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

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

About the Future

Following the Memory Project, the next theme at the Centre for the Living Arts downtown Mobile is a reflection about the future and more specifically, future possibilities for the Gulf Coast. A magnet for community-wide activities to promote "community building through the arts", the center hosts Futures Project, an ambitious program which includes lectures, debates, film screenings, workshops focused on a monthly topic including "childhood and aging", "home, place and public safety", "environment, climate change, predictions and politics, "education and learning, success and failure", "health, wellness and spirituality", "communication, information, knowledge and wisdom", "art and cultural institutions", "races, class, immigration and ethics", "Mobile and downtown economic development". Among these activities, an exhibition featuring local and international artists is on display for nine months in the 16,000 square foot gallery. The building, located in the bustling downtown near coffee shops, restaurants, parks and my preferred bookstore stands out with its graffiti decorations on the outside walls.

Upon entering the vast space and before getting any visual cues, the visitor is immersed in a chatter of computerized voices. Short sentences about the future fill the air, louder then fading away as one  progresses along a large wall calendar filled with daily messages generated by the search of the word "future" on a computer. The grey wall divided by a grid, each small rectangle covered by a daily printed page with the word "future" in red, the monotonous artificial voices, the printer spewing random quotes, all describe an anonymous, emotionless world where computers override our thoughts, an ominous message delivered by 2X4, a global graphic designer company from New York City.
In sharp contrast across the aisle and further in the gallery, the works from Kenny Scharf, well-known graffiti artist from Brooklyn depict a world filled with bright neon pink, blue, green colors. His installations include Cosmic Cavern inspired by the original cavern located in a Brooklyn basement, site of memorable Day-Glo parties, an old model car from the fifties with kitschy decorations and piles of colored trash. A collection of paintings from the late nineties to early 2000's line up the walls. Lunar landscapes, extraterrestrials, cartoonish renditions of popular themes of science-fiction contribute to an out of space atmosphere, but it seems that Scharf's latest vision of the future goes back to the eighties.
On the way to a dark room where a simultaneous projection of videos on the four walls features Future Tense curated by Tom Leeser from CalArts, the sound installation from Nina Waisman is inescapable. Like a sea-monster with its tentacles, the interactive work generates "sounds from far-flung worlds" when activated by the movements of the visitor, promoting an awareness of new physical boundaries around the body by extending its spatial envelope.
In the background, the Pop Boat from Xavier de Richemont glows in the dark. A model of the battleship USS Alabama, slowly painted with light in front of our eyes, takes patriotic colors when covered with American flags, becomes a memorial to the sailors who served on the ship with the projection of photographs and slowly evolves in a final show of pink azaleas. The French artist is famous for his light shows on the façades of buildings and the display is a model for a project in the Mobile harbor.
Filling a space with red balloons, Candy Chang's installation is a festive sight for a serious project about schools.
Aboard the Mothership Part One: Postulations of Myth and Math, the imaginative work about the future from Dawn DeDeaux brings us to a different world somewhat dark and mysterious introduced by two  portraits, hidden behind heavy medieval masks reflecting the landscape, but hiding the eyes. The media itself , digital drawings on steel reinforces the Gothic warrior look. The display includes also large wall panels printed on metal representing southern landscapes and ladders in glass or burned wood, now iconic objects for the artist, the symbol of escape. A whirling stack of painted chairs climbs to the ceiling where the replica of a horse perched 20 feet above the gallery looks down to its reflection on a piece of Plexiglas. With her great sense of staging, DeDeaux succeeds in creating an enchanted world of fairy tales and an escape from history? the future? reality? disasters?

From Scharf's sci-fi pop-happy future to the uncertain dark age from DeDeaux, a stimulating exhibition to think about.

photographs by the author:

detail of the façade Centre for the Living Arts
detail "Cosmic Cavern", Kenny Scharf, 2013
"The School of the Future", Candy Chang, 2013
View of the exhibition, Dawn DeDeaux

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Colored Sketches

No need to introduce the author of Book of Sketches,(1952-1957), Jack Kerouac, who became famous after the publication of his novel On the Road in 1957.
Following the suggestion of his friend the architect Ed White, Kerouac started "sketching" with words in a pocket notebook he carried at all occasions. The published version is a small thick book filled with raw material, words building a succession of short compositions, vivid descriptions of landscapes and people. Pale pink pastel, red-pink, white, blue, cerulean blue, grey, every object from daily life is described in detail using a palette of words.

Wandering across Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska,... the writer is painting a succession of vignettes, like travelling in a car or a train looking through the window and catching a glimpse of deserts, mountains, "pale gold grass", "green sage", "plowed brown field", "snow in the mountain", "rose clouds",.. background, foreground, subject. The result is a poetic prose and one could take pen and brushes to draw the landmarks.
The rhythm of the words becomes furious at times or slows down like incantations.

The notes include also more private thoughts philosophical, religious or plain emotions related to the death of his brother. The statements in a few words are blunt at times and Kerouac describes the process of  sketching as "...purify your mind and let it pour the words and write with 100% honesty". It is a diary of sort and no illustrations are included. Kerouac also discusses more mundane subjects like women roles, debt and credit, protection plans and the slavery of belonging to a system. He introduces a genuine view of the hobos' world and singles out a group of  "fellaheens... a world generalization for peasants... unchanged by history or fashion" and assimilates Gauguin and Rembrandt to this group. His remarks on art are short "surrealism is a wild scatological paint blur".
His most compelling pieces are his small landscapes, "orange flame ball, green lettuce fields, brown dirt milky haze"
Kerouac, the icon of the beat generation likes short, provocative statements "people need no religion , no art, no war".

The introduction by George Condo, written in 2005 gives a new status to the small notebook by referring to Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Picasso...with the last sentence "Only Jack and Vincent van Gogh told the inner truth".

"The Starry Night", Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, The Museum of Modern Art
"Lavender Mist- number 1", Jackson Pollock, 1950, National Gallery of Art
"Railroad Sunset", Edward Hopper, 1929, Whitney Museum of American Art

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Last month, the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans presented a challenging exhibition. Blame It on Vegas- Collecting Meta-Modern brought me to surf the Web and find "Notes about Meta-Modernism", the Webzine initiated by the Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in May 2009. It also reminded me of my visit at the  Centre Pompidou two years ago where I saw UR from Cyprien Gaillard, winner of the Marcel Duchamp prize at the FIAC in 2010. The photographic collections of ruins from past civilizations left us wonder about the future of our world. Like Gaillard, Stephen Paul Day spends some time yearly in Berlin and though called a post-modernist, relates to the meta-modernist movement.

The artist curated the exhibition, an assortment of sculptures, paintings, objects,
randomly distributed throughout the gallery (maybe not so randomly). Napoleon and Hitler are the subject of several works, the empire builders now reduced to small sculptures. Napoleon is remembered with a lineup of eleven sugar almond candied colored busts and two busts on a pink glass base facing each other in a self-embrace. Hitler is a small lonely sculpture in a glass ball, frozen in an eternal salute. Along the wall, three large representations of matchboxes, humorous drawings included, further, The laughing Man. Blame it on Vegas, 2013, the upside down head of a laughing man with a distorted view of his smile, now a grimace, Smoker, 2013, Nursery, 2011, with their flavor of old post cards, A Theory of Everything, 2013, two life-size rabbits engaged in sex strategically placed toward the street window to attract the passers-by attention, several neo-classical sculptures with a twist like Lady Finger, 2013 which includes an anatomical representation of the thorax and abdomen of a female below a perfect face or Jacob the Doll Collector, 2013, with his cherub-like  features but a dislocated body, the list goes on. Aura, 2013, includes shackles, a zebra ankle, a plastic heart,... an accumulation of unrelated objects, like in a curios store. Romanticism is not far with Opati Ja (Sleep), 2013, the view of a railroad to nowhere bathing in a dark sunset, hopeless.
A medley of styles  (figurative, pop, neo-classical...), with a very European flavor of decadence "de bon ton", hardly provocative, the works generate little emotions.
Back to the title and Meta-Modernism, Vermeulen and van den Akker defined the movement as "an oscillation between Modernism and Post-Modernism...must embrace doubt, as well as hope and melancoly, sincerity and irony, affect and apathy, the personal and the political..."


At the end of my visit, I felt like the collector in the painting Portrait of a Meat-Modernist Collector, 2013, surrounded by disconnected art works, somewhat confused, looking at an elusive future.

photographs by the author:

Mirror, 2013
The Laughing Man. Blame it on Vegas, 2013
General Strategy, 2013
Portrait of a Meta Modernist Collector, 2013

bibliography "Learning From Las Vegas", Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Born, Steven Izenour, MIT Press, 1972