The shy, reclusive and self taught maker of shadow boxes and experimental films, Joseph Cornell , rarely left New York State, with the exception of a few college years in Andover, Mass, spending most of his life in a modest house in the beautifully named Utopia Parkway, Queens, caring for his mother and disabled brother. His artwork is filled with a yearning for the unobtainable ; birds with their freedom of flight, glamorous movie stars and ballerinas as the source of passionate, platonic romances and especially travel to the most luxurious and wondrous locations.
Hotels are a common feature of his shadow boxes, miniature visions of rest stops and trysting places for artistic, mythological and astrological archetypes as they travel through the starry Empyrean and the wastes of infinity.
Dorothea Tanning remarked on her childhood in Galesburg, Illinois that nothing happened but the wallpaper, however everything, even wallpaper, is grist to the true artists mill and she succeeded during her long and incredibly productive life to create memorable works set in conventional domestic spaces filled with mystery, confrontation and revelation.
Family Portrait was painted in Sedona, Arizona, where Tanning lived with her husband Max Ernst for part of every year until they moved to France permanently in 1957 . The painting is dominated by the huge father (or husband) figure wearing sinister mirrored round glasses in the background. The size of each figure seems entirely dependent on their status within the family group. The perky daughter (or wife) with her large and expressive eyes sits level at the table with its crisp linen and strange dishes, dwarfing the housekeeper who is little bigger than the small dog on its hindquarters begging for its dinner. The muted colours add to the ominous and oppressive atmosphere. Family Portrait is a suburban Gothic drama of hidden tensions and Wonderland-like changes in scale that lingers unnervingly in the memory.
Art brut also known as outsider or visionary or self taught art is an ever expanding field as it has attracted considerable attention in the 21st Century, now with its own dedicated galleries, museums, exhibitions, art fairs and publications. In this the fourth group post on this fascinating subject I have chosen three artists currently at work and one who, although working on creating his own imaginary utopia for sixty years was only discovered in the first decade of the new century, towards the end of his life.
An ex-prisoner Nightingale takes between six months to a year to create his meretricious crafted paintings, often combining mixed media. He has only recently agreed to representation, by the excellent Henry Boxer Gallery in the UK, as he is loathed to be parted with his work, so information concerning the artist is scarce. Highly decorative borders featuring flora, fauna and religious iconography frequently surround a central figure of a woman, skull or foetus in utero. Finely crafted inserts are another notable feature.
Anne Marie Grgich
One of the most respected art brut artists working today, who has exhibited all across the world, Grgich has mastered her own unique form of collage. Taking a book from the 1950’s she will over-paint, collage and then paint some more to form layers. Renowned for her bold expressionistic faces, I am also particularly taken by her vibrantly crowded recent works.
Apart from a brief artist statement which reveals that even the name is a pseudonym, I could find no information about this artist. Born in 1982, at the age of 32 Margot suddenly started drawing tirelessly. Precise, elaborate, bursting with a kinetic energy and a over-flowing symmetry, the art speaks for itself.
A talented self taught artist, Kuhler worked at the North Carolina Museum of Natural History as a scientific illustrator for most of his life. He always had happy memories of his brief period growing up in Rockland County, New York in an otherwise unhappy childhood and it was here that he based his imaginary kingdom of Rocaterrania, bordered by Canada and Northern New York state. Rocaterrania had its own laws, language, ethnic groups, customs and even members of a third sex called neutants.
In this third installment in the occasional series Art Brut (for further information please refer to the previous posts Art Brut and Art Brut II) I am concentrating on four extraordinary 20th Century African-American artists from the Southern States of the US. Each artist concerns and insights are very different from one another, but they do share some of the overriding attributes common to art brut ; notably the urgent necessity to create, an obsessional desire to give shape and form to the inner realms of experience and vision as well as being late starters, who then prolifically produced exceptional works in a white hot blaze of inspiration.
Minnie Evans worked for most of her long life (she died in 1987 at the age of 95) as a domestic and gatekeeper at the Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina. On Good Friday 1935 Evans heard a voice say, “Why don’t you draw or die?” so she completed her first drawing that day. However it would another five years before Evans begun drawing again but she never stopped afterwards. Initially Evans used crayons and wax then oils and mixed media collage. Characterised by religious imagery, lush psychedelic colours with faces and fauna emerging from the symmetrical abstract backgrounds Evan’s gorgeous later compositions are truly a vision of Eden before the fall.
J.B Murry worked as a share-cropper and tenant farmer in Glascock County, Georgia for most of his life. At the age of 70, Murry experienced a vision of an eagle descending from the sun. This, Murry believed, was a message from God to spread the word through a ‘spirit script’ that combined asemic writing and abstract imagery, produced while in a trance. Although illiterate, Murry could decipher the language if he looked at the paintings through a glass of water. Murry gained a reputation as a mystic and people would visit to ask for benediction and protection from harmful forces.
Born into slavery in 1854 Bill Traylor worked most of his life on a plantation in Alabama. Without formal education and illiterate it wasn’t until Traylor moved to Montgomery at the age of 85 that he started creating, using found pencil stubs on bits of scrap cardboard. He was befriended by the artist Charles Shannon who supplied him with brushes and paint. In a three year period he produced over 1,200 works, often of animals in silhouette or his memories of rural life.
Frank Albert Jones was born in Texas in 1900 with a fetal membrane over his left eye (a caul), the mark of someone, it is frequently believed, that can see into the world of the spirits. Jones said that he saw his first haints (haunts or ghosts) at the age of nine. After several prior imprisonments (though he always maintained his innocence) it was during his twenty year stretch for murder that Jones, at the age of 64 first started drawing ‘devil houses’. During the next five years until his death Jones produced over 200 drawings, usually in black and red (smoke and fire, suitable colours for devils) of these intricate structures where the creatures, both charming and threatening, float in their cells. At first Jones signed the works with his prison number, 114591, until a fellow inmate taught him to write his own name.
The self taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein worked in a variety of mediums including painting, drawing, sculpture (using chicken bones) and photography, all of which adorned the modest house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that he lived in for forty years with his wife and muse, Marie.
Eugene’s marriage to Evelyn Kalka in 1943 (he re-named her Marie) seemed to have ignited a creative spark. Over the next two decades he would photograph Marie thousand of times, as a pin-up girl, tropical tourist, vixen, Madonna. Bedecked with pearls, clunky fetish heels, lurid leopard prints against florid wall coverings, Marie looks wistfully upwards, awkward and gauche. The photographs are simultaneously curiously innocent and charged with an subterranean current of obsessional eroticism. Marie at times seems like a harbinger of Cindy Sherman, assuming and thereby questioning a number of manufactured female roles.
Eugene was convinced that he was descended from royalty and was the self-styled King of the Lesser Lands. Undoubtedly he saw Marie as his Queen in the fantasy world they had created, she is frequently wearing a crown that he fashioned out of tin cans.