Visions of Water

Outsider art and H2O


If Rodin had sculpted the Creature from the Black Lagoon, it might look a bit like The Free Thinker, also known as Thoughts from the Deep, a frightening figure created by the West Texas artist Ho Baron. The bronze sculpture looks like it emerged from both the deepest levels of the ocean and the deepest levels of the subconscious: Close up, its scaly skin reveals dozens of eyes, screaming mouths, and fully-formed faces. Ho's monster is part of a series called Gods for Future Religions, but I saw it in another context—as one of the most fascinating and disturbing works on display in Holy H2O: Fluid Universe, an exhibit that debuted October 2 at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

AVAM is one of the country's better-known venues for "outsider" art: work created outside the familiar schools and movements, often without formal training, usually for the sheer joy or terror of creation. Initially a refreshing alternative to the fashion-driven art establishment, in recent years the genre has become a bit of a fad itself—a sometimes rigid category whose fans frequently fetishize the idea of the mad, untutored idiot savant and regard the actual artists with all the condescension that stereotype implies. AVAM, to its credit, has always avoided this approach, which is one reason why its shows are invariably interesting. Its artists' lives often include episodes of crime, poverty, and madness, but it's their work, not their backstories, that earns them a place in the museum. Indeed, the curators are happy to include the efforts of successful professionals if they fit an exhibit's theme. (Its 2002-03 program of drug-related art, for example, found room for a piece by the well-known cartoonist S. Clay Wilson.) This doesn't diminish the DIY energy on display. It maintains the museum's spirit of openness, its refusal to become yet another credential-obsessed gatekeeper in an art world that already has too many of those.

The theme of the new show is water, a category broad enough to cover everything from vodou rituals to Coney Island. One room is devoted to ships; another is given over to snow. The exhibition is dedicated to Abel Wolman, the Baltimore-born pioneer of clean water safeguards. It's a loose theme, and I'm not sure it all ties together, but the art is too good to quibble about that. From the automata of Carlos Zapata to the surreal and lovely paintings of Christopher Moses, there's a lot of amazing work on display. To my taste, the best entries—better even than Ho Baron's sea-monster sculpture—are the mixed-media creations of Tom Duncan.

The Scottish-born New Yorker contributed five dioramas (he calls them "narrative polychrome sculptures") to Holy H2O. The largest is Dedicated to Coney Island, built from 1982 to 2004. A delightful assemblage of Duncan's own creations and pre-bought toys, it's a magic-realist recreation of the seaside amusement park, complete with dwarves, dinosaurs, and a giant ape. There are shops, rides (the piece includes viewer-operated electric trains), and a 9/11 memorial; there is even, among the sunbathers, a happily baking beached whale.

Dwarf and Wolf in the Snow (1981) is a cryptic, eerie series of scenes. In the first, we see a wolf approaching a dwarf. In the second, the beast is attacking. In the last, the animal is gone and the dwarf is devouring a bloody heart. Unlike the crowded Coney Island layout, these dioramas don't have many details lurking in the background, but each does contain a few mysterious ornaments: angels in the sky, a merry Santa Claus, and, in the last scene, a little toy tank in the corner.

But Duncan's most elaborate contribution to the show is The Slave Ship (1994), a large model boat decorated with clips from a comic-book Uncle Tom's Cabin and filled with slaves laid side by side. Among those captives, there are other figures: chain gangs, Klansmen, and at the bow, a leopardskin-clad Statue of Liberty carrying a skeleton in its torch. The boat is surrounded by another leopard skin, which apparently represents the African landscape: It contains pyramids, tribesmen, and wild beasts. The congested contraption is set atop a table, below which a large dragon slowly moves forward and back; on its underside, reflected on a floor mirror, there is an enormous skeleton.

I mentioned earlier that AVAM isn't afraid to include successful professionals in its shows. With that in mind, I should probably close by mentioning the work of Nancy Josephson, a follower of vodou whose many contributions to Holy H2O include yet another impressive diorama, La Siren. In 2002, the artist's biography notes, she and her husband moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where they had been "recruited by the city to act as catalysts for a downtown arts district." I turned to Google for more details, and found this press release:

"I am quite pleased and honored to welcome David Bromberg and Nancy Josephson to Wilmington as new citizens and to add their personalities, artistic accomplishments and abilities as business people to the ever-growing spectrum of culture, art and entertainment that brings so much benefit to our City," Mayor Baker said today. "This talented and respected couple, along with their family and business associates, will attract local, national and international lovers of art and entertainment to Wilmington. They will also help to teach, explain and share their love of music and art with many others. We are very lucky that David and Nancy have chosen Wilmington as their new home."

Wilmington! Never knew the place had it in it. The city has apparently embraced another sort of voodoo, the "creative class" theory of urban renewal. Its deal with Bromberg and Josephson awarded the couple a city-owned building for just $1, plus a $200,000 loan to help fund the structure's renovation; in exchange for that, they're serving as "cultural consultants." The Wilmington NewsJournal adds this detail:

Josephson said she has ideas for outdoor art projects in the city, although she said 90 percent of her brainstorms are junk. For example, she briefly considered hanging a laundry line with underwear on Market Street to give the mall an old-time feel.

"That probably won't fly, but I'll come up with something," she said. "Something between Dinos and bras, you know?"

So it goes in Delaware, which apparently aspires to be a home to more than just tax-free shopping. I guess it is a fluid universe.