Thursday, June 27, 2013

Five Southern "Outsiders"

Every six months, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi presents a new exhibition and the latest, Visions, Art Outside the Box, features the works from five Southern artists in the gallery of African American art. The label "outsider artist" is their only connection. Styles, subjects are otherwise very personal.
 Raw art (art brut) is a term coined by Jean Dubuffet who became interested in art created by the mentally ill and children. The broader definition includes outsider artists who have in common a total innocence regarding art, lacking education and references.
At first overwhelmed by the diverse works, I chose to follow the informative catalog and discover each artist, one at a time, looking for the numbers on the wall to match the list and crossing the gallery back and forth as needed.

The first painting from W. St. Julien is a mythical male portrait with lionized features in bright orange colors. The beard like a mane, high implanted ears and stylistic eyebrows, eyes and mouth give an air of authority to the personage smoking a pipe. The two adjacent paintings are characterized by their heavy impasto, worked on the canvas with most likely a pallet knife. The tormented portrait of Igor Stravinsky and the bunch of flowers have an expressionistic flavor, reminiscent of Soutine's work. Further, a daunting painting in light brownish colors, half-skull with well delineated eye-sockets, skin melting on the cheeks down to the chin and a thin halo around the skull is clearly a symbolic painting. Across, a pure abstract piece composed with the three primary colors evokes tachism. An attempt at a formal male portrait in a three quarter pose, stays hazy and lacks spontaneity. Saint-Julien's experimentations with different techniques show intent and some conformity.
Theodore Brooks is represented by one painting, an imposing female portrait with her veil and serious stare, a contrast to his production of extravagant objects. He obviously enjoyed carving and decorating, his magisterial cedar armchair, his magnificent bird or three brightly colored jugs are proof of this.
Four of Martin Green's work can be spotted from far away and represent his view of the universe, the result of his imagination. Planets of different colors gliding on a background of starry skies and lunar landscapes provide an escape in a silent world. The colors bring a different mood to the compositions, dreamy or lively, dark or bright.
One wishes to see more than two works from Willie White, an artist recognized by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and Intuit: the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago. Both institutions have acquired works from White for their permanent collections. Watermelons and Self-Portrait, belonging to the collections of the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art are representative of the naive style of the artist. A look at the watermelons, a recurrent subject in his work, is thirst quenching. Also, often included in his compositions, the symbol of the cross is present in his self-portrait. Both are executed with his preferred media, felt-tip markers and paper on poster board resulting in dense, lush tropical colors.

The engaged works from Dr.Charles Smith include a number of sculptures in cement and other found material, displayed as a group along a wall. The scale of the sculptures is small but their presence is huge and the message comes out loud and clear: a warrior in a defiant poses, a tribesman with a spear, all have a story to tell. Violence reaches an acme with Willie Lynch: How to make a negro, an African-American head uttering a scream, bound by a rope and framed by a tire. References to historical events like Soweto next to a sharecropper shrink geography and time and relate social and political issues. The media (cement painted with pigments, beads, fabrics, recycled items like an old ironing board) makes the artist an outsider, he is also an activist, historian and minister delivering his message through his work.
Raw art is a challenge for the viewer. Forget techniques, fashions, it is about spontaneity, creativity and the individual artist. Raw art takes us out of our comfort zone...and this is good.

photograph courtesy the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art

Martin (“Marto”) Green
Detail of Untitled, c1977

Acrylic on poster board
22” x 28”
Collection of Robert Tannen and Jeanne Nathan

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