Raw and Wonderful

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.

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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.

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.

"In and Out" concludes with works by Texas self-taught artists Frank Jones, Henry Ray Clark (a.k.a. "The Magnificent Pretty Boy") and Ike Morgan. Each produced or continues to make art during incarceration -- Jones and Clark at various times in the Texas prison system, and Morgan in the Austin State Hospital, where he copes with debilitating schizophrenia. Clark's incredibly intricate, densely patterned drawings are composed of converging diagonals or a succession of expanding rings and webs, mazes and mandalas. In the center of this basic structure he creates a compressed universe featuring faces, eyes, stars and snakes entwined with captions that moralize (Drugs Over the World) and instruct (Only My Eyes Can See the Future of Your World). Some are too cryptic to make sense of, yet they seem based on a thoroughly understood, highly ordered imaginary world. Looking at any of these works, one can't help but believe that the fictive world envisioned by Clark is far richer than his actual environment.

Something akin to this desire to escape the constraints of life seems to inspire visionary art. To a considerable degree, the lives of many of these artists were educationally, economically and hence physically circumscribed. Yet the images they project are of confidence and self-command. Whatever limitations they perceived in their lives, they must have found compensation in the spiritual voyages. Significantly, the majority of these artists came to art late in life, an odd twist in a youth-oriented culture. The self-taught, naive or folk artists of every era keep reminding us of what art is really about -- they have no recourse other than the basic imperative to create.

Throughout this exhibition, that creative fire is almost palpable.

"In and Out: Naive, Folk and Self-Taught Artists from the Collection," is on view at the Menil Collection through October 11.

Related Exhibitions and Events: "Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the 20th Century," at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, August 2 -October 11

Folk Art Society Annual Meeting, Houston, October 8-11

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