AVAM exhibit takes on addiction

`High on Life' art thought-provoking

Art Review

October 09, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Decade after decade, America's vaunted "war on drugs" grinds on with scant prospect of victory and virtually no end in sight. Few politicians have had the courage to call a halt to this senseless policy failure; those who even dare question it have wound up vilified in the press and reviled at the polls. And yet few people in truth any longer expect this "war" to be won; it has become part of the incessant social background noise of modern life, an intractable societal condition whose economic and emotional price tag exceeds the costs of all the wars in which Americans have fought and died.

In such a situation, art may have as much to teach about our inability to extricate ourselves from a disastrous state of affairs as all the official policy studies and political sloganeering. And, so, in a city where one out of six inhabitants is addicted to alcohol or drugs, it is entirely fitting that this season's show at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum should focus on the age-old problem of addiction and humanity's tragic thrall to the temptations of substance abuse.

High on Life: Transcending Addiction is an ambitious, disturbing, thought-provoking and supremely compassionate exploration of the human impulse to ecstasy and bliss that too often ends in the nightmare of chemical dependence.

Curator Tom Patterson has brought together some 300 works by both self-taught and trained artists organized in five large sections that lay out the show's main ideas: that intoxication is a universal biological craving, that the distinction between legal and illegal drugs is both arbitrary and socially destructive, that criminal-justice models of fighting drug abuse are counterproductive and doomed to failure, that changes in brain chemistry caused by drug use historically have been associated with visionary states of consciousness, and that such states can be achieved without drugs through meditation, fasting, dancing and other spiritual practices.

The show opens with a group of works that explore the perils of temptation, throughout Western history a concept linked theologically to ideas of sin and social transgression. Painter David Sandlin visualizes the casual acceptance of alcohol as self-medication and social lubricant in his large canvases Ocean of Whiskey and Pint of No Return, which depict respectable-looking people drinking cocktails in conventional settings.

Sandlin's paintings do not directly implicate liquor as an addictive substance, but they do underline the show's suggestion that legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco are both more pervasive and, in terms of damage to health and property, potentially far more dangerous than illegal ones like marijuana or cocaine.

New York artist David Wojnarowicz's mural-size painting Late Afternoon in the Forest is the centerpiece of another group of images that chart the addict's tragic descent into dependence. Wojnarowicz's imagery evokes the fractured, hallucinatory mental state induced by narcotics, in which reality and fantasy become increasingly indistinguishable.

Both Sandlin and Wojnarowicz are academically trained, but the bulk of the exhibit is made up of works by outsider or self-taught artists. Many of them - such as Howard Finster, whose eccentric paintings teem with childlike, colorful images and religious messages, or Raymond Materson, who created hundreds of minutely detailed images painstakingly embroidered from sock thread while serving a prison term for bank robbery - have appeared in previous AVAM shows.

Not all these artists were necessarily addicts themselves. Some simply transcribed their experience of obsessive behavior and compulsive disorder from other contexts in ways that illuminate the mental dysfunction of addiction. But others are clearly drawing on personal experience: Among them is novelist William Burroughs, author of the notorious drug memoir Naked Lunch, whose spray-painted and stenciled collages on paper and canvas offer images of addiction every bit as harrowing as his more widely known literary works.

This is a show that is important as much for its argument as for the works of visual art that support it. More than a decade ago, former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke tried with limited success to provoke a national dialogue on the wisdom of treating addicts as criminals and drug abuse as a law-enforcement matter rather than as a public health issue. It's a discussion that still needs to take place, and if the show at AVAM advances that goal only enough to get Baltimoreans to face up to what is happening in their own city it will have more than vindicated the hopes of its creators.

Art exhibit

What: High on Life: Transcending Addiction

Where: American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; through September

Admission: $8 adults, $6 students and seniors

Call: 410-244-1900

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