Views of love from around the world Review: 'Love: Error and Eros,' the latest -- and smallest -- show at the American Visionary Art Museum is more polished than others have been.

May 16, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

With love as its subject, the American Visionary Art Museum's new show could so easily have gone off the deep end. It could have opted for steamy sex or cheap glitz or cuteness or sentimentality. But it successfully resisted all of those temptations. "Love: Error and Eros," opening today, has real class.

It has its showier moments, like the 14-foot-tall fiberglass statue of the late Divine, transvestite star of John Waters movies, that greets visitors at the foot of the museum's grand staircase. Made by English self-taught artist Andrew Logan, who was Divine's friend, it was inspired by love and so has its place here. But it's not at all characteristic of the exhibit as a whole.

Far more typical is a restrained painting by another English artist, Albert Louden. It shows the figure of a man looking somewhat puzzled, and a woman, represented only by a head, looking away from him. Is this a moment of uncertainty or an irreconcilable breach? Did he cause this seeming separation or did she? The chorus of small heads at the bottom of the picture provides no clue. Even the title, "Untitled 1" (1997), doesn't help.

Louden's strong, simple image, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation, well reflects this thought-provoking show exploring aspects of love from sacred to profane.

"Love" generally fits the pattern of AVAM's earlier three shows: it's a museum-filling exhibit on a big general theme chosen by AVAM founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger, with guest curators also chosen by Hoffberger.

Pronounced differences mark this show, however. For the first ,, time, the curators are not American but English experts Maggie and John Maizels, founders of the visionary art magazine Raw Vision.

As a result, the show has a far more international cast. Of its 77 artists, 27 are non-American, from England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Haiti and elsewhere. The Maizelses drew from leading visionary collections such as the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the collection of the Gugging Hospital, near Vienna. They also drew from sources little known in America, such as Artists Singuliers, a group of visionary artists working in southern France.

The show contains fewer works than its predecessors, just under 200 compared to as many as 400 in earlier shows. So the galleries look less crowded and individual works can better command attention. Moreover, little of this work relies on sheer size or aggressiveness for effect.

Often one is stopped by the small, the delicate, the subtle, such as Dutch artist Ad Maas' pencil drawings on torn paper. Many works achieve a high degree of craftsmanship, including Haitian artist Roger Constant's bead and sequin banner "La Sirene."

In one way or another, much of this work is more refined than one expects of visionary art. Defined as art by people working outside the cultural mainstream and creating out of a compulsive inner vision, visionary art needn't be crude. "People think visionary art has to be raw, but it doesn't. It can be sophisticated," says John Maizels, "as long as it's completely outside cultural influences."

The result of all this is a distinguished, thoughtful, well-organized exhibit that enjoys an excellent installation by AVAM deputy director Mark Ward and his team.

The curators achieved extra clarity by dividing the show into five categories of love, one for each of the museum's galleries: True Love. The pure expression of love rules this optimistic section. In their separate paintings, Deliane and Damian LeBas of Sussex, England, compete with one another to show their love. Damian's "In the Love Zone" (1997) contains figures of the two of them, patterned all over with faces inside of hearts. It's a work that spills over with love.

Aloise Corbaz of Switzerland (1886-1964) fell in love with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany while a tutor to his pastor's children. Her love became an obsession and, hospitalized for life, she took to making brightly colored drawings of buxom women courted by bemedaled military types. Although these proceeded from an illness, they have a sunny, gregarious quality.

Love Scorned. Louden's paintings, including "Untitled 1," explore the tensions and difficulties of relationships. One of the show's highlights, they form the centerpiece of this section about love that fails. Also effective, if less sophisticated, Billy White's "She Was Doing Me Wrong" shows a man drawing a gun on a woman. Vertical red lines stripe the painting, echoing the red of the couple's clothes. They may stand for blood, prison bars or the sense of confinement that unhappiness in love brings.

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