Sunday, September 14, 2014

Discovery Stories: Kindred Spirits at the Art Car Museum

Robert Boyd

What is outsider art? What is folk art? Do these two categories overlap? What is their relationship to the "art world"? These questions are on my mind after viewing Kindred Spirit at the Art Car Museum. Co-Curator Jay Wehnert (who runs the great web site Intuitive Eye) identifies the work in this show as presenting a "folk art aesthetic"--that qualified statement is required because some of the artists in the show are academically trained. Real folk artists, he states, are either self-taught or work in a tradition that exists in their community. If there are themes to the work, Wehnert defines them as "heritage" and "spirituality." Much of the art is specifically Christian, depicting scenes from the Bible or exhorting the viewer to repent.

Rev. Brown, The Straight Gate, not dated, paint on wood

Unlike classical arts like oil paintings or marble sculpture, there is a fuzziness about whether or not a piece of folk art or outsider art is, in fact, art. This issue also exists for a lot of contemporary art, particularly installations, found objects, conceptual art, etc. To vastly simplify the issues here, a rule of thumb is that if you see it in a gallery, it's probably art. (This leads to the comic situation one sometimes finds oneself in, where you are in a gallery looking at an unfamiliar vent or electrical outlet wondering whether it's part of the exhibit.) This idea, the institutional theory of art, has very interesting philosophical ramifications, but it also happens to be very helpful in evaluating much contemporary art.

But with folk and outsider art, we need another criterion. Something similar, perhaps, but not exactly the same. The issue of whether or not a piece of work is "art" or not isn't solved by its presence in a museum--after all, such objects can exist in anthropological or historical museums without being called "art". For folk and outsider art, therefore, a work becomes art not when it enters a gallery, but when it is discovered (and usually acquired) by someone who has some level of connection to the bourgeois art world. In some cases, the "discovery story" is a major part of the elevation of a folk artist's work into the sanctified realm of art. See for example Nathan Lerner (Henry Darger's landlord), John Maloof (buying random boxes of Vivian Maier negatives at auction), Bill Arnett (driving Southern backroads to discover Thornton Dial, the Gee's Bend quilters and other African American folk artists), etc. So when in this show the labels list the names of the collector who owns a given piece, it takes on a slightly more significance than similar labels in a show of, say, 18th century English paintings at the MFAH would. In some cases, that "collector" was the first person with the authority (granted by virtue of that person's membership in the art world) to recognize that a body of work was, in fact, art.

Ike Morgan, George Washington, n.d., acrylic on paper

Such is the case with George Washington by Ike Morgan. It is identified as being in the collection of artist Jim Pirtle, and significantly, Pirtle was the one who discovered Morgan when Pirtle worked the night shift at the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane and Morgan was an inmate there. (Wehnert tells this story on his website, The Intuitive Eye.) As I wandered through this show, I wondered if there were other stories like this hidden behind the artworks on display.

Ike Morgan, Mount Rushmore, ca. 1990, acrylic and ink on paper

It's hard for me to view a show like this without thinking about these things--the "discovery" of the artist and the elevation of the work from either a practical or personal function into the consecrated realm of "art." These seem like key issues in the world of outsider art. So while I look at the fascinating work of a great colorist like Ike Morgan, these thoughts nag. For instance, it is significant that this show is at the Art Car Museum as opposed to, say, Diverse Works or the CAMH. Some institutions in Houston seem sympathetic with outsider art (the Menil and the Art Car Museum primarily), while others are apparently not (pretty much every other art exhibition space in town). As far as I know, no commercial galleries in Houston deal with this work--there seems to be a worry among at least some of them that doing so would be exploitative. (This is an accusation that Bill Arnett has faced repeatedly.) But the upshot of this reticence is that we only rarely see work like this in Houston. Until this show, the most recent exhibit of this kind of art was the staggering Seeing Stars: Visionary Drawing from the Collection at the Menil in 2011. Has Ike Morgan ever had a solo exhibit in Houston? Not as far as I can determine.

It seems weird that Houston, of all places, shouldn't be more fertile ground for the public exhibition of folk/outsider/visionary art.  After all, we love our visionary architecture/environments like the Orange Show. Why does Houston value such artists more if they are architects and builders (and auto customizers) than if they are painters? I don't know. Maybe shows like this can help bring balance.

Richard Gordan Kendall, Church, ca. 1997, colored pencil on paper

Richard Gordon Kendall was a homeless man who passed his time making elaborate drawings. In 1995, curator Jay Wehnert heard about Gordon from a friend who had observed him drawing in downtown Houston. A story like this is red meat to an obsessive folk/outsider art enthusiast. He searched the area near the Star of Hope Mission in downtown Houston every day for a week until he found Kendall. According to Wehnert, Kendall had never shown anyone the drawings. For the next three years, Wehnert supplied Kendall with art supplies, food and clothes while occasionally buying a piece of art. Then in 1998, Kendall disappeared.

Kendall's obsessive drawings were entirely private until Wehnert came along. They were never finished--Kendall would continue tweaking them indefinitely as long as he was the only viewer. But once Wehnert came along and started buying them, they became finished works of art.

Richard Gordon Kendall, Self-Portrait, n.d., colored pencil on paper

The problem with Kendall's work is that it is hard to judge them without judging their story. My feeling is that they seem less visually interesting than Ike Morgan's work, but the mystery of their creation is so fascinating that I'm willing to handicap them. Yet thinking about them this way feels wrong. It makes me feel slightly guilty. But it's a helpful reminder that no aesthetic judgment is pure. There is no such thing as an ideologically neutral Olympian aesthetic judgment. The moment you know Kendall's story, his story becomes part of his art.

Rev, Brown, Jesus is the Way, n.d., paint on wood

Since the creators of these works often come from cultures in which "professional artist" doesn't exist as an occupation, they do things that in some way relate to being an artist. The Reverend Brown was a Fifth Ward sign painter and preacher. In Brown's world, Jesus is the Way was a painted sign serving a religious purpose. In a gallery, it becomes a piece of folk art with powerful design and hand-painted calligraphy.

Frank Jones, Devil House, ca. 1967, colored pencil on paper

When I saw Frank Jones' work, it immediately appealed to me even before I learned his story. But even without knowing Jones' history as a mentally disturbed prisoner, it reminded me of the work of famous outsider artists like Adolf Wölfli and Martin Ramirez. It makes one wonder if there is a style associated with incarcerated mentally ill men? In some ways, they all seem to be turning their prisons into fantasies. In Jones case, he was a visionary who was plagued by "haunts" and "devils" his entire life. His situation seems like a case of untreated mental illness, and like many facing that situation, he ended up in prison in Huntsville. There he drew pictures of his devils in "devil houses" with whatever materials he could scrounge.

Then in 1964, the prison in Huntville sponsored its first prison art contest. Some guards entered Jones's work as a joke. Ironically, it won the contest. And in a classic "discovery" narrative, Dallas gallerist Murray Smither happened to be in the audience for the show. He was taken with the work and became a liaison between Jones and the art world. It's worth noting that with Wehnert and Smither, neither just blindly stumbled onto their "discoveries." They both made an effort to get outside of their comfort zone in hope of discovering wonderful art.

Forrest Prince, People That Eat Animals Have a Love Deficiency, 2006, mirror, wood

Not every artist in the show is an outsider artist or a folk artist. Forrest Prince is an active participant in the Houston art scene, even though his biography reads like that of an outsider artist. He's an ideal example of the fluidity of these categories. Frank Jones, a lifer in prison, never had the opportunity to become part of the social world of any art scene. Forrest Prince could have been in the same boat, but his life of petty criminality ended in the late 60s and early 70s when he was born again as a Christian and an artist (a simultaneous occurrence). Of course, he still needed a discovery story, and his work was spotted by CAMH director James Harithas. But at that point, is he an outsider artist anymore? Does that phrase have a solid enough definition to include or exclude someone like Forrest Prince. Either way, his work is a powerful and a welcome inclusion in the show.

Aaron Lundy, Hood People (one of three), 2004, papier mâché

And sometimes the work here may be the work of someone resolutely outside the art world but feel like it would fit right in, like Aaron Lundy's Hood People. When I saw them, I instantly thought of John Ahearn's portraits of folks from the South Bronx.  Lundy is a hairdresser from the Third Ward. Ahearn has had museum shows and has exhibited work on three continents, with write-ups in all the big art slicks.

Aaron Lundy, Hood People & Third Ward, 2004, papier mâché

These categories--outsider art, visionary art, folk art, contemporary art--are fluid. We know what they mean, but as Kindred Spirit demonstrates (whether intentionally or not), our certainties about them can evaporate when we look closely at individual works and artists.

Vanzant Driver, untitled, ca. 1980, broken glass, glue, plywood, light

Vanzant Driver's glass chapels are the work of someone who sees himself on a mission from God. In fact, he doesn't sign the works because he sees them as being created by God. But when he walked into the CAMH and showed his work to rental gallery director Sheila Rosenstein, he found a receptive eye and a certain entrée into the art world.

When Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos decided to build their own version of a Mexican nacimiento, they invited many of the artists of Houston to help--including Vanzant Driver.

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (with Marie Adams, Wanda Alexander, Sarah Balinskas, Bobbie Bennett, James Bettison, John Bryant, Pat Burns, Bob Camblin, Sue Castleman, Dorman David, Gayle DeGuerin, Julio Del Hoyo, Mark Diamond, Vanzant Driver, Alix Dunn, Noah Edmundson, Mercedes Fernandes, Michael Galbreth, Ron Garcia, Dixie Friend Gay, Carol Gerhardt, Nancy Giordano, Lynn Goode, Stephanie Wernette Harrison, John Hilliard, Kim Hines, Perry House, Benito Huerta, Tom Hughen, Lollie Jackson, Diana Jenscke, Lucas Johnson, Patti Johnson, Sam Jones, Sharon Kopriva, Labeth Lammers, Jhonny Langer, Maite Leal, Marianne Lixie, Peter Loos, Jesse Lott, Betty Luddington, Mariquita Masterson, Jack Massing, Robert McCoy, Bonnie McMillan, Michael Moore, Paola Mrorni, Melissa Noble, Patrick Palmer, Kate Petley, Forrest prince, Don Redman, Chula Ross Sanchez, Gail Siptak, Earl Staley, William Steen, Lynn Swanner, Joe Tate, Toby Topek, Arthur Turner, Tracye Ware, Gary Wellman, Ellen White, Joanne White, Frank Williams, Clint Willour, Dee Wolff, Elena Wortham and Gloria Zamora), Texas Nacimento, 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento (Vanzant Driver chapel detail), 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento, 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento (detail, flames by Earl Staley), 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento (detail), 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento (detail), 1989, mixed media

If any single piece in the show represents a collapsing of artistic categories, Texas Nacimiento is it.

One unspoken thing in this exhibit--the elephant in the room--is that many of these artists are African Americans who came from impoverished backgrounds, either from rural areas or urban neighborhoods like the Third Ward or the Fifth Ward. Their race and economic circumstances prevented them from studying art in school, getting MFAs, etc. (Or getting proper psychiatric treatment, as in the case of Ike Morgan and Frank Jones). While there are outsider/folk/visionary artists from every race and background, this show shows us that Texas's long shameful racial history has pushed quite a lot of African-American artists to forge their own paths far outside the mainstream.

This suggests that the discovery story is a story of quasi-imperialist appropriation. It's dangerous territory. On balance, I would prefer that this work be discovered, honored and preserved than otherwise, but it is reasonable to question the well-meaning actions of representatives from a wealthy, dominant culture who acquire work from outsider and folk artists.

Kindred Spirit is a good exhibit, but a bit scattered. There are too many different works in the show that are hard to relate to one another. And the inclusion of three art cars (a requirement of the museum) doesn't help this. But if you look past this minor fault, Kindred Spirit is an important show. It reminds us that there have been and are people in Houston doing often astonishing art completely outside the art world.

What I would like to see now would be nice solo exhibits by many of the artists in this show, particularly Ike Morgan, Frank Jones and Aaron Lundy.


  1. my flames
    glad to see them piece still exists

    1. That's very cool to know! I have indicated your authorship of the flames on the fourth photo of the Texas Nacimento.