Arthur Bispo do Rosário at the Colônia Juliano Moreira, photograph by Walter Firmo, 1985. Private collection; © Walter Firmo, image courtesy Livre Galeria.
One sign of an important exhibition may be its ability to move us into unfamiliar territory. By that measure, as by others, the recent show at the American Folk Art Museum, When the Curtain Never Comes Down, has claimed our attention. Its twenty-seven self-taught/outsider artists are represented by both permanent works— assemblages, garments, instruments, drawings, and the like—but more significantly by their actions in movement, song, and other forms of evanescent self-display. In the current art climate it is a relief to encounter art that for the most part cannot be bought or sold. But surely we are drawn to these evangelists of the self for other, deeper reasons. As with many outsider artists, trauma of some sort is often the source of their creativity. And yet the connection between pathology and art is rarely addressed with any useful candor in presentations of outsider work (though biography is often exploited in its presentation). This should make us uneasy when, for instance, we view the sexual anxieties evident in the drawings of the reclusive Henry Darger. But in this exhibition, although most of the artists operate from a private reality quite different from most of ours, we are invited to observe them as they enact it, and in many instances onlookers are essential to their performances. By involving us they collapse some of the distance between aberrant and so-called normal behavior, administering small shocks of recognition and admiration that both disturb and enlighten. It would have been easy for such an exhibition to be seen as violating the vulnerable on the one hand or sentimentalizing the outsider on the other. After all, far from every enactment of a private revelation is art. How the curators have avoided these twin dangers is evident in their selections, of which there are five examples here. If the curtain never comes down on these creators, that is because, really, there is and was no curtain.
All images and texts (by Mario del Curto, Thomas J. Lax, Ricardo Resende, Valérie Rousseau) in the article “Disturbers of the Peace” (The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2015, p.102-107) , with the exception of the introduction by ANTIQUES editor Elizabeth Pochoda, were originally published in the exhibition catalog by Valérie Rousseau (ed.), When the Curtain Never Comes Down: Performance Art and the Alter Ego (New York City: American Folk Art Museum, 2015), 136 p.
Dictionary of Names—Letter A, I. (two-sided) by Bispo do Rosário. Needlework on fabric, 50 ⅞ by 80 ¾ inches. Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporânea, City Hall of Rio de Janeiro.
ARTHUR BISPO DO ROSÁRIO (1909-1989, Brazil)
During his fifty years at the Colônia Juliano Moreira, a psychiatric hospital in Rio de Janeiro, Arthur Bispo do Rosário used the institution’s attic as his studio. He heard voices speaking through him and for him and said that his mission, sent to him by a spiritual deity and master of the universe, was to re-create the chaotic world around him in an even more emphatic manner. On his banner Dictionary of Names—Letter A, I., a large piece of sewn and embroidered fabric, one side is covered with a list of people’s names that begin with the letter A. On the reverse, as if mimicking a map, there is a blank area without any embroidery. This is a large area, yellowed by time, that introduces us to the abyss. It is possible that the artist did not have time to finish this banner but it is clear that this is but one part of many pieces of his big maze, a single mass that formed, in itself, a single work. Bispo needed to reorder his many worlds, the real and the imaginary. He was interested in all of the materials made by man—boots, plastic bottles, confetti. In collecting them, inventorying them, and reordering them, he gave them new meanings and uses, preserving them for eternity.
Eijirō Miyama on a Rooftop in Yokohama and Eijirō Miyama in a Street in Yokohama, photographs by Mario del Curto, 2009. Digital images. Private collection © Marie del Curto.
EIJIRO MIYAMA (1934–, Japan)
Eijirō Miyama is a former construction worker who has become a spontaneous performer in the streets of Yokohama. On some Sundays he extends his stage as far as the hip neighborhood of Shibuya in the heart of Tokyo. Two or three times a month he adorns himself with hats and costumes he has created, gets on his bicycle, and goes to spread a message of peace and happiness. His character and appearance are like a little pebble in the shoe of conformity. In his small room, measuring about six feet by twelve feet, in a building for low income workers, Miyama-san lives his life crowded with his finery, a television, and a recliner that he uses as a bed. His tools and props are carefully stored in a small piece of furniture in his vestibule, ready to be fashioned into a new piece of headwear. Due to lack of space, he tries on his creations on the roof. Miyama-san has a great sense of style and makes sophisticated choices in putting together his outfits: which hat with which glasses, which glasses with which dress, which flowers with which hat. Everything is codified. It takes time, but brings him great pleasure. Finally, Miyama-san is ready. He gets on his bicycle, gives a good push on the pedals, and the show begins. Residents of Yokohama, residents of the world, look at me and enjoy yourselves! Miyama-san runs the gauntlet of the street without any intention of being provocative; above all, he is acting as a free man.
Mario del Curto
Bill Anhang with Scepter, Chest Plate, and Sconce, photograph by Malcolm Gibson, c. 1990. Digital image. Private collection.
BILL ANHANG (1931-; born in Poland, active in Canada)
William “Bill” Anhang was born to Jewish parents in Poland in 1931. He and his family found refuge in Manitoba, Canada, in 1939. In 1960 he moved to Montreal, where he became a broadcast and telecommunications engineer and started a family. In 1973 the company eliminated many jobs and he was forced out. Two years later he was divorced and consulting a guru who encouraged him to devote himself to creativity. “He identified me as an artist,” Anhang has said, describing the feeling of being vested with a mission.1 Since then he has worked on an art that, in his words, brings “a new light to the planet” and “illuminates” the people who see it. Anhang integrates LEDs into various accessories and garments.2 Among the works he creates are aluminum and copper pieces that resemble armor—scepters, busts, hats, and balls—all portable and on which the light travels. He has worn his luminous clothing in front of Montreal’s city hall during the 2001 municipal elections, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and at a march to the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City in 1996. He attributes an almost magical value to the act of holding, wearing, or being repeatedly exposed to his sparkling objects. His business card reads: “The attractive luminous impulses of my works let us rediscover the original blankness of our minds.” To spread his message around the world, Anhang proposed in 1999 to create art workshops in Sarajevo for people who had been handicapped by war. Such an initiative would, he said, “put art at the service of peace and the blending of cultures, to promote the maximum of resolution in zones of combat and conflict.” Art would, he has said, “improve relations between people. …People are weak and they have the right to try all forms of practices to augment themselves.” Anhang hopes that his art can avenge victims of injustice and defend the oppressed. Delusions of grandeur? “Blame it on Cervantes,” he declares. Like Don Quixote, whose adventures were read to him by his mother when he was six, Anhang has high expectations as he fulfills his poetic quest. His systems of blinking lights satisfy Anhang’s love for motion. We are witnessing, he has said, “the animation of a sacred geometry.” Hidden images are composed and dissolved and combinations cyclically resurface, keeping us from retaining a clear idea of the diagrams they have formed and re-formed. Like Cervantes’s hero who is a righter of wrongs, Anhang sees himself as a righter of images.
Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music) by Lonnie Holley, 1986. Salvaged phonograph top, phonograph record, and animal skull; height 13 ¾, width 15 ¾, depth 9 inches. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. Photograph by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studios.
LONNIE HOLLEY (1950–, United States)
Lonnie Holley’s Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music) is an assemblage made of a salvaged phonograph top, a phonograph record, and an animal skull. This juxtaposition of industrial and organic materials is brought together in a cycle of use and reuse, death and reanimation, and is also the cover image of the artist’s recent album Keeping a Record of It (2013). The album derives from the sculpture, suggesting that the artist situates his found-object sculptures, the environments in which they emerge, and his musical performances in a shared constellation. In “From the Other Side of the Pulpit,” a song on the album, Holley’s stream of consciousness lyrics take on ecological and cosmological matters with both seriousness and a sense of humor: he says that he’s watching earthquakes and tsunamis; he then sings that he’s “Trying to keep food on the table / And trying to keep some in the refrigerator too.”
Holley has released two albums. In 2014 he toured with jazz musician Brian Blade and singersongwriter Bill Callahan. He has also played with members of indie rock bands including Animal Collective, Deerhunter, and the Dirty Projectors. Much of his recent success can be attributed to the power of his performance style, which is imbued with his personality—from the multiple rings and bracelets made of found materials he wears to his open demeanor that draws in anyone who approaches his orbit. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950 and based in Atlanta since 2010, he has been the subject of national attention since the 1980s, when his site-specific, monumental yard show located near the Birmingham airport became a destination for collectors, curators, and local followers. First known for his sculptural carvings made with raw sandstone, Holley subsequently began making a large-scale environment that included his sandstone sculptures within an installation of rescued junkyard debris, from plastic flowers and animal bones to copy machines and melted television sets. Holley’s songs are improvised, employing a reusable set of themes, lyrics, and refrains. He laces his performances with personal narratives of rescue and redemption—his adoption by his grandmother at age fourteen after being raised in foster care and in Alabama’s Industrial School for Negro Children, a near-death experience the same year, and his discovery of art at twenty-nine, for example. Holley has said, “Time, for me, works like a door. You have to go through time in order to be in it. It seems like one big cycle from within, like a spring.”3
Thomas J. Lax
Untitled (Mask) by Deborah Berger, before 1984. Knitted Orlon; height 26 ¾, width 33 ¼, depth 13 inches. American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, gift of the Art Council of New Orleans. Photo by Mary Dwan Courtesy American Visionary Art Museum.
DEBORAH BERGER (1956–2005, United States)
When Deborah C. Berger died at forty-nine in New Orleans, her family recovered many knit artworks and precisely executed clothing from her apartment.4 At the initiative of the New Orleans Museum of Art, a selection of these, as well as archival documents related to her work, were saved and sent to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The collection contains more than one hundred items, including patchwork-like blankets, carpets, baskets, and oversized games. The majority of her works are wearable garments: in addition to the masks and elaborate sculptural headpieces, she made highly patterned and colorful ensembles of dresses and accessories such as berets, headdresses, handbags, shawls, scarves, rings, earrings, and pins. In photographs, Berger poses with her creations, her long red hair resting on her shoulders, carefully matching colors and patterns, hats and dresses. Berger was a knitting prodigy. By the age of ten she was making outfits for herself, as well as toys and other constructions. Diagnosed with autism, she attended boarding schools for children with special needs in Pennsylvania and Texas. She later graduated from Middlesex County Community College in New Jersey and lived in New Orleans the last five years of her life. She sometimes posed as a model for other artists and was known upon occasion to have had legal problems as a result of instances of disruptive public behavior. On the Internet, she was a vehement participant in discussion groups, notably one about Wicca, the religion based on witchcraft. Berger researched this movement and one of its main symbols, the pentacle, appears on some of her hats. Berger’s artworks were shown in the 2010 exhibition Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness at the American Visionary Art Museum. Her rainbow-colored Orlon mask in the annual group show Mercer County Artists 84 at Mercer County Community College during the summer of 1984 received an honorable mention.