The highway passes quickly through Summerville, Georgia. The roadsides fill with small houses, businesses, and the ghosts of fastfood architecture. It is easy to miss the turn to Paradise Gardens. The houses that surround Howard Finster’s home, installation, and “life’s work” part suddenly to reveal the expansive sculpture gardens, rambling buildings, and layer cake tower of the World’s Folk Art Church.
It is easy to think we know Howard Finster, “man of visions.” His paintings grace the covers of pop albums. His portraits and hand painted words fit into our perceptions of an outsider artist. He was outside enough to be embraced by the art world and savvy enough to know how to eat up the celebrity that came along with it.
Paradise Gardens is empty, as I arrive. I talk to the attendant about the slowly unfolding and changing history of Paradise Gardens, hear his stories of coming to visit on a school field trip and being told to return to church on Sunday afternoons while peeking through the fences at Finster working. As recommended, I start at the back corner, and, before I get there, my preconceptions of Finster fall away.
Paradise Gardens is a stubborn refusal of the outside world that embraced his artwork and public persona. It resists visual and economic consumption. It arises from an unassuming, largely poor, small Southern town that, at best, tolerated his work during and after his lifetime. The World’s Folk Art Church, the most striking and visually alluring building, has been closed for decades due to structural concerns. The work of other artists and admirers intermixed with Finster’s work blurs lines of authorship and individuality. Paradise Gardens is full of beauty and wonder, but it is also full of Finster’s enormous collections of the “inventions of mankind” that, under different circumstances, would be called hoarding.
Life and death comfortably coexist in Paradise Gardens. The area surrounding Paradise Gardens abounds in life. Workers repair the sewer outside the fence. Neighbors come and go without giving Finster’s Mosaic Garden and paths a second glance. The Casket of the Unknown Body, which used to have a viewing glass so visitors could see the girl’s teeth, the constant reminders of the Christian life after death, and the many memorials to Finster embody and keep death present.
The many collections of bicycle parts, sewing machines, typewriters, Coke bottles, and more hold the lives of the people who made them and the man who placed them. They cast shadows of their original uses as they hang lifeless. The bicycles, televisions, and scraps writhing up out of the weathered, increasingly uniform mass in the center of the garden are transfigured into the Bicycle Tower and reborn into pop careers.
I recently visited an old bakery-turned-warehouse filled with tens of thousands of plates, saucers, coffee cups, teapots, ramekins, the remnants of restaurants closed in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. The stacks and stacks of plates filling the warehouse were caked in dirt, filled with rainwater, surrounded by pigeon droppings. They are a treasure trove and a filthy testament to objects. They are the left overs of failed businesses and abandoned identities and the china that holds the memories of a generation of Americans who ate at roadside diners and fraternal order lodges. Like Paradise Gardens, this warehouse full of dishes straddles the line between collecting and hoarding, between objects and memories, between life that ends and death that continues. Life and death are so deeply intertwined they are indistinguishable from one another.
I just moved to a new town, a new climate, a new part of the country that has much to teach me. I cannot help but think of making a new life, of reshaping my inward and outward habits in conjunction with the physical move. Both Paradise Gardens and the warehouse remind me that the life we have is short, that the death that awaits us is not far. More importantly, they help me hold close the fact that life begins again and again, when we move to a new place, when we wake each morning, when death comes to find us. Finster believed in a very specific idea of life after death. Whether or not we ascribe to that belief, Paradise Gardens confronts us with death and the lives that come after. It is well worth the trip.
The American Folk Art Museum in New York has been in the news a lot lately–and sadly too; it looks like they’re closing. Faced with the pressure of massive debt, the AFM sold its flagship building on West 53rd Street to MOMA and shrank to its smaller, auxiliary 5,000 sq ftÂ location Â in Lincoln Square–what they allegedly rent for $1/year. The building on 53rd was built from scratch byÂ Tod Williams Billie Tsien ArchitectsÂ specifically for the collection andÂ opened in December, 2001. At the time “it was widely hailed as a sign of hope, both for the museum and New York. Here was evidence the city could recover from the terrorist attack of a few months earlier: a shiny bronze structure smack in the heart of Midtown that would be the first major art museum to open in Manhattan since the Whitney Museum in 1966,” (NYT, August 24, 2011). Since then the AFAM seems to be a lightening rod for particularly relevant trouble. “For example, its former chairman, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his collection of folk art, including a version of Edward Hicksâ€™s ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ but Mr. Esmerian also put the painting up as collateral against money he owed, and in 2008 it was put up for auction. In July Mr. Esmerian, who is no longer on the board, was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud,” (NYT, August 19, 2011).Â Perhaps again, as an indicator of our socioeconomic environment, the AFAM was forced to default on its construction loans in 2009. Their projected income from ticket sales and donations alike exceeded the reality of their position. The museum defaulted on its debt and this past May, its board decided to sell the building to its neighboring institution, the MOMA. While the sale got the museum out of its immediate hole, they were unable to raise additional funds for operating costs. Now the question seems to be, how to dissolve the institution? Where will these objects go?
What happens when a museum with such a carefully and specifically curated collection sells/donates its collection? The work itself seems as much defined by its relationship to the institution as the institution is defined by its work. If, for instance, Henry Darger is repositioned within the Brooklyn Art Musuem’s repertoire, and should they exhibit his work in conjunction with contemporary works does that change the way we view Darger? Does he start to emerge from the margins of “Outsider Art” into a space with different categorical potential (and therefore influence)? Obviously and for various reasons, Darger would never (nor should he) hold the status of a Pollack, for instance, but would his position and relation in our history-of-art-timeline change depending on his status within a specific collection? Would the same apply for the quilts in AFAM’s collection–how would these objects be integrated in other exhibits? Were everything to end up in a National History Museum, would we forget to think of these objects as art objects, considering them first and foremost practical artifacts endemic to a new country developing a cultural vocabulary? The historical implications/academic associations created by an institution’s curatorial hand suddenly becomes apparent to me.
As AFAM collected and exhibited this particular body of work it sought to define the significance of its collection, simultaneously reinforcing the significance of its own institutional contribution. Suddenly the work of curators shows its essential contribution to discussions around art. (While an obvious point, well curated experiences are often so seamless, that I take their curatorial authority for granted. I hardly notice it, focusing instead on the narrative it propagates.)
That said, and appealing to the internet ether (sometimes I feel I’m sending messages to outerspace) I don’t want the AFAM to close. Obviously I’m not in a position to fully comprehend the circumstances or needs of this institution as it goes through what must be a devastating time, but here are two postcards to metaspace:
Dear American Folk Art Museum, While we never shared the same state, your presence has helped me develop over the years, pressed me to follow paths of my own work and insight that I might have otherwise diminished and dismissed. Â Thank you so much. Yours truly.
Please don’t tear down the AFAM building. It would be such a waste! Perhaps instead you could incorporate its structure into your own and bring a new life to the building’s history. We must all protect one another, somehow. Yours truly.
Some great upcoming programming planned around Chicago Artist’s Month that I wanted to bring to your attention. This weekend, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art will present Henry Darger at Home (and) at Work, a program comprising two multi-disciplinary events about process, studio practice, and creativity in conjunction with Chicago Artists Month. The events start with a panel that includes some fantastic Chicago writers, and finish several weeks later with….a PUPPET SHOW. Awesome. You’ll find all the details below….
Finding inspiration in the Henry Darger Room Collection and the texts and imagery Darger crafted within it, Intuit has collaborated with the Chicago Underground Library (CUL) and The Anatomy Collective (TAC) to examine the relationship between writing, art-making and the creative process.
In collaboration with the Chicago Underground Library, Contemporary Authors and the Artistic Process, a panel discussion of authors followed by a bookmaking project with the audience, will take place on Saturday, October 2 from 11:00am – 1:00pm. In collaboration with The Anatomy Collective, Henry Darger’s Life (&) Work, a puppet show based on the life and work of Henry Darger and the collaborative text will take place on Thursday, October 28 fromÂ 6:00pm – 8:00pm. Both events take place at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL
Contemporary Authors and the Artistic Process
Saturday, October 2, 2010, 11am -1pm
$10; includes admission to Intuit’s galleries
A panel discussion featuring authors John Bresland, Stephanie Kuehnert, Audrey Niffenegger and Bayo Ojikutu will explore their multi-disciplinary sources of inspiration, the role biography plays in their work and how their studio contextualizes their practice. The 45-minute discussion will be moderated by Nell Taylor, Executive Director of Chicago Underground Library, with an introduction by Thea Liberty Nichols, Intuit’s Study Center Manager, and panelists will have books available for purchase.
Immediately following the panel, Intuit and CUL invite you to participate in a collaborative bookmaking project in homage to Darger’s life’s work, the masterpiece, In the Realms of the Unreal… Audience members are encouraged to bring in an item (a photo, artwork, magazine or newspaper clipping, etc.) or use items made available to create the text and imagery for a book that, once collaged together, will be housed within CUL’s collection and serve as the inspiration for the puppet show Henry Darger’s Life (&) Work on October 28.
Henry Darger’s Life (&) Work
Thursday, October 28, 6pm-8pm
Admission is by donation
Following Contemporary Authors and the Artistic Process, Theater group The Anatomy Collective will have just over three weeks to develop an exclusive puppet show that blends the tracings, clippings, ephemera and writing generated and collected by Darger with the book collectively created by attendees of CUL’s panel. The resultant performance will showcase TAC’s talents and resourcefulness in a whimsical epic that re-interprets Darger’s (home) life and (studio) work and the readers and viewers it continues to inspire.
For further information about this exhibition or to inquire about other Intuit programs, please contact Intuit at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312.243.9088.
I’m bringing this weekly links post back from the dead. There’s too much good stuff out there not to share. So, let us begin:
****Piss Wars: First-person accounts of a performance art kerfluffle involving Ann Liv Young that took place at PS1 Contemporary Art Center last week, over at Art Fag City. Dirty looks, upraised middle fingers, and spilled urine…yup, classic performance art. Follow up reports here and here.
****On the other hand, Wafaa Bilal makes the kind of performance art I can stand behind. Or support. Or whatever. His “….and Counting” will take place at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York on March 8th. In it, Bilal’s back will be tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq–one dot for each Iraqi and American casualty near the cities where they fell. “The 5,000 dead American soldiers are represented by red dots (permanent visible ink), and the 100,000 Iraqi casualties are represented by dots of green UV ink, seemingly invisible unless under black light.” (via we make money not art).
****Anaba profiles artist Margo Mensing, who “studies the work and life of an individual who died at her current age… and spends the year creating artwork responding to and inspired by that person.” Fascinating. She’s done Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Judd–and just check out her fantastic, Joan Mitchell-inspired knitted socks!! I am DYING over here.
****Wanna peek inside The Art Institute’s fashion archives?
****A really interesting piece (which includes videos and links) on Manshiyat Nasser (Garbage City), a suburb of Cairo, at Provisions Library.Â Garbage City is home to more than 20,000 people, many of whom are Zabaleen (Arabic for â€œGarbage Collectorsâ€). The Zabaleen gather one-third of Cairoâ€™s trash every day, bringing it back to Manshiyat Nasser where it is systematically sorted and recycled into raw materials or manufactured goods before being resold or reused worldwide.
****In Defense of Anonymity. Joanne MacNeill of Tomorrow Museum says, “Anonymity is a good thing. Donâ€™t conflate it with online trolling, itâ€™s good to have a secret life online.” She elaborates why in her podcast, linked above.
First: Shannon and Duncan talk Robert Reinard, Program Director, Collections & Exhibitions and Amanda Curtis, Program Director, Education from Intuit.
Intuit is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1991. Our mission is to promote public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of intuitive and outsider art through a program of education and exhibition.
Toward this end, Intuit strives to discover, document, maintain, preserve, exhibit, and collect examples of intuitive and outsider art; and to operate a permanent facility in which to pursue such activities.
Intuit defines “intuitive and outsider art” as work of artists who demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world and who seem instead motivated by their unique personal visions. This includes what is known as art brut, non-traditional folk art, self-taught art, and visionary art.
Next: Terri and Joanna talk to Gretchen Kalwinski and Eugenia Williamson from Literago.org
Literago.org is intended as a portal to news and information about literary goings-on in and around Chicago. The site features a curated calendar with a corresponding weekly newsletter, news and photos, post-event write-ups, and the occasional essay about the state of literature in Chicago.