Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Petullo Collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum

James Dixon

Accidental Genius: Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection, through May 06,Milwaukee Art Museum

As Anthony Petullo relates, he began collecting art at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s annual “Lakefront Festival of the Arts” exhibit of regional arts and crafts. Now, 30 years later, he has given those pieces to his children, and gifted the museum with 300 works that he has collected with the sophisticated assistance of galleries that specialize in outsider or self-taught artists. But why should sophistication be more important to collectors of art than it was to the people who made it?

Petrullo may not be a self-taught collector, but he does seem to have taken some chances with several European as well as American artists who are neither well known nor self-taught. In addition to iconic names like Henry Darger and Minnie Evans, one can also find work by Sylvia Levine (1911-1998) whose similar work can currently be bought on the internet for under $500. And she wasn’t completely self taught. She took art classes and worked in an early 20th C. figurative style that probably helped her develop the strong quality of her reclining nudes. David Pearce (b. 1963) is also far from famous, though his sparse, lonely village-scapes show that he is also quite adept at presenting a dreamy and beautiful world. His gallery markets him as “self-taught”, but his own website indicates that he studied at the Epsom, Kent, and Chelsea schools of art.

The other artists in this show also create visual worlds that are distinctly their own, mostly self-centered, and some less happy than others. Only some of them can command interest without reference to the life story that has been posted beside the art, another one of those being James Dixon (1882-1970), whose seascapes feel as brisk and fresh as the wind swept Irish island on which he lived.

None of these pieces are distinguished by exceptional virtuosity or important new developments in form or ideal. Do they really belong in the permanent collection of a major art museum? But the show is a good way to connect to the life stories of some very independent people, and many of the pieces are more visually compelling than anything currently found in the Milwaukee museum’s galleries of contemporary art. Art about self may not aim very high, but still it’s usually more interesting than art about art. The show could be even better if it completely abandoned the pretense of “self-taught”, and opened itself to a broader and less ambiguous category like “non MFA”, while hunting for the best pieces culled from the millions of amateur and professional painters of landscapes, flowers, children, birds, geometric patterns, whatever. Sophistication be damned.