The fact that I keep being drawn to review works at The Hurn Museum does not indicate an interest in Folk art, since the temporary exhibits at the Museum are not really Folk art but drawings and paintings by contemporary artists who are excluded from the mainstream.
Since inclusion is so arbitrary and dependent on the whims of critics and the vagaries of market forces, the works consistently left “outside” seem more compelling and more sincere than those which have been elevated to semi-stardom.
The three artists now showing at The Hurn could not be more different from one another but what they do share is an honesty of expression which would seem to be a more unifying factor than the rather doubtful “Outsider” label they have been grouped under.
So, what is an “Outsider artist”? Is Outsider art defined by exclusion from the attentions of the mainstream, or is it merely a style? If one definition of “Outsider” is unschooled, Daniel Johnston, who is represented here by a handful of marker drawings on letter size paper may fit that description. But since he is currently included in the Whitney Biennial and showing at the Clementine Gallery in New York City, it would be difficult to see in what way he is actually “excluded.”
On the information that I have gathered from reviews of the newly-released documentary film about him titled, The Devil and Daniel Johnson (I have not seen the film), this is a man deeply immersed in his own world and with no interest in his growing resumé. For two decades a cult singer/songwriter of the rock underground (Kurt Cobain was a fan and Tom Waits has covered his songs), Johnston has managed to avoid the pitfalls of pop music commercialization.
Attempts from the mainstream of the visual arts to make Daniel Johnston a brand name to line the pockets of a few middlemen may similarly fail. In one of Johnston’s drawings in this exhibition titled, “Please Don’t Feed the Ego,” a huge head in which the top has been opened like a mouth displaying two rows of teeth is being filled by a shovel full of what resembles valentine candy with complementary sayings. Below, the face wears a coy expression and from the mouth a bubble speaks: “Oh, well, thank you very much.”
If Johnston draws in a manner reminiscent of the comic strip drawings of many ten year old boys, the other two artists now showing at The Hurn draw as if they have been drawing from life since childhood. Lawrence Beaver occupies the large gallery and his exhibition, titled “Journey of a Soul”, is the main feature for the next two months.
From the size of the exhibition and the recent dates of the work, Beaver would appear to be a very prolific artist. The majority of the works are faces, appearing either singly or in pairs, close to the picture plane and always facing the viewer.
He approaches this same subject in two media: watercolors, which are looser, more spontaneous and clearer in color than the pastels which have been worked on over time making them seem monochrome, somber even, due to the accumulation of color.
But there is something strange about the pastels, something which holds the attention and remains with the viewer. It is, I believe, related to the light.
In most of these works there is a small, square source of light behind the figure, a window, perhaps, or a door. But the foreheads and noses of the flat mask-like faces are lit by some other, unseen source an inner light or a light that emanates from the viewer.
In addition to the faces, there are two small ink drawings of ballerinas, Tiny Dancer #. 159 and Tiny Dancer #193, that must be the envy of any artist who has tried to render the human being in motion from life. These gestural drawings are remarkable, and judging from the numbering, only two from a vast output. Apparently Beaver draws directly from watching dance videos. Surely, he must put the tape on “pause” but even then....
Since all Beaver’s works reveal a facility for drawing, and depth of knowledge of his materials and techniques that can only come from years of looking and working, one wonders how Beaver got to be labeled an Outsider. Perhaps it is simply his refusal to sell, promote himself or even to reveal anything of the personal.
All these refusals imply a suspicion of mental instability in our contemporary society. After all, if you have the talent, you must be mad not to flaunt it.
The brochure accompanying his exhibition tells us one fact about Beaver: apparently his health was severely damaged by toxic paint fumes from working for a long time in a vehicle body shop and he is now incapable of further work of any kind. The implication in the Outsider context, is that personal disaster compelled the artist to paint, but looking at the work I know that Beaver was always an artist, and like most artists, he had a day job; his turned out to be lethal.
One or two faces at a time seem posed, as if for a camera. If they could speak, they would merely say, “Here I am.” This is the static quality of portraiture.
When you get more than two figures interacting with each other, then you have a narrative. Beaver has one pastel entitled, “The Wonder of it All,” in which silhouettes of four figures looking down at the ground seem to be standing on the curved sidewalk of a street at night, back lit by the glare from three large windows.
Questions arise. What are these characters doing? Are they waiting? If so, for what?
These are the sort of questions that also arise in front of the work of the third artist on exhibit, Rebecca Wolfram. The five oil paintings here are part of a series grouped under the collective title, “We Have Taken Care of Them.” These paintings do not relate their “stories” in one scene, but in a number of disconnected scenes in the same picture, something reminiscent of medieval or ancient Egyptian painting.
In “Shining Abecedary,” a number of scenes are being enacted on a dark background. A nuclear family of two parents and two children stand next to a car. Two animals in cages - one an ape stretching an arm out through the bars to the other animal, who looks like a wolf. Below these and partially cropped by the left edge of the canvas there is a scene involving a baby, then there are three figures engaged in the act of skinning and disemboweling an animal in a circular pit built of bricks. And then there is an animal in an arena surrounded by an audience.
At bottom right, a figure holds a complete human or animal skin over his arm like an overcoat, a couple dance in a circle and a lone figure squats in a corner. All the figures are in reverse silhouette, that is, they are white forms with no detail on a black ground.
What is disturbing about these works is not only the fact of the stark imagery, but that there is not one image that does not have a contemporary relevance. But instead of being rendered photographically or digitally, they are painted in the same way that humans have been painting for thousands of years.
They belong to a pre-photographic reality and it is because of this that they alarm. It is as if buried images appear as they do in the human mind, images that represent the central dilemma of humanity: human consciousness, a knowledge and thought process that is all that separates us from other animals and which brutalizes us at the same time that it elevates us.
And this is probably why Wolfram, who has dedicated her life to painting is thrust into the Outsider category. She is marginalized precisely because she paints.
Our society has accelerated to such a high speed it has become impossible for most people to look at painting - it takes too long. On the other hand, photographic images and all visual clichés are absorbed by today’s viewers at about the same rate of time it takes to click the shutter and produce them.
Let’s think for a moment at the way in which the obscenity of the Abu Ghraib photographs became almost immediately acceptable, even “aesthetic,” allowing the viewer to become indifferent through constant repetition.
Then look at Wolfram’s disquieting painting titled, “None Could Break the Web,” in which a figure, this time a dark silhouette in a brightly lit rectangle is holding a leash at the end of which is a ferocious dog baring its teeth at a pair of white figures in a black rectangle who are strangely connected to each other as if through a feeding tube.
Below this image is an underground subtext (and this is a common image device in all Wolfram’s work). These are a number of visceral images resembling internal organs in boxes. The paint at this point has become very thick, not for effect, but as a result of the struggle to get the image right.
Wolfram is a painter’s painter. This is what we want from painting - not to decorate, sterilize with technology or seduce with bravura techniques, but to describe the conundrum of human reality in the coded terms of myth and representation which our unconscious can accept and understand without the interference of either ideology or aural language.
“Journey of a Soul: Lawrence Beaver, Rebecca Wolfram and Daniel Johnston, Outsider Artists,” through June 28 at the Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art, 1015 Whitaker Street, (on the corner of Park Avenue and Whitaker), 234-7322, Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 11 - 4; Sunday 12 - 4; Closed Monday. Adults $4; Students $3.