Sunday, March 13, 2016

Self-Taught Genius from the American Folk Art Museum at The New Orleans Museum of Art

As show titles go, this Self-Taught Genius expo of masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum poses a unique question: how does one become a self taught genius? Most would-be art geniuses go to school but only learn about other people's genius. A few like Picasso or Jackson Pollock break the mold with fantastical visions that define their time. This show suggests that folk art geniuses are perceptive people whose intuitive visions are shaped by their fertile imaginations. The 115 works seen here date from early America to the present and fall into diverse categories united by a certain psychic intensity. For instance, an 1830 painting, Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog by Ammi Phillips, is a marvel of sublime simplicity but the otherworldly look of his subjects reflects early America's view of children and animals as agents of nature's weirdness. Similarly, Asa Ames' 1850 Phrenological Head wood sculpture, above left, depicting early brain science is surreal masterpiece. Folk art became more worldly by the 1950s as we see in machinist and former labor organizer Ralph Fasanella's Subway Riders, below, a kind of empathic lyric poem of the late industrial age. And car mechanic Marino Auriti's 11-foot-tall Encyclopedic Palace tower sculpture was a model for his proposed 136 story museum that he said would display, “all the works of man... from the wheel to the satellite” and occupy 16 city blocks in Washington D.C. It never caught on in D.C., but his model was exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

These days, folk art is more associated with black or white Southern eccentrics whose best works suggest abstract or expressionist visions that rival Pollock or Picasso. Sheet metal paintings by Mary Smith, of Mississippi, top, recall tribal art's flair for depicting human and natural forces as bizarre figures, even as Alabama visionary Lonnie Holley's fraught sculptures rival the sophistication of Robert Rauschenberg and other modernist icons. By displaying their work in their yards, such artists presaged contemporary installation art by decades. Similarly sublime works from the New Orleans Museum of Art collection such as Purvis Young's Angels Over the City, 1989, above left, are on view in its Unfiltered Visions expo upstairs. ~Bookhardt /  Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, Through May 22, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.