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The inner workings of outsider art

A transformative exhibition in New York

George Pendle | April 21st 2015

Last year, in a scene akin to a heavyweight boxer facing off against a tiddlywinks champion, the Museum of Modern Art knocked down its neighbour, the American Folk Art Museum. The symbolism was striking. The American Folk Art Museum, whose building was sold to MoMA in 2011 amid much financial upheaval, had been designed as a “house for art” to highlight the work of artists outside the mainstream art world—the art of peasant communities, or that of children, or those with psychiatric disorders, which is often termed “outsider art”. MoMA, on the other hand, is in the midst of a never-ending expansion replete with high-rise apartment blocks and Michelin-starred restaurants, and has recently been featuring blockbuster shows of well-known artists (Henri Matisse) and celebrities (the film-maker Tim Burton, and a much-derided show by the singer Bjork). Entry to the Folk Art Museum is free; entry to MoMA is $25 a head. Yet despite this difference in scale, the Folk Art Museum’s latest show—in their much-diminished new digs 30 blocks north—is a master class in curatorial intelligence and emotional wallop, and displays a gender and racial diversity that MoMA would give a substantial chunk of its nearly $1 billion endowment to have.

“When the Curtain Never Goes Down” brilliantly explores performance art—one of the most thriving areas of contemporary art—through the work of 27 obscure folk artists from around the world. Performance art is generally concerned with the enactment and transmission of ideas via a performer’s body. However, these artists have embraced the intangible aspects of performance with a brio that sets them apart from their academically trained peers. Their total commitment to their chosen performances, which in some cases amounts to the creation of uniquely alternative ways of living, is both moving and inspiring. And it proves conclusively that art’s transformative benefits are in no way reliant upon public attention, influential patronage or wads of filthy lucre. As the show’s curator Valerie Rousseau writes, “These performances are perpetual journeys, unlike the finite autonomous artworks of their professional counterparts.” Their audience is both no-one and everyone. This is the work of artists for whom the curtain never comes down.

Take Gustave Mesmer, who lived in the villages of the Swabian Alps in the 1970s and 1980s, and created fantastical flying bicycles (above) with swinging wings made out of plastic bags and willow branches in order to “ride from village to village through the air”. Adorned in a self-made helmet and shoulder pads, like a knight of the dumpster, Mesmer would pedal down steep hills in search of altitude. He never left the ground physically, but spiritually he soared. Here you can see his painstaking models and blueprints of his devices, as well as an accompanying film that shows Mesmer, an impish grin on his face, pedalling his wondrous contraptions through the Alps.

Or how about Giuseppe Versino, about whom almost nothing is known other than he lived in an Italian psychiatric hospital in the early 20th century and made exquisite clothes for himself out of the wash rags he used in his cleaning job. The results, on display here, are magical, looking like a cross between Inuit gut-skin clothing and a Chanel bouclé suit. For Versino, the dull rags that marked out his days in the asylum were, through a process akin to alchemy, transformed into the garments of a prince in exile.

And then there are the adventures of Martial Richoz, a Jacques Tati-like character, who for years dressed up like a tram driver and circumnavigated the streets of Lausanne pushing a decorated loading cart in front of him. He mimicked the sounds of the tram cars—he could make pitch-perfect renditions of the opening of their doors, varying the volume depending on whether they were in the back, front or middle of his imaginary tram—and followed his own carefully mapped-out routes. Appearing like a weird outgrowth of the repressed Swiss id, he berated passers-by to be disciplined and exhorted them to “follow the line” that had been assigned to them in life. His performance seemed both a satirical act aimed at Swiss conformity and also a way of stabilising his own troubled life in the most literal way possible (“the steering wheel replaces everything I can’t have in life,” he says at one point). His imaginary tramlines vacillate between suggesting freedom and confinement and, as with much of the work here, are less about escapism than a superhuman attempt at order.

There are wonders everywhere: the crazily detailed doodles of Raphael Lonne, who called himself “an artist of the invisible world”; and the remarkable creations of the autistic knitting prodigy Deborah Berger, who created a trove of symbiotic clothes that wrap around the wearer’s body, both concealing them and animating them with their garish voodoo hues. There are also the photographs of Eijiro Miyama, a former construction worker who one day decided to adorn himself with brilliant hats and costumes and ride his bicycle through the streets of Yokohama extolling people to “look at me and enjoy yourselves.”

Mental illness is clearly a factor in many of the artists' works, but what the show offers is less a common pathology than a mutual triumph, the triumph of the insubstantial, of everything that floats against the gravitating drag, the endless quantifiable verities of day-to-day life. These artists’ creations of games, talismans and costumes seem to act as both unique statements of personality and surroundings, as well as carapaces against the crushing reality that surrounds them. These artists are not involved in Walter Mitty-ish daydreaming, but in art as the very means of existence.

When the Curtain Never Goes Down American Folk Art Museum, New York, until July 5th

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