Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Heaven and Hell at LUMA and Intuit

Heaven and Hell; Intuit and LUMA, through June 30

With it’s emphasis on The Word, Protestant Christianity has not had much use for visual narrative art, and when it has been used in Sunday school texts and such, it has run between dry and anemic. But it’s emphasis on individual salvation is a good match for those obsessed with personal visions, i.e. outsider artists, and nothing seems to have inspired them more than the depiction of Heaven and Hell.

This exhibition, drawing from 40 private and museum collections around the country, began as LUMA’s initial venture into the wild and wooly world of outsider art, so they wisely brought in the expertise of the Intuit Center Two curators, one from each institution, collaborated on making all the selections, and then the display was split between both galleries, with, appropriately enough, the Jesuit university hosting heaven and the outsider art gallery raising Hell

And that Hell is really hellish, often envisioned by people who have had difficult lives, sometimes ending up in prison. The life story of each artist is told in some detail, making the bizarre visions more understandable, my favorite being Royal Robertson. After his wife ran off with another man, the artist collaged a few cartoon Godzillas attacking a picture-perfect beach and light house. But even better is the sculpture, which doesn’t rely on any explanatory text, but stands proudly, and freakishly, on its own, as each artist-prophet “sees more devils than vast Hell can hold”.

As one might expect, self-motivated artists can more easily identify with the willfulness of Satan rather than the obedience of angels, and while Hell is supposed to be ugly, Heaven really ought to be beautiful (not just pretty). So the depictions of Heaven are less compelling. But still, some of these untaught artists were quite talented in their chosen media. Clementine Hunter is one of the few painters in the show who seems to respond more to paint than to message, while William Edmondson was so good at carving strong, simple shapes, he was the first African American to have a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art.

So there are lots of discoveries to be made in both shows. All three of the artists mentioned above were African-American, and a good show might be made including only that ethnic group. While a better show might have given less emphasis to Howard Finster, who has 19 pieces on display. His cheerful, benign images may serve well to introduce outsider art to newcomers, but just like television evangelists, he also seems to have crossed the line between prophet and entrepreneur. If an outsider artist is trying hard to please other people, is he still an outsider?

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