This past long weekend, I took the bus to Baltimore for a visit to the American Visionary Art Museum. Now some people may think riding a bus for eight hours in one day just to visit a museum is sort of loony, but that's because these go-nowheres aren't aware that included in the $60 fare is top-caliber entertainment in the form of a viewing of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Besides, I would travel a lot longer than that for a visit to the coolest museum on the Eastern Seaboard.
Each year AVAM mounts a mega-exhibit which runs for about 9 months. This year's offering, "We Are Not Alone," completely renewed my slightly shaken faith in the museum. Longtime Buddies readers may remember my review of the previous show, which was top-notch compared to other art museums, but didn't leave me grinning like a monkey on Zoloft, the way that a visit to AVAM usually does. "We Are Not Alone," although small, really captured the wonder I had remembered. The show set out to demonstrate the need for people to feel that there is more to the world than the eye can see, and that all kinds of ghosts, aliens, devils and what-not float or swim or hang around outside of one's daily experience.
The first floor houses an exhibit of "Art Brut" primarily from Europe. I thought I had misinterpreted the theme of the major show, because the art really had little to do with being not alone.
As I headed up the stairs to floor two, though, I realized that the meat of the matter was sitting up there. The exhibition was organized according to mini-themes, and the first I came across was "Beasties, Mermaids, and Imaginary Beings." A painting of a giant purlpe King Kong with a distinctly human face welcomed me into the room. Now we were getting somewhere.
A couple of long paintings by Henry Darger featured nymph-like little girls with big eyes, like old comic-strip characters, who appeared to be prancing around in the woods. Upon closer inspection, half of the girls were being strangled by creepy men in suits, and the others were all discussing the impending explosion of their forest. One girl asked, "Two carloads of dynamite? Where did you say?" and as I read along, the cryptic quotes revealed that somehow somebody had driven a cache of explosives into a log and it was about to blow. One particularly enigmatic girl asked, "How do they make this nincompoop stuff out of wood?" I had no idea what she meant by nincompoop stuff, but the line struck me anyway.
Another standout in this room was the drawing by Albert Hoffman of a big-foot-esque creature wandering on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, while passerby looked on, horrified. I couldn't help but feel bad for the poor Yeti, who was trying so desperately to fit in, even having bought a box of saltwater taffy just like the rest of the Jersey Shore tourists.
Through a long hallway covered in diaristic drawings of one woman's many abductions by aliens, I made my way toward the "Aliens, Abductees, and UFOs." While I tend to find most jabber about aliens tedious and contrived, the items on display in this room covered some new ground. While none of it convinced me in the slightest as to the existence of flying saucers, the work was earnest and not annoying in a "Truth is Out There" conspiracy way.
Olin West embroidered a piece of cotton in the shape of a necktie with hundreds of colored beads, depicting a cow being abducted by a flying saucer. He named it, appropriately, "Cow Abduction Tie." While ostentatious for your regular office, the tie would look great with a big old rhinestone cowboy hat and some shiny boots.
A plaster, paint, concrete, plastic and flashing-light saucer by Ionel Talpazan hung from a steel frame against one wall. The garden variety UFO didn't win points for originality, but it did look neat floating there. On the other hand, Paul Laffoley's incredibly complex diagrams of spaceships and alien buildings displayed a fantastic degree of imagination. According to his biographical blurb on the wall next to his painting (most of the work in the museum is accompanied by a short sketch of the artist's life), Paul said the word "Constantinople" when he was six months old, and then clammed up until he was four. The wording was a little bit unclear, but it seems that he went for a "routine" CAT scan, which revealed an "implant" in his brain. The quotes around implant are from the writer of the biographical info, so I took it to mean that nobody is quite sure how true the implant story is. (The quotes around routine are all mine, because I have never heard of anybody having a routine CAT scan.)
Clearly, something interesting goes on in this guy's brain, though. The paintings illustrate alien worlds, captioned by such terms as "The Anergetic Angel That Unveils the Metatron: The Temple of Methodological Revelation," or "The path that the world must take to avoid total annihilation." His plans are so complex and exacting, reminiscient of architectural diagrams, that I felt as if they should make sense, but the more I tried to decode his messages and drawings, the more confused I got. Maybe I don't know enough about anergetic angels, but considering the time he spent in a mental institution, I'm guessing he's the cracked one, not me.
Across the way from the aliens I went into the "Angels, Devils and Haints" room. A haint, according to the synopsis on the wall, is a particularly Southern U.S. creature; a spirit which takes up residence in people's homes. Sort of like a regular ghost, I supposed, but one from the South.
Jake McCord, covering two bases, painted a couple of amorphous, primary-colored creatures. A devil entitled "Devil," and and angel with the more clever title "You Can Live For ever." Both figures wore the happiest facial expressions imaginable. Even the devil looked joyous.
Sultan Rogers' "Haint Houses" were peopled with hilariously spooky carved wooden ghosts, including a couple with the bodies of humans but bird heads, a couple with dog heads, and one man with two heads on one body. The woman with a Gene Simmons-sized tongue sticking out of her mouth set me to chuckling in the museum, but would undoubtedly scare the hair off my head if I saw her floating around my apartment. The houses, approximately four feet tall each, were topped off with lamps, complete with tasteful beige shades.
The "Hall of Companions" consisted of imaginary friends, like Albert "Kid" Mertz's cartoonish characters. Mertz became a hobo at the age of 15, during the Great Depression, and only settled down years later in Nowago, MI, where he covered his house with TV dinner trays, and painted all of them. Unwilling to stop there, he continued painting everything he could get his hands on, including his chickens, who he felt sorry for due to their drab feathers. The museum displayed a whole wall of wood blocks, painted with some of his imaginary buddies. One square-headed character said, "IYam a square head I Yam Hi." Another advised "Aproblemisn'thardifuuseyourheadIdareutouseyournoggin." Pretty good advice, once you figure out what it says.
The next room over contained a variety of "Spirit Photographs." According to the writing on the wall, some unscrupulous early photographers took advantage of people's ignorance about the photographic process, and would convince them that spirits could be captured on the plates. By double-exposing the negatives, these photographers would give folks the impression that they were sitting next to dead relatives or other apparitions. They apparently charged a pretty penny for the service of capturing the ghosties.
The Hall of Companions illustrated most obviously what was evident throughout the whole show. The artists, even those depicting ghosts and devils and aliens, who would logically be feared, seemed to take comfort in the idea that they were truly not alone. I supposed that the idea that they had some kind of companions while they were alive, or at least that after they died, they would go on, albeit haunting a house in Georgia, or spending time with a colorful, happy devil, gave the artists, many of whom had spent time in jails or institutions or addicted to drugs, something to go on for or look forward to.
Most enjoyably, though, the show returned to the funny, off-kilter form that I associated with outsider art ever since the first time I stepped through its doors.
The American Visionary Art Museum
Who are we? ©1998 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. Questions or Comments?