THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Bill Traylor (American, 1853-1949). Four Men, Bottles on a Shelf, c. 1939-42. Crayon on cardboard, 13 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. Collection of Victor F. Keen
Where does art come from—within or without?
In Meno, Socrates tries to prove that knowledge is innate by coaxing the answer to a geometry problem out of one of Meno’s slave boys. Millennia later, innatism still has a lot of appeal. Some version of it is embedded in any notion of the lone creative genius—that useful fiction or profoundly humbling reality which, among other things, helps distinguish what we regard as fine art from the far wider sea of popular culture.1
This issue of the Examiner is focused on figurative work. Accordingly, I walked through “Outsider Art: The Collection of Victor F. Keen” at the Intuit Gallery with an eye to those forms.
Figuration presents a challenge to any innatist theory of artmaking, as it cannot simply come from within. The outside world is and must be a reference point; even fantastical creatures, the stuff of nightmares, are cobbled together from bits and pieces of observed reality.
On the other hand, outsider (or intuitive—or naïve—or [INSERT NEXT YEAR’S EUPHEMISM]) art requires an authentic, rough-edged, unmistakably individual artist. In short, it requires some kind of genius. The play of external forces is certainly significant; in many cases, those forces are the cause of whatever individuating factor defines the outsider artist as such. In the end, though, the outsider artist as category feels more like some demigod in our cult of the Individual. Outsider artists' figurative strategies (or lack thereof) are commensurately distinctive.
Why is George Widener the way that he is? Widener couldn’t tell you. A Rain Man-like autistic savant, when he lifts an arm, he can perform staggeringly complex calculations in his head—or so it was said during a public conversation involving Keen, gallerist Frank Maresca and Intuit curator Alison Amick on February 8. They added that Widener has grown more savvy about the art world during his years in the spotlight—a reminder that neuroatypicality is sometimes less of a barrier to interpersonal sophistication than it may seem.
The human figure is absent from Widener’s canvases. Still, representation and abstraction (the latter of an almost transcendental flavor) jostle against each other in interesting ways. Like Wesley Willis, Stephen Wiltshire, and many other autistic artists, Widener is given to creating vast, vaguely inhuman cityscapes. Uniquely, his appear to be governed by cryptic numerologies—results of deep ratiocination in the service of something internal and otherwise incommunicable. Widener’s enormous, Titanic-themed CATCH 22, an idiosyncratic take on reincarnation, exemplifies this tendency. It is no coincidence that a different George Widener died on the Titanic—Widener believes he may be a distant relative of this historical double.
Amick’s curation, both witty and sensitive, points up contrasts in the artists’ approaches to the figure. Thus, one of Marcos Bontempo’s ink and salt agonies Untitled (Man with Raised Hand) is juxtaposed with a Bill Traylor (Four Men, Bottles on Shelf). Both depict silhouetted figures reaching upward. Yet the two images could hardly be more different. Bontempo’s works, painted rapidly on paper while he crouches on the ground, exude a sort of demonic force. He seems to draw from the same well of nightmares as illustrator Stephen Gammell. Though sometimes verging on tragic autoethnography, Traylor’s figures are far more playful than pathetic. Consider the character in the upper righthand corner of Four Men, Bottles on Shelf; his dynamism is expressed through an elongated arm, which reaches toward one of the eponymous bottles.
Martín Ramírez’s figures, caught up in the intermeshed lines of pencilwork for which he is famous, reveal yet another approach to the human form. One iconic caballero (Untitled), confident astride a wild-eyed bronco, brings to mind the carbon traced characters of Henry Darger. Even if they were not literally copied, Ramírez’s figures have an iconographic quality that places them in the brackish waters where inner and outer mix. Is he recycling generic motifs, remembered, perhaps, from his younger days in Mexico? If so, the wider context for that imitation—one both visual and biographical—only reinforces the artist’s inescapable individuality (diagnosed schizophrenic, Ramírez produced his work while institutionalized in a series of asylums).
This diversity of figurative strategies corresponds to the diversity of artists in Keen’s collection. Of course, figuration is but one of many intriguing threads in this show. Considered as a whole, the exhibition is a clear success. Its only failing is its sheer eclecticism. For example, an array of Catalin radios, though fascinating, made me feel like I had stumbled upon a particularly highbrow yard sale.2 This is, at worst, a minor lapse. As is so often the case at Intuit, the show rewards multiple visits.
Nathan Worcester is the managing editor of the New Art Examiner. Heckle him on Twitter @theworcesterest or via email at email@example.com. He lives in Chicago.
1. Excluding the Renaissance or widespread contemporary practice of workshops (which, in the case of middlebrow favorites like Kehinde Wiley, extends to the neoliberally logical step of outsourcing production to China).
2. Catalin, a Bakelite-like thermosetting polymer, was used to manufacture cabinet radios from the 1930s until the 1950s. The material tends to deteriorate rapidly, making genuine Catalin radios a rarity.
George Widener (American, b. 1962). CATCH 22, 2013. Mixed media on joined paper, 83 1/2" x 59". Collection of Victor F. Keen.
Marcos Bontempo (Argentinian, b. 1969). Untitled (Man with raised hand), 2012. Ink and salt on paper, 39 1/2 x 27 1/2 in. Collection of Victor F. Keen.
Martín Ramírez (Mexican, active in America, 1895–1963). Untitled (Caballero), n.d. Crayon on paper, 30 3/4" x 24". © Estate of Martín Ramírez. Collection of Victor F. Keen.
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