With love as its subject, the American Visionary Art Museum's new show could so easily have gone off the deep end. It could have opted for steamy sex or cheap glitz or cuteness or sentimentality. But it successfully resisted all of those temptations. "Love: Error and Eros," opening today, has real class.
It has its showier moments, like the 14-foot-tall fiberglass statue of the late Divine, transvestite star of John Waters movies, that greets visitors at the foot of the museum's grand staircase. Made by English self-taught artist Andrew Logan, who was Divine's friend, it was inspired by love and so has its place here. But it's not at all characteristic of the exhibit as a whole.
Far more typical is a restrained painting by another English artist, Albert Louden. It shows the figure of a man looking somewhat puzzled, and a woman, represented only by a head, looking away from him. Is this a moment of uncertainty or an irreconcilable breach? Did he cause this seeming separation or did she? The chorus of small heads at the bottom of the picture provides no clue. Even the title, "Untitled 1" (1997), doesn't help.
Louden's strong, simple image, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation, well reflects this thought-provoking show exploring aspects of love from sacred to profane.
"Love" generally fits the pattern of AVAM's earlier three shows: it's a museum-filling exhibit on a big general theme chosen by AVAM founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger, with guest curators also chosen by Hoffberger.
Pronounced differences mark this show, however. For the first ,, time, the curators are not American but English experts Maggie and John Maizels, founders of the visionary art magazine Raw Vision.
As a result, the show has a far more international cast. Of its 77 artists, 27 are non-American, from England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Haiti and elsewhere. The Maizelses drew from leading visionary collections such as the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the collection of the Gugging Hospital, near Vienna. They also drew from sources little known in America, such as Artists Singuliers, a group of visionary artists working in southern France.
The show contains fewer works than its predecessors, just under 200 compared to as many as 400 in earlier shows. So the galleries look less crowded and individual works can better command attention. Moreover, little of this work relies on sheer size or aggressiveness for effect.
Often one is stopped by the small, the delicate, the subtle, such as Dutch artist Ad Maas' pencil drawings on torn paper. Many works achieve a high degree of craftsmanship, including Haitian artist Roger Constant's bead and sequin banner "La Sirene."
In one way or another, much of this work is more refined than one expects of visionary art. Defined as art by people working outside the cultural mainstream and creating out of a compulsive inner vision, visionary art needn't be crude. "People think visionary art has to be raw, but it doesn't. It can be sophisticated," says John Maizels, "as long as it's completely outside cultural influences."
The result of all this is a distinguished, thoughtful, well-organized exhibit that enjoys an excellent installation by AVAM deputy director Mark Ward and his team.
The curators achieved extra clarity by dividing the show into five categories of love, one for each of the museum's galleries: True Love. The pure expression of love rules this optimistic section. In their separate paintings, Deliane and Damian LeBas of Sussex, England, compete with one another to show their love. Damian's "In the Love Zone" (1997) contains figures of the two of them, patterned all over with faces inside of hearts. It's a work that spills over with love.
Aloise Corbaz of Switzerland (1886-1964) fell in love with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany while a tutor to his pastor's children. Her love became an obsession and, hospitalized for life, she took to making brightly colored drawings of buxom women courted by bemedaled military types. Although these proceeded from an illness, they have a sunny, gregarious quality.
Love Scorned. Louden's paintings, including "Untitled 1," explore the tensions and difficulties of relationships. One of the show's highlights, they form the centerpiece of this section about love that fails. Also effective, if less sophisticated, Billy White's "She Was Doing Me Wrong" shows a man drawing a gun on a woman. Vertical red lines stripe the painting, echoing the red of the couple's clothes. They may stand for blood, prison bars or the sense of confinement that unhappiness in love brings.
Love Divine. The spiritual side of love may relate to religion, but equally to the idealistic side of human love. Mary Proctor's paintings on doors celebrate holy love. "It's the love of God that makes the world go round pass the love from above," reads the text of one, above the figure of a dancing woman. Alex Grey's paintings "Kissing" (1983) and "Pregnancy" (1988-1989) idealize human love and its procreational function.
Love Profane. Primarily sexual love, but usually implied rather than specific. In Malcolm McKesson's ballpoint pen and ink drawings the artist's fine line attracts the eye as much as the subject matter does, even in "Correction" (about 1978) where a whipping is implied. And although Turkish/French artist Ody Saban's drawings are explicit, they're so complex it's hard to tell what they're explicit about.
Love Lost. This is the most touching section. In Mary Whitbread's simply titled "Love" (1991-1994), a picture of a pyramid of family members only implies loss -- the inevitable loss to death of the matriarch at the pyramid's apex. Raymond Materson's "A Few of Her Favorite Things" (1991) also shows loss indirectly. This tiny, 3-by-2-inch scene made of sock threads sewn on cotton shows an empty room with a door open to a sunset. Seen through a magnifying glass, this highly detailed, minuscule work is a tour de force, but not just for the sake of tour de force. Because of its small size, the lost love its empty room implies seems to be shrinking in the memory.
"Love" is the fourth show of its kind at AVAM: a big theme show running for up to a year. That unvarying formula will eventually lose some of its appeal. More of a mix of smaller shows with overlapping dates would provide visitors who come more than once a year with something new to see. There are numerous possibilities: one-person retrospectives, shows devoted to a geographical area, or a historical period, or a subcategory of visionary art such as folk or outsider art.
But that doesn't alter the fact that "Love" is a significant success for AVAM and for its curators. It's one of the museum's two best shows so far, along with its immediate predecessor, "The End Is Near," and it deserves an audience as big as its accomplishments.
What: "Love: Error and Eros"
Where: American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through May 30, 1999
Admission: $6 adults, $4 seniors, students and children 4 through 18, under 4 free
Pub Date: 5/16/98