. After he served his sentence and was released, he molested a three-year-old girl and was sent to Waldau Asylum, where he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic.
Wölfli, described as disturbed and sometimes violent, was kept in isolation early on. At some point, at the urging of his psychiatrist Walther Morgenthale, he began to draw. The earliest known drawings are from around four years into his stay. It's said that he became calm when he drew, decorating his solitary room with his images and creating more than 25,000 pages of drawings in addition to writing texts and composing music.
Part of Wölfli's body of work is a grandiose rewriting of his biography, which, given even the bare-bones facts of his childhood, seems like it would have been pretty appealing. His drawings are amazing, with rich color and incredible detail, in some ways reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts. There is something monastic about Wölfli's largely solitary life as he sat in communion with pen and paper. Maybe the act of making tiny obsessive marks is somehow therapeutic to someone with Wölfli's diagnosis, I don't know. But to me, using those marks to create such gorgeous, rich and skillful images seems to be about Wölfli as an individual and an artist, rather than as a patient.
Wölfli's circumstances, however tragic, did inadvertently give him the time and the encouragement to make art, something that probably wouldn't have happened had he been less disturbed and able to continue working as a farm laborer or soldier.
Finding himself with time on his hands didn't hurt Henry Ray Clark's art either. Clark, a Texan who called himself "The Magnificent Pretty Boy," started making art while in prison. He wound up in Huntville in 1977 on an assault-with-deadly-weapon charge. He signed up for an art class and started drawing in colored ballpoint pen on any scrap of paper he could get his hands on, preferably manila envelopes. There is something beautiful about shutting out the world and quietly and obsessively creating images from your imagination. Clark drew clocks and figures; he drew the planets he said he visited in a spaceship in his dreams. Art and dreaming — tools to engineer a temporary escape from state prison.
Clark's work was included in a 1989 prison art show; former Houston artist William Steen saw it and became Clark's agent. Finding an enthusiastic reception in the wider world, Clark's work was shown at Hirschl & Adler in New York and in other galleries and traveling exhibitions. It's in the Smithsonian collection. In 2006, Clark was out of prison, living in Houston and anticipating a show at the Galveston Art Center when he was shot in the stomach by intruders into his apartment. He slipped into a coma and died at Ben Taub.
Not much is known about Charles A.A. Dellschau, but his work is stunning and has the same sort of largely symmetrical, pattern-filled aesthetic as Wölfli's and Clark's. He created images of zeppelin-like crafts and elaborate flight machines. I'm leaning on fallible Wikipedia for most of this info, but according to them, Dellschau was born in Prussia in 1830 but later came to Houston, where he worked as a butcher and lived in an attic apartment. He retired in 1899 and apparently began drawing. His work was tossed out after his death at the age of 92. Fred Washington, a Houston junk dealer, found a pile of his books at the landfill and took it to his shop, where it wound up under a pile of old carpeting. Enter University of St. Thomas student Mary Jane Victor, who asked Washington to lend the work to "Flight," an exhibition the university was organizing. Dominique de Menil saw the work and was so impressed she bought some of the books.
Dellschau's drawings, which sometimes incorporated newspaper clippings about flight, are thought to be a history of a secret flight society of Dellschau's imagining. The images and their narrative are incredibly inventive, and it makes you wonder how many other people out there have this kind of talent inside them but will never have the time or the opportunity to get it out. What about that guy who's always on duty at the quick stop, the 60-year-old waitress bringing you coffee, the person sacking your groceries? We live in a day and age when arts education is widely cut and often treated as some frivolous excess. This show is a reminder that the amazing is present in the seemingly ordinary — and in the reviled.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events