Imagine visiting an art museum in Wonderland with Alice. Or try to conceive what it would be like to view a special exhibit of treasures brought back from Oz by Dorothy. If your imagination can handle such unlikely scenarios, then you will have an intimation of the art works presented in a landmark exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection is the title of this amazing exhibit. Nearly 200 drawings, paintings, and sculptures by self-taught artists are on view. These are part of an eye-opening array of art that will eventually enter the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, thanks to the vision and generosity of two local art lovers. During the 1970’s, Jill Bonovitz, one of the founders of the prestigious Clay Studio in Philadelphia, and her husband, Sheldon, began collecting works by little-known artists like Martin Ramirez. Many of these artists’ creations, like this depiction by Ramirez of cars and trains streaming into ominous tunnels, defy ready explanation.
The variety and inspired nature of the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz collection is truly dazzling.
Paintings, like Bruno Del Favero’s (1910-1995) Landscape with River and Exotic Church, painted with house paint on Masonite, present otherworldly visions. A wonderful series of carved and painted relief scenes by Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) depict episodes from the Christian New Testament, the protagonists being African-American saints and angels. There is a “healing machine” constructed from iron, copper and aluminum wire, cut iron sheet, iron nails, folded and rolled aluminum foil, masking tape, bandages and aluminum can pop tops. There are also scrap-metal whirligigs, life-sized animal statues carved from cottonwood trees and a tiny “throne” made from chicken bones, the creation of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983), a reclusive, multi-talented artist from Wisconsin.
These “great and mighty” objects fall into the category of Outsider Art. The term has a curious pedigree reaching back to studies of art created by patients undergoing psychiatric treatment in pre-World War I Vienna. In 1972, an English art scholar named Roger Cardinal created the term “outsider art” to cover art of untrained, self-taught or “naive” artists. Cardinal wanted to stress that these independent souls operated beyond the well-defined boundaries of the art school/art gallery circuit.
Earlier, in 1945, the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) had invented the term art brut or “raw art” for a category of art also produced by non-professionals. Dubuffet was especially interested in art created by the mentally disturbed or by children. Dubuffet explained his theories to a fellow artist, René Auberjonois, “I preferred ‘Art Brut’ instead of ‘Art Obscur’, because professional art does not seem to me any more visionary or lucid, rather the contrary…”
Dubuffet launched a major initiative to collect and study the “raw” creations of individuals operating without regard for “fame or monetary reward.” Dubuffet established a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Collection de l’Art Brut, to preserve a record of the extraordinary works of art that had been discovered, thanks in large measure to his efforts.
Dubuffet’s art brut became so associated with art works created by people undergoing psychiatric care that a new, more inclusive term was needed. Roger Cardinal’s “outsider art” was embraced for creative work by individuals who managed to function in society, however much they “marched to a different drummer” in their interior, emotional lives.
To understand Outsider Art in the context of American culture it is necessary to look at the careers of two African-American men, Bill Traylor and William Edmondson. Art works by both of these Outsider pioneers are well represented in “Great and Mighty Things.”
Both Bill Traylor (1854-1949) and William Edmondson (1874-1951) were “outsider” artists, though they hardly fitted into Dubuffet’s art brut category. Instead, they were excluded from the resources, educational opportunities and financial rewards of other artists because they were poor, elderly African-American men living in the segregated America of the 1930’s and 40’s. Although both artists were “discovered” and supported by liberal-minded white artists, this belated recognition in no way determined the composition of their art. The few critics of the time who wrote about them tried to find connections between the work of Traylor and Edmondson with the art of ancient times and modern “primitives,” but these theories had no basis in fact.
Charles Shannon, the idealistic young artist who met Traylor on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1939, was instrumental in supporting and preserving Traylor’s art. Shannon was exceptionally broadminded and his insights on the sources of Traylor’s inspiration deserve detailed scrutiny.
“Bill Traylor’s works are completely uninfluenced by our Western culture,” Shannon wrote. “Strictly in the folk idiom – they are as unselfconscious and spontaneous as Negro Spirituals… Because his roots lie deeply within the great African tradition, and not within that of the white man; and because beautiful and living works have resulted – Bill Traylor is perhaps one of the most significant graphic artists the Negro race has yet produced in this country.”
There is a lyrical quality to Traylor’s drawings and paintings. Many of them are simple evocations of daily life, showing the lives of the people around him and the objects they used. In a number of his pictures, a man is shown wearing a tall crowned hat similar to the one that Traylor often wore. But this simplicity may be deceptive, as one of his works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition points to a greater engagement with society than merely recording the passing scene.
Runaway Goat Cart is a good example of Traylor’s work. This watercolor has narrative power, as well as a cryptic, enigmatic quality. It shows two doll-like figures trying to rein-in a galloping goat yoked to a wagon-sized cart. Did Traylor actually see such a scene? If so, the out-of-control wagon was probably drawn by a mule and Traylor was spinning the scene into an episode of the universal “human comedy.” Shannon and others observed that Traylor had a restrained, ironic sense of humor with no outward signs of bitterness at being born a slave.
Traylor’s life, however, was marked by a personal tragedy shared by many fellow African-Americans. In 1929, one of his sons was shot and killed by two white policemen in Birmingham, Alabama, allegedly for attempting a night-time robbery. The official verdict was “justifiable homicide.” Given the extreme racism of the period, the death of Traylor’s son was almost certainly an act of legally sanctioned lynch law. So, instead of being a scene of “knock-about” humor, Runaway Goat Cart might well be a commentary on the real world of most African-Americans – their lives being literally beyond their control.
We will never know for sure if Runaway Goat Cart is symbolical or narrative art. Traylor never shared much of his interior life with admirers of his work, even with Shannon. He explained the impulse for his art as “It just come to me.”
William Edmondson made a similar case for his remarkable stone sculptures, though he credited God as the source of his inspiration.
“Pick up your tools and start to work on a tombstone,” Edmondson said a heavenly voice commanded. “I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make.”
After a life spent working in various jobs, as a railroad man, stonemason, hospital orderly, Edmondson turned to art. He started carving free-standing sculptures from discarded limestone street curbs in Nashville, Tennessee, during the mid-1930’s. He placed a sign outside his shed that proclaimed “Tomb-stones for Sale. Garden. Ornaments. Stone Work.” Using a railroad spike as a chisel, Edmondson filled the yard outside his studio with carved doves, curly-haired angels, Noah’s Ark, bible-toting preachers and “critters.”
Horse with Long Tail is an example of one of Edmondson’s more naturalistic depictions of animals. It evokes the sculpture of early Egypt and pre-classical Greece. Edmondson also did abstract, geometric-shaped “critters” exuding elemental power, worthy of being displayed next to works by Constantin Brancusi. But as with Traylor’s drawings, it has to be emphasized that these historical parallels are a long stretch from the inner, immediate voice that directed Edmondson’s hand.
Edmondson enjoyed a brief moment of fame when his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937. It was the first ever solo exhibition by an African American artist at MOMA. Then Edmondson’s reputation went into an eclipse until he was rediscovered, as Traylor was, during the 1970’s and 80’s.
There is a pattern discernible in the lives of these Outsider artists. Their artistic vision is shaped by adversity and they work in obscurity or with only fleeting recognition. Then they are “discovered” or “rediscovered” after their deaths, usually by another artist. Occasionally, recognition comes in a timelier manner as in the case of sculptor, Felipe Archuleta (1910-1991), who founded a still thriving school of folk art carving near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Archuleta was a migrant worker from New Mexico who joined the Civilian Construction Corps during the 1930’s. He then became a carpenter, but in 1964, after a union dispute, he lost his job. Desperate for work, he found divine guidance as Edmondson had done.
Archuleta told Davis Mather, the art collector who embraced his work, “I asked God for some kind of miracle, some kind of thing to do, to give me something to make my life with. I started caving and they just came out of my mind after that.”
“They” were individualized carvings of animals. At first, Archuleta carved familiar animals from his local surroundings, horses, pigs, jack rabbits and coyotes. Some of these were life-sized or nearly so. Archuleta then branched out, creating fearsome, fantastical beasts including the lynx on display, with shaggy whiskers made from sisal fibers. Menacing though their claws and teeth may appear, Archuleta’s lions, tigers and bears have a story-book aspect about them. Archuleta used children’s books for inspiration and after spending a few moments in the lynx’s presence, one could well believe that the big cat will spring to life and speak, like the lion in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales.
According to the wall text of “Great and Mighty Things,” Archuleta carved animal figures “as he did not feel worthy to work in the long-established santero practice—creating carved and painted religious figures.” The personalized insight here is highly significant. It enables us to comprehend an essential detail of Archuleta’s inner life and to grasp an easily overlooked element of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s sensitive manner of presenting these works. The exhibition is mounted in an individualized, biographical approach rather than a thematic presentation. Striking, small room subdivisions highlight the unique qualities of each artist and of the “interior” nature of Outsider Art.
The wall texts provide brilliantly written life histories of these unconventional artists. They are often emotionally moving, as well. An exhibition visitor might walk away bemused by the dangling components of Emery Blagdon’s “healing machine” that was designed to “channel the electromagnetic energy of the earth” to heal the sick. But after reading the wall text, one’s response to this otherwise bizarre work is bound to change. Blagdon, who lived his whole life in rural Callaway, Nebraska, constructed his “healing machine” after watching his mother and father succumb to cancer. The wall text concludes with terse intensity:
Blagdon thought of his ensemble as a curative device; today we would call it an artist-made environment. The machine was unfortunately unable to cure the artist’s own cancer, from which he died in 1986.
And what is true of Blagdon’s poignant attempt to thwart illness and disease is true of the other artists’ work. Outsider Art is not an attempt to evade life but to engage with it, to deal with sorrow, sickness and poverty by affirmations of beauty.
Look at the haunted dreamscapes of Martin Ramirez (1895-1963), who spent most of his adult life in California mental institutions, or the glittering assemblages of Simon Sparrow (1925-2000) and you will find a confirmation of Dubuffet’s estimate of the “visionary or lucid” in such art. Unique, singular, “abnormal” these works may seem, but then these attributes apply to the experiences of their creators and these works are therefore valid testimony to the power of art.
In the case of the mystical creations of Simon Sparrow, for instance, we are taken directly to the primal source of art, the human relationship with God. Sparrow, born in West Africa of a Native American mother and an African father, had a spiritual vision as a child and used his art as a form of religious expression. Originally a painter, he began doing assemblages of found objects when his studio burned down and all his paintings but one were destroyed. It is hard to conceive of a more authentically human response to life’s challenges than that.
“Great and Mighty Things” is a powerful exhibition, less fantastical, less “Outsider,” than it appears at first. It is not an exhibition of art created in Oz after all. It is, rather, a display of works of creative sincerity from a little closer to home.
“Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection appears at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130 (March 3, 2013 – June 9, 2013)