Tuesday, April 18, 2006
One of the “problems” of outsider art is its reliance on biography, an “externality” not unlike the referential issues of identity and/or social justice that turn so many political texts into instrumentalist sausage. Is Howard Finster, Henry Darger, Simon Rodia or Grandma Moses half the artist they’re made out to be if, say, they had a degree from Cal Arts or the Rhode Island School of Design? Maybe yes, maybe no – my guess is that it would depend on the artist & that each such case would turn out to be a long discussion with no conclusive resolution to be had at the end of it.¹ It’s an issue I confront, it seems, each time I go to the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in
The same question comes up again this year first in the obvious personage of Rosie O’Donnell – yes, that Rosie O’Donnell – who has a few works in this year’s show, dedicated to considerations of race/color/gender.² Among other items, O’Donnell has a portrait of her grandmother, and a photo collage of two older women holding hands as they walk out of the ash of devastation on 9/11. O’Donnell’s work is not bad at all and while it may be evident that she had no formal or professional training in the arts, there is no question that she is completely arts-savvy.
But the work that really raised this issue for me was also the most powerful, and perhaps most subtle, in this year’s collection, a short black-&-white video entitled Where the Smiling Ends, filmed by Andi Olsen. The premise of the work is both social & formal, and the two dimensions powerfully reinforce one another. At Trevi Fountain in
Andi Olsen not only has a masters in art history from the
There are examples in the current AVAM exhibit of professionals whom I would be more willing to place on the far side of that categorical marker, such as Linda St. John, the daughter of a Ph.D. who grew up to become a lawyer, but really a daughter of alcoholic abuse, who, seven years after getting her J.D., turned instead to making elaborate little dolls out of pipe cleaners, clothed in even more elaborate little outfits. And AVAM has, both in its permanent collection and elsewhere in this year’s exhibit, instances of personal or folk art carried out to an extraordinary degree – Ku Shu Lan’s wonderfully complicated paper cuts, which seem even more amazing when you realize that this artist from the Chinese province of Shaanxi who died in 2003 at the age of 84 lived during the early years of her marriage in a cave, a not atypical peasant life registered, if not exactly documented, in these breathtaking patterns. Or Nek Chand, the Indian sculptor from Chandigar, still active at 82, whose rock and debris sculptures of figures is, the AVAM wall text claims, the largest visionary environment in the world and the second largest tourist attraction in India. When the state discovered his hidden garden of these figures tucked away on government property, a vast village of figures made entirely from refuse, it gave him several dozen assistants and now turns over all the junk Chand could possibly need.
But ultimately the whole rationale of this museum seems framed most clearly by Olsen, precisely because she seems to be the ringer. What this little film is doing is both important and powerful & it instantly makes you aware of all the other films one might make in a similar mode – e.g., men & women walking down a street aware that they are under the gaze of a camera, people about to do something specific, like walk into a church or doctor’s office or just cross the street or leave a cinema. Perhaps these are films that no longer need to be made because Olsen has shown so deeply what can be done simply by focusing on the smallest of social spaces, that instant when the “official” shutter has closed and the posing is over. The film is not formal in the sense of a Michael Snow film, but rather in its focusing on the form of the filmed event, repeatedly so that you can’t miss that this is the focus of the piece. It’s not obsessive in the way that lifelong federal civil servant Ted Gordon’s drawings, invariably composed of circles upon circles, creating rounded almost three-dimensional characters, are, but rather mimes such obsession rather coolly.
So Olsen is an indirect test of the thesis that good art is good regardless of context, although I’m not at all certain that just any major artist would similarly look credible if his or her work were suddenly dropped into AVAM. The irony at the heart of Jeff Koons’ material, for example, would come across instead as smarmy & condescending there, the worst kind of deliberate shallowness. But artists as diverse as Keinholz and Guston, say, would do just fine. So even would a Warhol, precisely because his works, even in their most pop mode, carry an earnestness within them that would resonate with the likes of Mr. Imagination or the Baltimore Glassman or any of the other more “primitive” artists on display at AVAM. If anything, it is the sincerity at the heart of that, which in Olsen’s video occurs less on the side of the auteur than in the eyes & expressions of the filmed, that joins Where the Smiling Ends with the giant pink poodle boat/car that has become an icon of AVAM’s annual Kinetic Sculpture Race – to be held this year on Saturday, May 6.
Poetry of course has its own equivalents for outsider art, whether it is the writing of psychotics, from Hannah Weiner to John Wieners, the use of dialect from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Linton Kwesi Johnson, or the street lyrics of slam & rap. And all of these same issues apply here as well. Indeed, the instant you see sincerity as the link between Olsen & the other work at AVAM, it’s hard to shake the phrase that technique is the test of sincerity from one’s mind. But, I want to note, it’s not the only such test here. Abstraction is another charged area & it is worth noting where in a place like AVAM one finds it, in obsessive patterning or giant nonsense sculpture’s like the museum’s signature Vollis Simpson whirligig, standing three stories high just a block from
Looking at the smiling headshot of Andi Olsen above (linked over from her own website), I wonder what expression she made next.
¹ Actually, I think Rodia’s work would survive far better if you learned he had an elite arts education than it would if you concluded that the Watts Towers were, in fact, conceived as “sails” and that the project as a whole was a cartoonish sculpture of a schooner.
² With the work of Andrew Logan, a sometime collaborator of Divine, highly visible in the show, one might almost see the current show as an homage to