Water, water, all around at AVAM

Exhibit celebrates liquid of life itself


October 04, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Armies have fought over it, priests have blessed it and scientists have searched for it in distant worlds.

Life as we know it cannot exist in the absence of water, and from time immemorial water has been celebrated and revered as the indispensable fluid on which all life depends.

So perhaps it's no surprise that this ubiquitous but essential liquid, is now the subject of a sometimes serious, often lighthearted exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum.

Holy H2O: Fluid Universe is an extended essay of some 150 works by 40 outsider artists on the many meanings and associations of water throughout history.

Spread over several galleries on the museum's second floor, the show draws from mythology and religion, philosophy and science, touching upon topics from the ancient worship of sea goddesses to the modern public health and engineering problems of ensuring safe drinking water supplies.

The museum has assembled a collection of artworks that in one way or another comment on virtually every imaginable aspect of water's importance. Take, for example, Tom Duncan's enormous, minutely detailed kinetic sculpture of Coney Island, the historic ocean-side family amusement park that for decades has attracted legions of urban sun-and-surf enthusiasts.

Duncan's exuberant piece is all about the recreational attraction of seaside resorts drawn from his own childhood memories. Yet oddly it contains not one drop of water or even a decent imitation of it.

Instead, the piece is a whirring set piece of carnival rides, subway trains, freak shows and colored lights.

New York-born artist Nancy Josephson was inspired by Haitian art and religion to become a Voodoo priestess and devotee of the mermaid-like figure LaSiren, a Haitian deity who personifies the ocean's dual qualities of great strength and serenity.

Josephson has systematically collected Haitian religious art and artifacts, which she assembled into a life-size statue and alter room decorated with more than 100 pounds of glitter, beads and sequins.

The mermaid theme is taken up by Christopher Moses, whose fanciful painted depictions of the alluring female sea creatures are one of the highlights of the show.

Holy H2O also presents works by several artists who have participated in previous AVAM exhibitions.

Elizabeth Layton, who began drawing at the age of 68 and who was featured prominently in last season's Golden Blessings of Old Age/Out of the Mouths of Babes at the museum, is represented here by one of her characteristically self-deprecating self-portraits in which she appears as an elderly woman in her bath.

Works by J.B. Murray also were included in the museum's last show. An illiterate Georgia tenant farmer, he was in his 70s when inspired by a vision to set down his revelations in a language that only he could read - and then, only when looking through a bottle of holy water. Murray's works resemble mini-abstract-expressionist paintings with their exuberant swirls of color and cryptic, scrawled notations.

My only quibble with the show is that, as in previous exhibitions, for reasons of cost the museum has issued a checklist of the works in the show along with short biographical notes on the artists rather than a formal exhibition catalog.

As the country's premier venue for visionary and outsider art, whose shows perform an important function in presenting this work to the public, it's a pity there's no permanent record documenting AVAM's exhibitions in a way that makes quick and easy reference possible. In coming years, I hope the museum will be able to find the funds to produce this much-needed enhancement to its exhibition programs.

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