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This Is Not the Academy
By David Brickman

Revelations and Reflections of American Self-Taught Artists
Mandeville Gallery, Union College, through Aug. 11

It used to be called folk art, then it was naive art and it’s now more often referred to as outsider art, but, by any name, the work of self-taught artists is fresh, unpretentious and charming. It is also a large and growing part of a very lucrative market for art and collectibles fueled by the current millennial nostalgia craze.

Look at me, look at me: Ruby Williams’ Let Us Have Your Attention Now, Baby.

So it comes as no surprise that a show like Revelations and Reflections of American Self-Taught Artists, now on view at Union College’s Mandeville Gallery, is making the rounds of the nation in a slickly produced package tour under the auspices of a generously funded entity called Exhibits usa.

Featuring about 60 pieces by nearly as many artists, Revelations and Reflections demonstrates just why this category of art is so popular, with a freewheeling cross-section of media by outstanding creators from around the country (the show was organized by a gallery in Kansas). It also amply supports my personal suspicion that an inordinate number of these artists are complete religious nuts.

Take, for example, a few of the titles of the works on display: These Three Kings: Satan, Death and Hell! All for One! by Xmeah ShaElaRe’El; The Sea Beast of Revelation by William Thomas Thompson; Devil With Angels Flying Around His Teeth by Alyne Harris; Angels Holding Back the Four Corners of Heaven by Annie Lucas; Hell It Is Heaven by Ronald and Jesse Cooper; The Millennium (Rev. 22:15 1-5 & Isa. 11:69) by Georgina Orr; Lake of Hellfire on Brimstone by Michael Finster; and so on.

While a couple of the works (and titles) are clearly tongue-in-cheek, most of the biblically themed work in this show (and that is the great majority) is as serious as a black-coated friar and bears the same message as a Sunday sermon. The best of these, from my point of view at least, retain an element of the joy that presumably comes from religious feeling; many of those also deliver the good news with a welcome sense of humor.

Aside from the problem of being overbearingly Christian, some of the art in Revelations and Reflections falls into the rut of most nonacademic art (including that made by the average person who isn’t an artist), in that the lack of training makes for a style we can all recognize as “late kindergarten.”

Though a few of the artists show true originality and/or virtuosity, many of the rest resemble each other a bit too much. In fact, I bet it would be possible to select a half-dozen of these pieces by as many artists, hang them together with signatures obscured, and easily pass the group off as the work of a single outsider.

On the other hand, there’s work in this show that bears a distinct whiff of too-great sophistication, in some cases appearing to have been self-consciously created to meet collector demand (it is notable that a significant number of the works are on loan from galleries and dealers).

All that said, there’s plenty here to enjoy, by viewers both educated and self-taught. Among the standouts are a number of three-dimensional pieces (perhaps the greater technical challenge of working with the third dimension is something of a weeding-out factor for mediocrity), including a lavishly painted globe by Anne Marie Grgich (titled Chimera Spirits); allegorical toylike carvings by Kathy Ruth Neal; Frank Pickle’s whimsically irresistible Tree of Horrow; and the life-size Devil Dog by O.L. Samuels.

Painters in the show who transcend the childlike to create styles all their own include Paul Gasoi, Jane “in Vain” Winkelman, Brian Dowdale and Matt Sesow. These four in particular would not be out of place in a gallery or museum collection of academically trained contemporaries, though their work does connect with the other work in this show through its visionary content and, in Winkelman’s case, wordiness.

Of the more “traditional” outsiders, the show includes very fine examples of work by James Harold Jennings (a naive-yet-mystical wood construction), Ruby C. Williams (the delightfully deadpan Let Us Have Your Attention Now, Baby), Howard Finster (the best-known American artist in this category, thanks in part to his Talking Heads album-cover work), Mose Tolliver (a mesmerizingly odd self-portrait), Annie Tolliver (Mose’s daughter) and Mary Proctor (whose Heavenly Choir in Gold consists of about 75 figures constructed mostly of costume jewelry mounted to a door, complete with knob).

Also fun are some of the works by artists who gleefully mix media—Eddie Breen, whose Wooden Head Lamp may or may not be an intentional play on words; Ronald Cooper, perhaps the only person to create art from old gas heaters; and Roy Minshew, whose Angel Dog is a museumworthy piece of Americana, and a fine example of what is still referred to as folk art.

If you’re tired of postmodernism, this may be just the show you need to help you kick back into summer and leave all the vices of the academy far behind.

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