From angels to aliens: art for all

Review: The American Visionary Art Museum's show illustrates ghosts, angels and maybe things that go bump in the night.

October 02, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

One of the signature characteristics of our age is the extraordinary number of people who claim to have witnessed so-called paranormal phenomena, from telepathy and extra-sensory perception to encounters with ghosts, angels and UFOs.

Science has no explanation for these events other than to chalk them up to mistaken identity or mass hysteria.

Yet the fact that so many people give credence to reports of alien abductions, miraculous visitations and sinister government cover-ups lends the whole subject a certain populist legitimacy.

Starting today, the American Visionary Art Museum jumps into the fray with the aptly titled "We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens," a colorful, provocative new show that is a passionate plea for the authority of imagination over science.

The untrained visionary artists whose works are on display have freely adopted the conventions of commercial illustration and advertising to tell their fantastic narratives.

Unlike the Pop artists of the 1960s, whose mass media-inspired images were droll comments on the role of art in a consumer society, the visionary artists have little use for irony. They present us with a world whose reality is unquestioned and whose weird happenings are related with a simplicity that borders on naivete.

Artists such as Ionel Talpazan, Raymond Materson and Betty Ann Luca, for example, relate their experiences with extraterrestrial beings without a trace of self-consciousness or embarrassment. Talpazan and Luca even claim to have been abducted by aliens who performed scientific tests on them after they were transported inside the alien vessels.

The public's fascination for this stuff is evidenced by the huge audiences for TV shows such as "The X-Files," in movies including "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Independence Day," and in an endless string of low-budget docu-dramas celebrating the occult, the demonic and the plain puzzling.

The AVAM show provides something for everyone: monsters and mermaids, angels and extraterrestrials, fairies, nymphs and various invisible companions.

Talpazan's crudely drawn "UFOs Over NYC," for example, with its storybook metropolis menaced by saucer-shaped spaceships floating overhead, evokes its subject with childlike credulity. And Materson's "Alien Threat," derives a kind of kooky integrity from the viewer's readiness to accept the familiar visual conventions of comic books and cartoons.

Luca, like Talpazan, claims to have been abducted by aliens at an early age and to have maintained an ongoing relationship with them over the years.

She is represented in the show by a series of oddly impersonal pictures documenting her experiences. The style seems to echo fundamentalist religious tracts and political pamphlets.

Henry Darger produced about 3,000 drawings of angelic little girls threatened by evil men. The pictures were intended to illustrate his magnum opus, a 13,000-page tome titled "The Realm of the Unreal."

Darger's drawings, with their wholly incongruous speech balloons in which characters explain and justify their actions, resemble nothing so much as a cross between Renaissance unicorn tapestries and the Sunday funny pages.

The spirit animating these images could not be more different from that of the contemporary avant-garde.

When artists like Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg used media images, their purpose was almost always self-referential and ironic. The images of visionary artists, by contrast, are passionate, heart-on-sleeve representations of a reality to which their creators' attachment borders on obsession.

The "raw" quality of visionary art stems not from any conscious rejection of the art of the past but rather from an utter indifference to the past and its conventions. The only thing that matters to these artists is the overwhelming experience of the here and now.

In an increasingly rationalized and bureaucratized world, this show argues that the invisible and immaterial are as real as the tangible objects of everyday experience -- and as vital to understanding of our place in the world.

Whether or not you believe in UFOs, you're likely to come away from this show with a more open mind regarding the possibilities these artists insist are at the core of what it means to be human.

At AVAM

What: "We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens"

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; through Sept. 3

Where: The American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway

Admission: $6 adults, $4 students and seniors, children under 4 free

Call: 410-244-1900 Pub Date: 10/02/99

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