Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Andi Olsen


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 Baltimore. The last time, just about one year ago, it was the work of Voodou priestess Nancy Josephson, whose work I think is first rate, but who is married to folk violinist-turned-violin maker, David Bromberg, and who is herself a veteran of the music scene. In what sense is one an outsider if one’s son learned to walk on Arlo Guthrie’s tour bus?

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 Rome, Olsen films people who are posing for their photographs. Or, more accurately, she films, over and over, the absolute moment when their portrait has been completed and they then “relax” or “stand down.” Over and over and over, people tend to look down & withdraw, and to look extraordinarily sad or even tired. There are exceptions to this (one woman tosses a coin over her head into the waters of the fountain and breaks out in a huge grin as she turns to see where it has landed), but they are exactly that – exceptions. Few if any seem aware of her filming – it’s mostly done at a distance – and their movements are slowed down so as to give them a more formal, intentional feel. It’s as powerful a meditation on the social function of posing, of being one’s own image, and of being recorded, as I’ve ever seen & Olsen’s own editorializing is kept to a minimum with the augmentation of some soft funereal music. If the museum had chairs in front of this site – it’s right in a corridor – or if I had had more time, I might easily have sat in front of this video for hours.

Andi Olsen not only has a masters in art history from the University of Virginia, she’s taught at numerous schools and collaborated on several occasions with her husband, Lance Olsen, on a variety of literary-art projects, including a film on Kathy Acker that you can download an excerpt on from Olsen’s website. One might categorize Team Olsen as visionary in the sense that they, not unlike Acker, have a natural bent toward monsters, but they certainly aren’t untrained and are outsiders only in the sense that any post-avant artist might be. Lance Olsen is the chair of the board of directors at FC2, as the Fiction Collective is now known.

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 Baltimore’s harbor at the base of Federal Hill.

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 Baltimore’s most famous queen. Logan’s at-least-life-sized Black Icarus sculpture is the art work that one sees almost instantly on entering the first floor gallery area, descending from the ceiling on a winch. AVAM also has one of Logan’s signature works in its permanent collection, a 15-foot (or thereabouts) sculpture of Divine in full pink drag. There are also several wild sculptures from another former participant in the Alternative World Beauty Contest that Logan & Divine cofounded, sort of what you might expect if John Waters had filmed the famous bar scene from the original Star Wars movie.

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