'Outsider,' 'visionary' -- is this art?

The art world knows what it likes, but doesn't know what to call it.

July 04, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

To enter Paul Darmafall's exhibition is to step into a chaotic and beautiful world invented by a troubled man.

Because of mental illness, Darmafall, who is known as the Baltimore Glassman, has been unable to hold a job for nearly 40 years. Instead, he has produced a steady stream of art fashioned from found boards, broken glass and glue. The 72-year-old's work is sold in galleries from Berlin to Los Angeles, and more than 200 of his artworks are on view through Sept. 5 at the American Visionary Art Museum.

In many ways, Darmafall typifies the kind of artist whose work is called "outsider," or "self-taught," or "visionary." These artists usually are isolated from mainstream society because of mental illness, poverty, lack of education, physical handicap or eccentricity. They use materials most of us would throw away. They may view art as a way of proselytizing. Their work will never have the elegance of a John Singer Sargent. At its best, it possesses an untutored purity of emotion that infuses it with great power and beauty.

But what is the proper term for this art? What would usefully describe objects like those created by Darmafall? This is a perennial controversy in art circles. And it resurfaces with increasing frequency as outsider art gains in popularity.

Outsider art went essentially unappreciated until the end of the last century, when European doctors began studying works made by the mentally ill. But they viewed this art as a way better to understand their patients. In the 1940s, artist Jean Dubuffet began to champion art created by the insane. He saw the works as a unique and legitimate kind of art, and he named it "l'art brut."

In French, the term connotes the unfinished, raw, sometimes brutal energy that these works can possess. It doesn't work as well in translation: In English, it becomes simply "raw art."

British critic Roger Cardinal and his publishers coined the word "outsiders," to use in the title of Cardinal's 1972 book on the subject. He described outsiders as those who were isolated from society, or obsessive, or used their artworks to create alternative worlds. Gradually the meaning broadened to include other kinds of artists who had little formal training.

Some outsider artists, such as the late Henry Darger, a recluse who lived in Chicago, create in secret. Darger labored for years on a novel called "The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal or the Glandelinian War Storm of the Glandico-Abbiennian Wars, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion." In it, he told the long and disturbing saga of the androgenous Vivian girls by tracing images from children's storybooks onto paper scrolls and painting them with watercolors. No one knew about Darger's efforts until he died in 1973.

Others, like Darmafall, don't think of their creations as art. Darmafall calls his artworks "signs." Through them, he spreads the word about the "fresh air cure," or his belief that being outside is the healthiest way to live.

He clips images from magazines to use as patterns, then pours glue in the desired shape and covers it with colored glass. George Washington, Patrick Henry and John Adams appear again and again in his work. So do U.S. flags and eagles, as symbols of patriotism; Canadian flags, as symbols of the outdoor life; open windows, because they let in fresh air; owls because they stand for wisdom.

But there are many artists who are categorized as "outsiders" who participate successfully in mainstream society. Long Islander Mary Whitfield worked for an insurance company for years before beginning to paint with near-religious fervor. Using house paint and plyboard, Whitfield draws on a childhood spent in Alabama to create poignant images dealing with racism and poverty.

As interest in outsider art grows, so does the number of artists claiming to be "outsiders." "When I curate an exhibition I'm deluged with letters from people saying, 'I'm an outsider, please visit my Web site,' " says Roger Manley, curator of the North Carolina State University Gallery of Art and Design, who has organized exhibitions at the American Visionary Art Museum.

Indeed, critics of the term ask whether an artist who becomes part of the mainstream art world -- pushed or pulled there by agents, collectors, curators and occasionally, their own marketing savvy -- can be called an "outsider."

Some point to apparent effects of fame on the work of Howard Finster. A preacher and bicycle repairman, Finster created the Paradise Gardens and Plant Museum, an environment created with found objects, in Summerville, Ga. His goal is to spread his religious vision. In the past 37 years, the 82-year-old's art has appeared at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the American Visionary Art Museum and on the album covers of rock bands REM and the Talking Heads.

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