One of the most appealing aspects of the American Visionary Art Museum has been the way it has democratized art. Here was a museum saying you didn't need art-school credentials to make legitimate art—you could be a prisoner, a mental patient, a homeless person, a retired manual laborer and if your vision was powerful enough, there was a place for you on at least one museum's walls.
The downside of this was that back stories became fetishized in the biographies accompanying the work of self-taught artists—being a prisoner, a mental patient, or a homeless person became a kind of credential in itself. The new AVAM exhibit "Yummm! The History, Fantasy and Future of Food," which opened earlier this month and continues through next September, marks the collapse of that alternate-credential system. It climaxes a recent trend in the self-taught art world away from certain kinds of back stories and toward a truly open-door policy for artists of all backgrounds, including a museum guard like Bernard Stiegler.
As you ascend the museum's curving staircase to the second floor, where most of the exhibit is housed, the first work you encounter is Stiegler's 'Food Pyramid.' It's a short, dialogue-free animated video on continual loop that, in keeping with the show's theme, depicts wizards, zombies, and monsters encountering a breakfast of bacon and eggs that seems every bit as bizarre as the diners. Surrounding the video screen are eight papier-mâché sculptures of characters, body parts, and menu items from the video.
"After my first visit here," recounts Stiegler, his ponytail drooping over his guard's uniform, "I was so amazed that I said, 'I've got to get a job here.'" He did that three years ago and soon harbored a dream to leap the divide between guard and artist. With some encouragement from AVAM founder Rebecca Hoffberger, Stiegler developed a project strange enough to span the chasm.
"I didn't go to school for art," he says, "but I studied theater in Chicago before I started making comics four years ago. I think I've found my niche in animation, because it combines theater and comics...I'm even an outsider in the world of comics, because I'm kind of a hermit. I stay in my apartment and work on my art nonstop."
Around the corner from Stiegler's video is the exhibition's knockout piece: Wendy Brackman's 'Brackman's Botanical Bonanza!' Brackman did go to art school, but she turned her back on the conventional art world by choosing an unorthodox medium—paper plates—and by emphasizing humor.
Her new sculpture is a seven-foot-in-diameter mandala featuring four wheels connected to a motor and constructed entirely from painted paper plates and plastic straws. Two wheels turn clockwise and two counterclockwise. Bumblebees hover in front of the mandala and ants crawl along the circumference. It's a dazzler, not the least because one keeps looking for all the ways the familiar dinner-table object of a paper plate has been transformed into unfamiliar shapes.
"I've been working with paper plates since 1982," says Brackman, who is short with red bangs, blue-frame glasses, and honeycomb earrings. "When I see a paper plate, I see infinity—they always suggest things to me. I often work as a close-up magician; I stroll through parties with a cart of painted paper. In a moment I can size up the architecture of a person's head and create a hat using free-form cutting."
Brackman had been in AVAM's 2011 "All Things Round" show, and that whetted her appetite to do something more ambitious. "I wanted to make a piece that didn't feel like a fire drill," she said, "where I was rushing to meet a deadline. I wanted to make something for myself."
AVAM's annual exhibitions usually work better when they're organized around physical materials—such as 1995's "Tree of Life," 2004's "HolyH2O: Fluid Universe," 2005's "Home & Beast," or 2011's "All Things Round"—than when they're devoted to abstract concepts such as faith, race, humor, or war. A focus on the physicality of the subject matter or the art itself seems to inspire better work in these shows than an emphasis on more ethereal ideas.
This year's show was curated by Hoffberger with first-time co-curator John Lewis, a journalist who formerly wrote for this paper. Lewis has made the wall biographies less focused on the artists' eccentric life stories and more focused on their artistic evolution and process. That's a welcome development.
Lewis, a sometime music critic, has drawn several musicians into this new show. The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, a repeat artist at AVAM, has contributed a life-size sculpture of himself made from green gummy bears. It's amusing, but it's still just a joke. More interesting are two small paintings by the Lounge Lizards' John Lurie. The ghostly figures are set against abstracted bleak landscapes in ways that are not gimmicky but rather unsettling.
Zane Campbell, the nephew of country-music legend Ola Belle Reed and a figure on the Baltimore club scene (whose short story and illustrations can be found here), is represented by four pieces. Most peculiar are the painted apple crate and the painted cheese box; these food containers are transformed into multi-planed paintings—sometimes funny, sometimes mysterious.
"I like 3-D objects," Campbell says, "because their curves and corners suggest things that a canvas doesn't. I don't go to them with an idea; I get my ideas from them. Plus it's a kind of recycling."
There's a lot more to this new exhibit, and the batting average of hits vs. misses is higher than usual for an AVAM show. Jerry Beck, the head of Boston's Revolving Museum, fills the curving wall at the east side of the second floor with mosaics made from bread and crackers as well as silhouettes created by gluing burnt toast crumbs onto baking sheets. Baltimore's Loring Cornish applies shattered glass and silver spoons spelling out "Grace" to an American flag, contrasting shattered ideals with the healing communal act of saying grace before a meal.
Not everything in the exhibit works, but some pieces grow on you after a while. Joe Bello, for example, is enjoying his first public exhibit anywhere with a display of his figures cut out from food packaging. There's a Don Quixote from a tortilla box, a pig from a saltine box and a cow from a Rice Krispies box. Stare at them long enough and you begin to see what the artist saw.
"I'll put the box near where I watch TV," says Bello, a snowy-haired West Virginian in a blue plaid blazer, "and I'll turn it around and around till I see something—maybe an eye or a foot. Then I start cutting."
Stiegler, Campbell, Cornish, and Bello are not art-school grads, but their art demands to be seen, and AVAM has provided a place where that can happen.