By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Summer, when everyone is supposed to be sunning on the Riviera or something, is traditionally a fallow period in the art world. Galleries tend to use the time to hang old blue-chip prints or try out a few new faces in an innocuous group show. While some Los Angeles galleries are staying true to form in this respect, there seems to be an unusual amount of strong shows around town. Jim Shaw’s first show after leaving Rosamund Felsen Gallery for Patrick Painter is a teeming aggregation of funny and complex works, mostly paintings and drawings, continuing his ongoing project of re-creating art objects transcribed from his vivid and unfathomably detailed dream life. Down Almont way, there‘s a cluster of interesting and important exhibits -- a show of Art Brut at Louis Stern (more on that later); a brilliant grouping of celebrity collages by cranky N.Y. insider-as-outsider Ray Johnson (whose peripatetic career took off after his 1995 suicide) at Manny Silverman; a set of four typically disconcerting burgundy-lacquered ”void“ sculptures by Anish Kapoor at Regen Projects; and, at Margo Leavin, a new set of consummate post-Schwitters collagisms from the reliably retinal Roy Dowell. There’s also a surprising number of exciting museum shows, including Ruscha, Eames and the ”Color & Fire“ ceramics show at LACMA; the architecture show at MOCA; photographs by proto-modernist Eugene Atget at the Getty; and ”The World Is Bound With Secret Knots,“ the first new show at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in several years (and in which this writer and his greyhounds may be seen posing in the Vision of St. Eustace diorama).
But the most improbable combination of summer shows is at the UCLA Hammer. Broaching the subject of the ”outsider“ from three different angles, The Prinzhorn Collection: Traces Upon the Wunderblock; Robert Overby: Parallel 1978--1969; and a project-room show of paintings by Vegas escapee James Gobel offer a wealth of sensual and conceptual rewards over and above their common social-philosophical ground. The very concept of ”Outsider Art“ derives from the Prinzhorn Collection, a huge archive of work by psychiatric patients of the early 20th century. Originally meant to form the basic collection of an Outsider museum, the rise of Nazism and the untimely death of its namesake curator derailed this plan. Hans Prinzhorn, art historian and psychiatrist operating out of the University of Heidelberg, collected thousands of works of art by crazy people throughout Europe over the course of only a couple of years in the early 1920s. Prinzhorn had already left the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic when his groundbreaking and influential text Artistry of the Mentally Ill was published in 1922. By 1933, the collection had been shitcanned by the Nazis (except as support material for their theories on the degeneracy of modern art), and Prinzhorn was dead from some viral infection picked up during a mescaline trip. Nevertheless, the seeds had been planted for a number of important strains of 20th-century art. The clinical examination of the connection between genius and madness, the use of art as a therapeutic tool for synthesizing fragmented psyches, the Surrealist (and beyond) desire to embrace irrational and unconscious psychic content into mainstream art, and the whole parallel market and academic niche that grew up surrounding Outsider Art owe their impetus, in large part, to the preservation and promulgation of the works in the Prinzhorn Collection.
So what is the work? This exhibit, organized by the Drawing Center in SoHo, samples 200 pieces from the approximately 5,000 works in the collection. These range from the almost Arp-like genital silhouettes of Katz or Kalz (identity uncertain) to the cursive hieroglyphic graphomania of Emma Bachmayer and the cryptic accounting ledgers of Josef Heinrich Grebing, but most of the work falls somewhere in between. Improvising elaborate cosmologies to try to tease order out of their often terrifying perceptions, the most common and generally most impressive work by the Prinzhorn artists are diagrammatic, combining text and image in intricate and urgent communications. Grebing alternated his obsessive numbering with the illuminated gridwork of his Color Chart. Jakob Mohrs‘ Proofs depicts the use of a sinister box to discharge electrical rays through a subject’s body. August Natterer drew up elaborate plans for a village green in the shape of a witch‘s head. And carefully detailed The photographically verifiable, interleaved miraculous images, revealing a 15-year-old crime, in the insole of the victim’s shoe. Leave it to the catalog essayists to wrangle the correct theoretical stance from which to regard the art of the insane: Its fundamental import is encoded in the work itself; its legacy permeates our culture‘s understanding of what it means to be an artist, or crazy, or both.
A major part of the legacy of the Prinzhorn Collection comes to us through the efforts of Jean Dubuffet, the French painter whose exposure to the good Dr.’s book revitalized his own artistic practice and launched his calling as a champion of all excluded forms of art making. Louis Stern Fine Arts‘ exhibition ”L’Art Brut: Jean Dubuffet and the Outsiders“ showcases works by most of the Outsider stars to emerge under Dubuffet‘s aegis. Adolf Wolfli, Madge Gill, Augustine Lesage and Carlo are represented by strong works. Dubuffet himself is well featured, alongside a sloppy late oil painting and some uncharacteristic sketches of wagons, by a set of 16 lithographs of a scribbly Corps de Domes from 1950. (Take it away for just $315,000!)
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