Art: Rough and urgent treasures

William Hawkins' "Boffo," alkyd house paint on Masonite. The Bonovitz collection is strong in exactly the right places.
William Hawkins' "Boffo," alkyd house paint on Masonite. The Bonovitz collection is strong in exactly the right places.

The Art Museum's significant new gift, the Bonovitz collection of outsider art, spotlights untutored brilliance.

Posted: March 04, 2013

For the most part, the artists of " 'Great and Mighty Things': Outsider Art From the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection," which goes on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday, shouldn't be called "outsiders."

They may be free of associations with academic art and the so-called art mainstream, however one chooses to define that elastic term.

But "outsider" is a tag invented by insiders, both to separate these artists from the elite (while making them marketable) and also to camouflage or excuse technical deficiencies in their work, particularly wonky drawing.

A survey of the 27 artists in this exhibition suggests that "untutored" or "intuitive" would be more accurate and value-neutral terms to describe how they work.

Untutored artists make landscapes, still lifes, portraits, religious pictures, and genre scenes just as do artists who have been formally trained. Some of this work is charming, some is so close to "insider" art that one almost can't tell the difference, and some is childish and/or tedious.

The range of imagination, skill, and aesthetic appeal is broad. At the low end of the scale we find the religious sermonizer Howard Finster, whose paintings are clotted with text, while the high end is anchored by relative sophisticates such as William Edmondson, Emery Blagdon, James Castle, and Eddie Arning, all modernists in spite of themselves.

Somewhere along this continuum one finds perhaps the most fascinating artist of the lot, Martín Ramírez, who really is an outsider, or an isolate. More on him below.

The Bonovitz collection of more than 200 items is a promised gift to the Art Museum, which is fitting because untutored art began to emerge from obscurity more than 30 years ago in part through exhibitions organized here in the 1980s and '90s by Elsa Longhauser, first at Philadelphia College of Art and then at Moore College of Art and Design.

The first of these, "Transmitters," was followed by retrospectives for Ramírez, the Swiss isolate artist Adolf Wölfli, and the Ohio carver Elijah Pierce.

The Bonovitz collection - paintings, sculptures, and works on paper in various media - is a significant gift because it will give the Art Museum instant prominence in this niche of American art. The artists in " 'Great and Mighty Things' " represent many of the most prominent figures in this genre. The Bonovitzes not only have the headliners, they have them in depth, which this compartmentalized installation emphasizes.

For instance, the show includes 11 carved and painted reliefs by Pierce, 14 reliefs and drawings by Castle, seven major drawings by Ramírez, 13 drawings by Bill Traylor, and six sculptures by Edmondson.

If untutored work is typically unpolished, the artists can be appealing because many of them have lived unconventional lives, and because their desire to create is manifest and often intense.

Their passion, which often reads as obsession, comes across as purity of spirit. These artists are motivated primarily by the urge or necessity to express themselves. Aesthetic considerations aside, this is the trait that distinguishes and unites them.

Life stories, sometimes so seductive as to make the aesthetic value of their work seem incidental, also enhance this art's allure.

Traylor, one of the most celebrated of this group, is a typical example. Born into slavery in Alabama, he knocked about after emancipation until, in his later years, he found himself in Montgomery, living on the street.

For a few years, he drew and painted snippets of memory and experience on scrap paper and pieces of cardboard. The figures are eccentric and the narratives enigmatic; yet like the more imposing and finished drawings by Ramírez, they can be moving.

Castle is another artist who drew obsessively, obsession being a common motivator among the untutored. Using soot mixed with saliva, he produced small drawings of his rural environment of considerable nuance and charm (although the majority of the show's Castles aren't drawings).

Ramírez has become one of the stars of the untutored cohort, not only for his sad life story but also because his drawings are unusually large and as mysterious as neolithic cave paintings.

His hermetic images of tunnels, trains, and cowboys framed in prosceniums, while visually compelling, suggest a mind locked in a perpetual cycle of trying to regain a grip on reality.

Yet Ramírez doesn't ramble; he organizes space skillfully and achieves hypnotic effects through bold repetition of line. Emotionally his drawings are self-contained and offer viewers few entry points, but graphically they are powerful projections.

Edmondson is the artist who most effectively demonstrates that these makers are, for the most part, not outcasts or freaks of nature but people who came into art through intuition that is sometimes visionary.

Like Pierce the son of former slaves, Edmondson became a sculptor, he said, because God told him to pick up a chisel and carve stone. He did, transforming chunks of castoff limestone into human figures and animals that impress through striking formal economy infused with a forceful presence.

The Bonovitz collection is strong in exactly the right places - that is, artists such as Edmondson, Ramírez, Traylor, Castle, William Hawkins, Simon Sparrow, and Purvis Young, whose 1991 painting Horses is an intuitive masterwork.


Art: Another Perspective

" 'Great and Mighty Things': Outsider Art From the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through June 9. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 Wednesdays and Fridays. Open during normal hours on Memorial Day. Admission is $20 general, $18 for visitors 65 and older, and $14 for students with valid ID and visitors 13 to 18. 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear on alternating Sundays.

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