Secrets, psychics, Peeps: American Visionary Art Museum exhibit probes the great unknown

Two colored pencil drawings of the same young girl that go on view this weekend at the American Visionary Art Museum are as unsettling as they are beautiful.

Look closely at Margaret Munz-Losch’s sketch of her naked blue-eyed daughter cradling a black cat and you realize that the girl’s torso and luminous, delicately boned face are composed entirely of maggots. Her eyebrows and what appear to be two dark pigtails are in reality a swarm of flies.

Just two canvases down, there’s another drawing of the same girl holding a white rabbit. This work seems at first to be more optimistic.

Lucky symbols abound — there isn’t just one rabbit’s foot dangling just out of view below the picture frame, but four. Four-leaf clovers sprout from her hair. Even the bees that make up her lips and nose and chest can be read as fortuitous, since bees historically symbolize wealth and prosperity.

And yet this image also is deeply distressing for viewers accustomed to associating insects with death, disease and decay. What’s worse, this winsome child seems in danger of breaking apart at any moment in a flurry of departing wings.

“Black Cat” and “White Rabbit” pose more questions than the portraits answer, so it’s fitting they’re exhibits in “The Great Mystery Show,” the new themed yearlong exhibit curated by museum founder Rebecca Alban Hoffberger.

The creations of 39 artists, scientists, astronauts, mystics and philosophers have been assembled with the aim of encouraging museum visitors to become, as Hoffberger puts it, “sleuths for the truth.” It’s the bold exploration of the unknown, Hoffberger posits, that unites groundbreaking discoveries in the arts, sciences and spiritual realm.

Sometimes, the object’s visual appeal is what’s most important. At other times, the story behind the artist or the object is paramount.

“Each one of us is involved in a mystery story,” Hoffberger says. “None of us knows which path our life will take.”

Upon entering the museum, visitors pause before a wall of new selections from the Montgomery County artist Frank Warren’s PostSecret project. For years, the museum has exhibited a sampling of confidences — wistful, funny and occasionally terrifying — that strangers have mailed anonymously to Warren. For “The Great Mystery Show” the artist selected postcards that correspond to the exhibit’s theme.

Visitors continuing through the exhibit may find the words they’ve just read floating back into their consciousness. The pair of insect portraits, for instance, brought to mind this PostSecret:

“Everyone who knew me before 911 believes I am dead.”

AVAM, which reflects Hoffberger's wide-ranging and idiosyncratic interests, has always been the museum world equivalent of Filene’s Basement. The rooms are jammed with treasures mixed with the strictly forgettable, and viewers will likely differ regarding into which category individual pieces ought to be placed.

This is a show that happily combines artworks loaned from such major museums as the Smithsonian Institution and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum with several of the canvases that the psychic Ingo Swann created by remote viewing after he was provided with the geographical coordinates of unknown locations.

Hoffberger is particularly excited that the museum recently received as a gift Swann’s 1986 oil painting “Madre Dolorosa,” in which the Virgin Mary is surrounded by symbols of such disasters as a comet strike and nuclear explosion. She has paired that painting with reproductions of classical artworks from the Renaissance and Middle Ages that include objects that some viewers interpret as UFOs.

“I don’t show objects that are just objects, no matter how fabulous they are,” Hoffberger says. “They have to have a deep connection to the mystery that is this show’s theme.”

From another PostSecret: “I used to fertilize a ring in our lawn every time I mowed it. It grew. My parents still think it was aliens.

Hoffberger has given “The Great Mystery Show” a vaguely Victorian sensibility, so that walking through the exhibition feels like entering a Cabinet of Wonders. On a background of antique-looking, dark-red wallpaper are more than two dozen framed illustrations hanging vertically on black velvet ribbons topped with big gold bows. Old-fashioned settees are distributed throughout the gallery so viewers can pause in front of particularly intriguing pieces.

“This is such a beautiful exhibition,” Hoffberger says, “that I thought, ‘People are going to be so overcome that we’re going to need fainting couches.’ ”

The show has a section on the moon, on the power of the number 3, on near-death experiences and on the mystery of the human heart. (Fun fact from the exhibit: Our hearts contain some of the human smell and taste receptors for bitterness.)

“When I was married, I put pulverized sleeping pills into my husband’s food so he would go to sleep and leave me alone. It never worked.”

Viewers with a taste for the macabre may be transfixed by that red wall, which contains enlarged reproductions of the 26 exquisite black-and-white crosshatched illustrations that Edward St. John Gorey created for his 1963 alphabet book “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.”

(“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears. …” )

There’s even a hallway devoted to “The Mysterious Cat” that includes several of the 19th-century British artist Louis Wain’s anthropomorphic illustrations of cats playing musical instruments, attending school — and perhaps, practicing mind control over their human masters.

According to the exhibit, scientists theorize that Toxoplasmosis gondii, a parasite excreted by cats that overrides a mouse’s natural fear of predators, might also explain humans’ at-times inexplicable attachment to their pet felines.

And no exhibit in Baltimore about mystery would be complete without an artwork inspired by the city’s most famous former resident.

Artist Christian Twamley’s “Edgar Allan Peep” is a near-lifesize statue sculpted from 5,000 marshmallows shaped like tombstones. Twamley added a raven and black cat, also made from Peeps as well as an (actual) bottle of cognac.

Twamley says he considers his sugared creation “a temporary art form, like snowmen and sand castles.”

Turn the corner, and visitors will find a bling-filled gallery showcasing large-scale sculptures crafted from seed beads. Artist Nancy Josephson, who was initiated in Haiti as a Vodou priestess in 2012, contributed “Spirit Head,” the bust of a woman whose face and neck are crafted from miniature cobalt rounds. The neck of the sculpture slopes into shoulders that viewers eventually realize are the heads of fish, their mouths gaping open.

(Josephson is the artist who created one of AVAM’s most popular and instantly recognizable artworks — the mirrored Gallery-A-Go-Go school bus parked just outside the museum entrance.)

“I am a dot-com millionaire, but I told my family I missed the bubble.”

But it was Jan Huling’s elaborately beaded wedding gown with a flowing train that drew the biggest crowd during a recent exhibit preview for reporters and the museum’s docents. The size 6 gown is a 3-D replica of the actual wedding dress worn by the artist, her mother and two aunts.

Huling covered the dress with 260 plastic tiles, and on top of those she applied tens of thousands of glass seed beads. Many are vintage and embedded with synthetic pearls, pieces of turquoise and cameos containing family photos.

The dress is the largest piece that the New York based artist has ever made. It was created during a period when she was grieving for her mother, Louise Schwab, who died in September 2016 at age 89.

The dress should have taken Huling a year to complete, she says, but instead, she worked round the clock for four and a half months. She covered the dress with mandalas, and replicating the Sanskrit symbol for wholeness over and over became a soothing ritual.

“My mother was a quilter,” Huling says, “and I’d think about how our artwork was similar. They’re both repetitive and beautiful. I would sit there and bead and mourn my mother. As I worked, I could feel her pride.

“This project was a godsend for me.”

”The Great Mystery Show” runs Saturday through Sept. 2, 2018 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. $9.95-$15.95; children 6 and younger free. For details, call 410-244-1900 or go to avam.org.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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