With Broad Strokes: Art review: Outsider art, largely unnourished by the mainstream, reveals fertile imaginations in a new museum's first exhibit.

November 24, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

From the writhing, expressive sculptures of Bessie Harvey to Thomas Jordan's exquisite creatures fashioned from leaves and thorns, a new world of art makes its debut in Baltimore today. The American Visionary Art Museum opens its doors to the public at 10 a.m. with an inaugural exhibit, "Tree of Life," that's symbolic of the new museum: ambitious and exhilarating, if not quite thoroughly defined.

The brainchild of its founder and president, Baltimorean Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM is the only major museum devoted to visionary art in the United States. It's dedicated to showing the art of self-taught artists working outside the mainstream, often people of extraordinary personal vision who have an overwhelming compulsion to make art.

"Tree of Life" is a creative way for this museum to begin. Built on the theme of trees and wood, it was curated by Roger Manley, a North Carolina-based writer, photographer and curator who has organized about 40 shows and has written books on visionary art and artists.

The theme of the show, he thinks, celebrates a museum just starting out. "Trees are a symbol of long-term life," he says. "They are living things that carry on much longer than our life span. They are also a central human symbol and the most prevalent symbol in art, folk tales and mythology."

According to Hoffberger, AVAM will interpret its subject broadly, not clinging to a narrow definition of visionary art. Accordingly, Manley cast his net wide for "Tree of Life." The show contains about 400 works by 120 artists from all over America. It explores the theme from many angles: From the tree as central motif in paintings and drawings to works made of wood to paintings on wood; from 10-foot-tall sculptures made of entire trees to works made of toothpicks and matchsticks; from famous figures in the field, such as Henry Darger, Howard Finster and Edgar Tolson to anonymous artists; from works created in the 19th century to works completed this year.

Spread over six galleries on three levels in the museum's main building, plus its sculpture barn annex, the show demonstrates, among other things, that the museum's unusually shaped galleries with curving walls are amenable to art. It looks fine in these spaces and is imaginatively installed. And since you generally can't see from one gallery into another, due to the building's design, there's a sense of discovery that makes a tour

of the show continually refreshing.

Legitimate art

The exhibit also demonstrates, without question, that visionary art is legitimate art. Since it's made by untrained (or self-trained) artists, it has had to fight a perception that it's not to be taken seriously. As with all art, some visionary works are better than others, some will have broader and some narrower appeal. But if the purpose of art is to expand our consciousness and speak to us about what it means to be alive, then this art at its best thoroughly qualifies.

You can't look at Bessie Harvey's sculptures and not be moved. Harvey, who worked as a domestic and raised 11 children, began to sculpt in the 1970s, when she was in her late 40s, using roots and other found objects. From these, she created works such as "The World" (1993) and "We Shall Be Free" (about 1990) -- composites of strange, haunting creatures with eyes that meet yours with anguish, accusation and hope.

You can't look at Michael Dennis' towering figures and not be shaken. Dennis was a neurobiologist who in the 1980s left his profession to build a house on an island in British Columbia and become a full-time sculptor, finding his raw material in logged or burned forests near where he lives. His group of figures about 10 feet tall, called "Ancestors" (c.1994), loom out of a dark corner of the sculpture barn like a collective conscience calling you to account.

You can't look at Tim Fowler's work and not be amused. Fowler, who has been a roofer, dishwasher and migrant apple picker in the Pacific Northwest, fashions much of his art from apple crates. His "Real Estate Developer" (1988) gobbles up attractive houses and out the other end of him come buildings that are just gray blocks. His "Urban Driver" (1988) has four faces, looking frantic to furious.

Manley has divided the show into sections, each given a gallery, that reflect different aspects of this art. Works by Harvey and Fowler inhabit the section on personal and social struggle. Here also are the works of Herbert Singleton, a former Louisiana prison inmate. His "The Way We Was" (about 1990) reflects the past of race relations in the United States, including lynchings and whippings, and is a clear call that change must continue.

From the forest

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