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!)
Back at the Hammer, guest curator Terry R. Myers has assembled a show that is a culmination of the growing interest, over the last decade, in the fine-art output of the late graphic designer Robert Overby (inventor of the frequently altered Toyota logo). In light of more recent architectural castings by British sculptor Rachel Whiteread and Angeleno jack-of-all-trades Tim Hawkinson, various gallerists began revisiting the rarely exhibited latex surface-peels made by Overby in the early 1970s. Owing much to the work of Bruce Nauman, Overby took his casting work in an unfashionably impure direction, adding pigments to the medium, and sometimes painting on the surface, in order to reinforce the resemblance of, for example, the sagging rubber curtains to the flaking, decrepit, occasionally scorched surfaces from which they were cloned. The work recalls not Carl Andre or Robert Smithson but that of English contemporary Mark Boyle, who continues to make actual-size rectangular painted fiberglass casts of the surface of the Earth, the locations determined 30 years ago at a party where guests threw darts at a map of the world. Such theatrical aberration, harmless enough in these hybridized times, was nevertheless heretical enough in 1971 to get Overby blackballed by the other artists at John Weber’s gallery in New York.
Rather than presenting his work as literalist documentation of the physical encounter between materials, Overby fell into the cardinal quagmire of illusionistic representation. As such, the work is tremendously sensual, curiously retaining the conceptual content of his protectionist brethren while steering clear of their preachiness — although he does, at times, seem to be wallowing in his own brand of preachiness. Overby‘s ostracism by the art world, and the financial independence afforded by his design work, allowed him the freedom to pursue his own idiosyncratic version of art history. In addition to the architectural castings in latex (and concrete and resin), Parallel 1978–1969 contains a wide variety of explorations ranging from content-driven paintings of pornographic imagery to exquisite formal exercises in dry pigments and stretched polyurethane. There’s a refreshing crankiness to this analogue viewpoint that raises important questions about the canonization of artists and art movements during this supposedly anti-hierarchical art-historical moment.
From early-20th-century Outsiders telegraphing alien world-views from inside the bughouse, through a late-20th-century artist straddling categories of inside and outside in both the content and the reception of his work, we come to James Gobel, a young artist who has emerged by the accepted channels into sudden attention for a body of work depicting big fat gay men. The ”bear“ subculture of generously apportioned men sporting beards and work clothes exists in pointed contrast to the mainstream bulimic androgyny of the fashion world, and as such has been rendered relatively invisible. Constructing his spatially complex images from yarn, felt and fun-fur with airbrushed highlights and other subtle traces of traditional painting, Gobel has brought his considerable formal talents to bear on this exclusion. The resulting works are some of the most interesting figurative paintings to appear in Los Angeles in a while, and, as such, manage to sneak these bulky personas non gratas into the mainstream cultural dialogue through the back door of fine art. Welcome in.