Accidental Genius at the Milwaukee Art Museum
We calibrate our understanding of the world every day, slipping from tangible, ordinary places into the esoteric wonders of imagination, consciously or not. Accidental Genius: Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection, which opens today (Feb. 10) at the Milwaukee Art Museum, offers vicarious views of the world – real and otherwise – from the vantage of numerous inventive, eloquent artists who lived outside the established art world.
Full disclosure: I was the curator of the Petullo Collection for a number of years. Seeing these works again was akin to reconnecting with friends after a long absence and many adventures. There is a moment of sizing up — have they changed or have I? What’s different? In this case, the art is just as lively as ever. En masse, the show presents an experience of color, detail and vibrant stories.
The exhibition curator, Margaret Andera, has a long history with the collection. She worked with Milwaukee businessman and philanthropist Tony Petullo in the 1990s and helped to put together a six-city tour of nearly 100 pieces. During the past two years, Andera has been intensely involved with this exhibition, which celebrates the gift of 312 artworks from the Petullo Collection to the museum.
The four sections of the show highlight draftsmanship, landscape, pop culture, and artists associated with the Gugging Institute, a long-term psychiatric care facility in Austria. This allows us to read each area as a single chapter focused on different materials and approaches to image making. The directness of many works is somehow inspiring; ballpoint pen on paper or oil paint on irregular cardboard suggest an immediacy in creation.
The artists have some fascinating biographies. But their pictures really do the talking, not only about their own lives and environments but also about grappling with the human condition by means of mythic and symbolic concepts. The exhibition starts with Scottie Wilson‘s “evils and greedies,” drawn in tight contours and hatch lines. These images, representing the negative aspects of the world, give way to the broad, peaceful idylls of Wilson’s birds, swans and butterflies.
Rosemarie Koczy draws visual tapestries in stark black ink, each a burial shroud and memorial to Holocaust victims and her own lost family. Sheet after sheet reveals haunting figures emerging from intricate lattices of poignant design and inconsolable sadness. The installation of her works gives a moment of pause, a testament to human fragility and the tragedies of history.
We escape this world and fall into the realm of expansive imagination with the work of Henry Darger. A monumental collage is related to his epic saga (a novel of over 15,000 pages) recounting the exploits of the heroic Vivian Girls against the tyrannical Glandelinian overlords. Darger’s art synthesizes images from pop culture and illustrated sources with a nuanced sense of color and compositional orchestration.
James Lloyd turns to the wonders of daily living. Lloyd renders the English countryside with meticulous, pointillist brushwork. The results have passages of dazzling clarity; a veil of shimmering dots and luminous light suffuses the ordinary. Even a drainpipe sticking out of a hillside becomes poetic, as the ripe green earth spills toward the edge of a pond in heavy, velvety folds.
There is vigor in these works, especially in the way that each artist is defiantly distinct. In the art historical lexicon, the term generally used to refer to such art is “self-taught,” or the more removed “outsider art,” which has its own issues about usage and meaning. Whatever the term, perhaps it is best to consider a quote from artist Jean Dubuffet, which introduces the exhibition: “Art is at its best when it forgets its very name.”
Accidental Genius is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through May 6.
All images courtesy of the museum.
A&C display picture: Henry Darger (American, 1892–1973) Blengiglomeneans Displaying Their Wings (recto); Watercolor, pencil, carbon, and collage on paper 24 x 109 in. (60.96 x 276.86 cm) Lent by Anthony Petullo M2012.21a,b Photo credit: John R. Glembin © 2011 Kiyoko Lerner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.