People's Art

The art world has always been a rather elitist one: The critics' vocabulary is so specialized, and the collectors' checks are so large. Agents always appear to be on the hunt for the next great discovery. Well, for the 20th century, those provocateurs of art have found their catch: the self-taught artist. Blunt, crude, at other times called "primitive" and "folk," the artists who appear in "Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the Twentieth Century," a traveling exhibition featuring more than 150 works by 39 artists, have responded through their art to very real crises in their own lives and the culture that surrounds them, and have not, like their classically trained, passe counterparts, reacted solely to theoretical concerns or movements taught by the academy.

Yes, these self-taught artists are part of the people, the proletariat, if you like, but they aren't just anybody. The biographies that make up their lives are as rich and fascinating as the materials and textures they employ. When you first walk into the gallery, you will be struck by the incredible wealth and diversity of styles: from the minute and meticulous sculpted glass churches of Vanzant Driver, a man who dedicated his art to God after he regained use of his crushed right hand, to the colorful, carved wood animals of Isaac Smith, a man who finds his material along the roadside, which he brings home, saws, chips and shaves. His Statue of Liberty is a stern and impressive, small blue wooden creature carrying a black torch with a fiery red end.

Many of the artists in this exhibition worked for only a limited time. Eddie Arning produced his brilliantly colorful drawings while confined in a nursing home. As soon as he was released from the home, he stopped drawing. Henry Ray Clarke, a native Houstonian, creates his drawings only while he is incarcerated. A habitual offender, he says of his time in prison, "I didn't really have nothing else, but I didn't know I could draw.... When I picked up that pencil, my hand just started going crazy." Clarke draws intricate and hypnotic patterns with pens and pencils, the simple tools he can find in a prison environment. His canvases are usually manila envelopes, prison forms and the backs of letters. Like many of the self-taught artists, Clark feels his talent is divinely inspired. "I truly believe God helps me draw those pictures. I know I don't know anything about art. I feel like something or someone is guiding my hand for me."

No, these artists are not the career artists with their own studios, agents and fax machines. The self-taught artist works on the fringes. But, as is not uncommon these days, the marginalized have been co-opted, and some would say exploited, by the establishment. Then again, some don't fare so poorly. One of the artists in the exhibition is Willard Watson, a.k.a. the "Texas Kid," who appeared in Jonathan Demme's film Something Wild and in Democratic party functions, and was featured, or rather, whose art yard was featured, in David Byrne's 1986 flick True Stories.

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But self-taught artists, whether exploited or not, are not a new phenomenon. The French artist Dubuffet popularized crude, "brutal" art, or l'art brut, in the 19th century by frequenting mental-health institutions, surveying the inmates' art production and culling ideas for his own work. Together with Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist who saved a lot of similar art from institutions, they made "outsider art" chic and cool. And the Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, has done its best, too, to present the art in an appealing space where the lighting is strong and bright and the neutral white walls act as an effective backdrop.

Yet, the cohesion and coherence of such disparate artists: sculptors and painters, naive and complex, begs the question as to whether we should be labeling these artists as anything other than artists -- Texas artists, if you prefer. You don't go to a bookstore and look for the section with self-taught writers. These artists are, or were (some are deceased), obviously talented. A lot of them do admit that they never thought of themselves as artists. The label "self- taught" makes you think, "Look, these artists weren't even taught anything, didn't they do well." It's too condescending. All of them are in their own way brilliant, and their journey of imagination and creation is indeed "spirited." Each one of the artists has had a vision and had the courage to follow and document that vision.

In some cases, though, that vision could not be installed in a gallery. I am thinking of John Milkovisch's Beer Can House, of which you can see photographs at the gallery. Milkovisch, who lived in Houston's west end neighborhood, covered his wooden bungalow with beer cans. He had been collecting them for 17 years; he liked to drink the stuff. A lot of it. The house is a daunting, but impressive sight. The author F.L. Lucas once wrote, "Human temperaments are too diverse; we can never agree how drunk we like our art to be." In this case, he was dead right.

Whether self-taught art becomes the jaded darling of the art world remains to be seen. Even if "the powers that be" decide self-taught art is not the thing for the next century, the practitioners of "outsider art," who do not seek fame or fortune, will still be around, and there is something more permanent about their ethics and the nature of their work. In the words of Henry Ray Clarke, "As long as my mind can create something beautiful to look at, I am a free man, and I will live forever in my art."

"Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the Twentieth Century" is on view at the Blaffer Gallery through October 11. Located at the University of Houston, entrance 16 off Cullen Boulevard. 743-9530. Free.

Related exhibition: "In and Out: Naive, Folk and Self-Taught Artists from the Collection" at the Menil Collection through October 11. [For the review, see "Raw and Wonderful," by Susie Kalil, August 6.]

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