Philadelphia Museum of Art, through June 9
by Sarah Burford
Defining “outsider art” is a fraught task to undertake. As the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s opening panel to “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection asks, such art is “Outside of what,” exactly? Aligned at the beginning of the twentieth century with art of the mentally ill, the work of “outsider” artists has historically sustained associations with Art Brut, folk art, and, most recently, the description “self-taught.” After viewing a landmark 1982 show of African-American folk art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, collectors Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz’s interest in self-taught artists blossomed. In “Great and Mighty Things,” the Bonovitzs’ incredible promised gift of works produced outside of academic or traditional avenues of art making is well positioned for inclusion in a widened art historical canon. The phrase “Great and Mighty Things” comes from the artist Reverend Howard Finster, whose spirited assemblages combining text with popular and religious imagery are included in the show alongside works by other well-known self-taught artists, including James Castle’s wonderfully tactile stitched collages and Bill Traylor’s masterful, enigmatic watercolors. According to John Ollman, owner of Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman gallery and a longtime dealer of self-taught artists, the Bonovitz collection is cultivated largely based on the resonance of particular artworks, rather than a need to collect guided by encyclopedic or chronological impulses.
Such a decision on the part of the collectors perhaps best reveals the nature of the work itself: created outside the mainstream art world, there are some aesthetic similarities among certain artworks, but one is loathe to pin down a particular set of formal characteristics that define a work as “outsider.” This is a good thing, and the show correspondingly presents particular sections of the space devoted to the work of each artist. While the twenty-seven artists featured in “Great and Mighty Things” possess powerful personal histories and have some biographical details in common—many come from a rural background, some have spent time in mental hospitals, others create their work following a moment of divine inspiration, and many speak to historically marginalized American experiences—the format discourages viewers from considering their work through biography alone. Instead, one is offered an opportunity to view the art on its own terms, reinforced by an installation within the typical institutional parameters of the white cube. This clear and conventional framing is frequently at odds with the original context of the pieces. The excellent audio guide accompanying the exhibition, which includes archival photographs of the artists with their works, is well worth perusing for a more thorough sense of each artist’s technical process and the visual potency the works possess in a variety of contexts.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s works open the show, kicking off the exhibition’s particular strength in sculpture. His delicately molded, luminescent ceramics aligned in glass cases along the wall recall both installations of ancient pottery and the shimmering ceramic works of Lynda Benglis, while the artist’s Chicken Bone Thrones and Chicken Bone Tower transform earthy found objects (supposedly leftover from TV dinners) into intricate, whimsical architectonic forms. It is easy to see why the Museum of Modern Art held a solo exhibition of William Edmonson’s work in 1937 (the first African-American artist to do so); his abstracted, elegant limestone sculptures of birds, horses, and sheep bring to mind modernist sculptures by Constantin Brancusi and Isamu Noguchi. The shadows and slight swaying of Emory Blagdon’s delicate hanging sculptures Balance, Single Balance, and Airplane are framed beautifully in their installation, inset into a three-sided, box-like space. Their wiry forms are all the more compelling when one discovers that these sculptures originally numbered in the hundreds, installed in the artist’s Nebraska shed in a colossal environment Blagdon dubbed “The Healing Machine,” an effort to mobilize art’s power as a restorative force to ward off threats of illness following the deaths of the artist’s parents from cancer.
Many of the exhibition’s two-dimensional works refuse to remain defined as such, incorporating found materials that energize their surfaces. Simon Sparrow’s wildly decorative Assemblage with Faces, a lush accumulation of shells, glitter, buttons, and other objects on wood, juxtaposes statuettes of American colonists, Star Wars characters, and angels’ wings, revising their symbolic associations in the process. William Hawkins’ eye-catching Boffo deftly uses bright color and a fantastic tactile quality to depict a bull’s mane and horns, jutting out from their two-dimensional frame. The dates and materials incorporated into many of the works in “Great and Mighty Things” have proved challenging to determine. In the audio guide Curator Ann Percy remarks that several conservators and conservation specialists tested the works in order to best determine what materials the artists may have used. In Hawkins’ Boffo, for example, the museum discovered that the bull’s mane, made from what first appears to be asphalt, was in fact constructed using cornstarch covered in black paint. The rich material and tactile qualities of these pieces are complemented by the canny use of line and color in many of the exhibition’s works on paper, including the bold forms of Martín Ramírez’s complex compositions, delicate pen and ink drawings by Consuelo González Amezcua, and George Widener’s stunning mapping of numerical and temporal sequences in Blue Monday (Reversal).
In a passionate advocacy for further integration of works by self-taught and academically trained artists in museum collections, Roberta Smith writes, “Homogeneity dulls the eye and lulls the brain. It is the discrepancies that grab our attention and make us look more sharply and deeply.” (“Curator, Tear Down These Walls,” The New York Times, January 31, 2013) One indeed learns to look more sharply and deeply when walking through “Great and Mighty Things,” which for visitors might mark an important initiation into a whole pantheon of works, and a corresponding history of American artistic practice, rarely encountered in mainstream art museums. With this also comes an appreciation that one is, in viewing such fresh, reenergizing pieces, just beginning to scratch the surface of possibilities for displaying and organizing exhibitions incorporating these works. The PMA already has a well-established tradition of collecting and exhibiting work by self-taught artists (as in the recent James Castle retrospective organized in 2008). The Bonovitz Collection’s promised gift marks an exciting opportunity, which one would hope is taken up not only by the Philadelphia Museum of Art but also by other institutions, to revise, rupture, and expand the art historical canon, and to build upon the rich visual possibilities such work yields for future curatorial and collections practice.
Sarah Burford is an MA/PhD student in History of Art at Bryn Mawr College and works with the programming department at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.