Nancy Josephson got a call last November from Rebecca Hoffberger, the founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, saying that AVAM's next annual exhibit would be "The Big Hope Show." Could Josephson create a monumental piece on that theme, Hoffberger asked, for the exhibit's first gallery?
She could. When you walk up the long curving staircase from the museum's first floor, the first room you come to on the second floor is dominated by Josephson's 'Erzulie Kouvez.' A female torso with African facial features has been constructed from thousands of white beads and decorated with swirling, gold-bead tattoos. Below the torso is the skeletal framework for a hoop skirt, a latticed shape that also resembles a birdcage. And inside the skirt/cage are dozens of gorgeously beaded birds.
It's a striking introduction to a striking exhibit, which opened last Friday. More than 25 artists, curated by Hoffberger, contributed paintings, photos, sculptures, drawings, stained-glass windows, videos, and hybrid assemblages to the show. (Full disclosure: Photos by CP contributor Noah Scialom are part of the show.) As with any AVAM show, "The Big Hope Show" contains both unforgettable works and some that are all too easily forgotten. As is also often the case, the show's theme snugly fits some of the work but has to be stretched quite a bit to fit others. But this exhibit boasts several large installations that are so impressive and so unusual that they provide a museum experience like no other.
Josephson, a Wilmington, Delaware, resident who has contributed many pieces to past AVAM shows, was on hand for the media preview on Wednesday. The slender, blue-haired woman explained that her 8-foot-tall creation is based on Latin American santos dolls, usually less than 20 inches tall but with the same cage-like skirt for holding objects. Josephson added a Caribbean twist on the dolls by using Haitian beading and iconography. "Kouvez" is the Haitian Creole word for "incubator," and "Erzulie" is one of the Haitian Vodou religion's female spirits.
"What is the whole idea of hope?" she asked. "It's really nothing till you do something with it. You need a safe place to incubate your hopes, but then you have to put them into action. They're like children: You do your best to raise them, but then you have to let them go out into the world and hope for the best. The child needs hope, but so does the parent. That's why the frame of Erzulie's skirt has such large openings: so it's easy for the birds to get out when they're ready."
On the wall behind Josephson's creation is one of Hoffberger's explanatory placards, this one using Emily Dickinson's famous line, "Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul," to bolster Hoffberger's claim that "ancient and modern cultures express near-universal agreement in their depiction of the soul as some winged thing—be it bird or butterfly."
Surrounding the placard are six of Chris Roberts-Antieau's large fabric images, most of them featuring birds. This Michigan artist has often been in AVAM shows (and American Craft Council shows), but this time the work feels more powerful than before. In 'Owl,' a bird is perched on a woman's shoulder, but the woman is transparent and we see bare tree branches and falling feathers filling her body. In 'Albino,' every being is transparent. The forest shows through the deer, a skeleton through a bird, and the night sky through a woman. It's as if the boundaries between humans and animals and landscape have been erased.
In recent years AVAM has incorporated such pop-culture icons as William S. Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, and Mario Batali into its exhibits, often with underwhelming results. But that's not the case with this year's inclusion of Wayne Coyne, the leader of Oklahoma rock band the Flaming Lips, long noted for his visual imagery.
In addition to Coyne's 10 colored-ink illustrations of sci-fi scenes, and a visual-pun sculpture in one corner of the new show, there's his floor-to-ceiling sculpture, 'King's Mouth,' in the center of the room. The bulbous, highly reflective king's head has been constructed from silver balloons, silver balls, and clumps of aluminum foil. The lips, tongue, and inner mouth, however, have been created by a pink wax-like material dripped over foam rubber. One can crawl inside, lean against the white-pillar molars, and hear a special 20-minute soundtrack created by Coyne himself. It combines all the best aspects of outsider art: a crazed concept, eye-tickling execution, and a redeeming sense of humor.
It's also beautiful in its way. Coyne, Roberts-Antieau, and Josephson are as capable of visual sumptuousness as the artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art. We talk so much about the back stories, messages, and unorthodox materials and techniques of untrained "outsider" artists that we often forget that beauty is also one of their aims.
The next room is devoted to the collision of hope and despair. The Angola 3 are three Black Panther members who were held in solitary confinement in Louisiana's Angola Prison for periods between 29 and 43 years for convictions that were later overturned.
When Robert King was released in 2001, San Francisco artist Jackie Sumell heard him speak and was so moved that she began a correspondence with Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, who were still locked up. She asked Wallace what kind of house he'd like to live in after he left his tiny isolation cell, and he started sending her detailed drawings of his imaginary house. The AVAM exhibit displays many of those letters as well as Sumell's architectural model of that house and her life-size recreation of his frighteningly tiny cell.
"It's very much Herman's house," Sumell insisted last Wednesday. "I didn't influence the design at all. I'd send him photos and designs based on his ideas, and he'd send back modifications—a lot of modifications. As you can imagine, he had very particular ideas after 30 years in a cell. Herman died in 2013, but the city of New Orleans has given me two lots to illustrate the conditions of solitary confinement. We call it Solitary Gardens. We're raising money to build Herman's house there."
Around the corner, the long, curving gallery has been devoted to the work of Bobby Adams, a familiar Baltimore figure as the unofficial documentarian of John Waters' Dreamlanders troupe and as the former owner of the Flashback store at the center of Fells Point. It was on the Baltimore County farm where Adams was living that Waters filmed "Pink Flamingos."
Adams has long had a knack for turning his life into art through his snapshots, homemade Christmas cards, homemade scrapbooks, handmade memorials to his dead poodle, and assemblages of bizarre knickknacks. But this is the first time his work has ever been exhibited publicly.
"I never thought of myself as an artist," the 69-year-old man in the Hawaiian shirt said Wednesday. "It's like a new hat I'm putting on. When Rebecca [Hoffberger] took my scrapbooks and put them on display in that candy-cane case, I saw myself with new eyes. She saw something I couldn't see in myself. Most of the artists in this museum don't see themselves that way till late in life. We don't realize how we've touched people till someone else points it out to us."
If the American Visionary Art Museum accomplishes nothing else, it has justified its existence by pointing out to all of us that art exists where we don't expect to see it: outside of galleries and art schools, in the homes, garages, and front yards of any person with enough imagination and obsession to create something never seen before.