AVAM's exhibition subject proves to be, well, visionary

Review: `The Art of War & Peace' planned before attacks.

October 10, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum only puts on one major show a year, so it can't really afford to miss. But probably no one could have imagined a few months ago just how right-on this year's exhibit would be.

Its theme is war and peace, two aspects of the human condition we're all paying a lot of attention to these days. "The Art of War & Peace: Toward an End to Hatred" presents about 250 works by visionary artists who, as the museum says, remind us that war, like peace, is always experienced by just one person at a time.

The show has a grand sweep that still seems a little surprising, coming as it does from the brushes of mostly self-taught artists working outside the fine arts tradition. Frequently, they are victims of severe social isolation, mental illness and other catastrophic afflictions.

Visionary art is almost by definition a testament to the creative resilience of the human spirit, and when such artists as Stephen Ham or Irving Norman respond to the violent destruction and psychic devastation of war, their images have a heroic poignancy equal to anything on the subject by Goya or Picasso.

War is a soul-crushing institution that wounds its victims psychologically as well as physically. In Vietnam, it was called post-traumatic stress syndrome; for World War II veterans, it was "combat fatigue" or "nerves," and in World War I, it was "shell shock."

The men who fought the American Civil War had a more poetic name for it: They called it "soldier's heart," which also is the title of one of the AVAM show's most unforgettable sections.

The gallery presents works by Ham, who served in Vietnam in an intelligence battalion on many dangerous assignments at age 20. In the exhibit, he describes his initiation into the cauldron of war:

"The first time I saw men straight from combat was at night when they walked into my tent," he recalled. "We looked at each other without a word. It was incomprehensible and mad. But one thing I understood - this was the metamorphosis that awaited me and my friends. In a few days we would be like them."

Ham recorded his experiences in Vietnam in the form of a children's book whose large-scale, cartoon-like illustrations seem even more shocking because of their brutal simplicity.

The paintings include crudely drawn captions that succinctly sum up the point of the illustration: "You become insane during the war," one caption explains. "After the war you are still insane."

Not surprisingly, Ham found no publisher willing to print his work as a children's book. Yet the illustrations and their deceptively simple captions stand as a powerful visual indictment of war in art.

The show contains a number of visionary artists whose work is well-known in other contexts; many have been exhibited in previous AVAM shows. Henry Darger's magnum opus, The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandico-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child-Slave Rebellion, is a prodigious, 15,000-page novel for which the artist produced hundreds of watercolor drawings depicting an epic struggle between good and evil.

Darger's work has been interpreted in terms of the voyeuristic quality of his images and the ambiguous sexuality of his principal figures, the pre-adolescent sisters he called the Vivian Girls.

In the present context, Darger's characters appear as part of a deadly conflict that symbolically recreates America's Civil War and World War I - as well as such fanciful adventures as The Wizard of Oz.

Norman is another artist whose work stands out. His surrealistic, mural-size depictions of soldiers, warships and military parades offer bitter, mocking comment on the social conventions that make war seem noble and heroic.

Sadly, the artists who embraced peace as their subject seemed less compelling by comparison. Among the best was Alex Grey's imposing Cosmic Christ, an altarpiece-like depiction of the Christian Redeemer as a universal spirit in whom all contradictions are resolved. It's very striking, but to my eye, it doesn't have the unforced conviction of the best works by Ham or Norman.

Still, this show should be seen now that America is at war - if for no other reason than it may remind us of the huge costs that military conflicts, even just ones, impose upon victor and vanquished alike.


What: "The Art of War and Peace"

Where: The American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway

When: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through Sept 1, 2002.

Admission: $6 most adults, $4 students and seniors

Call: 410-244-1900

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