The art of demons and detritus

The American Visionary Art Museum continues defining what sets its works apart.

July 25, 1999|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

Three short-term shows at the American Visionary Art Museum this summer argue for a definition of visionary art that the museum has been attempting to clarify through exhibitions and educational programs since its founding four years ago.

"Holy Fire: The Matchstick Artistry of Gerald Hawkes" and "Baltimore Glassman: Fresh Air Cure" both feature the work of a local artist whose career has been closely associated with the city.

The third show, "Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Folk Art Environments," focuses on visionary environments created by self-taught artists around the country.

The essential difference between visionary art and folk art, says AVAM founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger, lies in the role of tradition. Visionary art is not, like folk art and craft, handed down from generation to generation.

Rather, the visionary artist seems driven by internal demons to create works for which there is no precedent, either in the formal history of Western art or in the folkloric tradition.

The works -- often made of found objects, trash and other detritus of an industrial society -- have an obsessive-compulsive character that suggests mental instability as well as marginal social status.

This is why the drawings and sculpture of children, though similar in appearance to much visionary artwork, does not qualify. The apparent innocence of visionary art is almost always a product of wholly adult demons.

Hawkes, who died of AIDS at age 55 in 1998, led a troubled life that included bouts with depression and heroin addiction. Trained as a printer, he worked for a commercial printing firm until 1984, when he was left disabled after a brutal mugging.

As a hobby, Hawkes had been making small sculptures out of matchsticks, which he would color with berry juice, coffee grounds and other natural pigments.

After the mugging, Hawkes could no longer work and threw himself into sculpture-making as a form of therapy. Many of the pieces he created -- architectural models, wall hangings, furniture -- were quite elaborate, consisting of tens or even hundreds of thousands of individual matchsticks.

Paul Darmafall, who is widely known as the Baltimore Glassman, was born in 1925 in Moundsville, W.Va. After World War II he moved to Baltimore, where he worked as a bricklayer and machinist until around 1953, when he experienced the first symptoms of what would turn out to be a form of chronic mental illness.

Darmafall began creating paintings and roadside signs out of broken glass, mirrors, reflectors and glitter in the 1970s. His images, often constructed around commercial illustrations and advertisements, repeatedly refer to themes of patriotism, self-reliance and religious inspiration.

Finally, the "Self-Made Worlds" captured by photographers Ted Degener, Marcus Schubert and others depict the fantastical places created by people who make no distinction between internal and external realities.

Here, for example, is Kea Tawana's ramshackle, 100-foot-long "Ark" towering as high as a three-story building over the edge of a parking lot in a depressed neighborhood in Newark, N.J.

Another photo depicts the 4-acre complex of multicolored concrete temples, platforms and pagodas created by Eddie Owens Martin, who calls himself St. EOM, in Buena Vista, Ga.

The fantastic landscape is Owens' realization of the "Land of Pasaquan," an Atlantis-like underwater continent whose spiritual emissaries St. EOM has been in contact with for decades.

I'm not sure how I feel about this work, which seems so tied up with the mental suffering of the artists who produced it. One feels extraordinary compassion for an artist like Hawkes or Tawana, whose creations amaze by their sheer inventiveness.

But there is also an obsessive quality to the pieces, indicative perhaps of a desperate cry for attention (and, yes, love) from society's most outcast and rejected souls.

The realization always leaves me feeling somewhat uncomfortable and inadequate, perhaps because I know that in truth it's much easier to honor the art than to love the artist.

One may ask where visionary art fits into the canon of established works that constitute art history. Judging from the objects in this summer's show, there is no way this art can be made to conform to the traditional narratives of art history.

In eras past, this would have been taken as confirmation that visionary art isn't really art -- or at least not art worth commenting on. One of the great benefits of a museum like AVAM is that it forces a re-examination of such prejudices.

For example, rather than deny that visionary art is "real" art because it stands outside traditional art history, one might question the concept of "art history" as the standard for making such judgments.

In the West, we tend to think of history in utopian terms, as the progressive evolution of human knowledge and experience toward some ideal end. Only toward the end of the 20th century has the notion of a purposeful history begun to wane.

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