The Completely Bearable Lightness of a Parade of Unusual Beings

Last weekend, I zipped into New York City with John to take in a few shows and generally augment my cultural needs. At the American Folk Art Museum I found myself nearly as intrigued with the people milling about as the exhibits.

While taking in the weather vanes shaped like cars, furniture shaped like people and other items of many manners, my thoughts were several times interrupted by an earnest father imploring his 5 year old son to marvel at the kaleidoscope quilts and wood inlay techniques.

As he went on about the significance of various art pieces, his son dutifully murmured "mm hm" until he found something that really spoke to him. He nearly leapt with exclamation at one of his own finds, "Wow! Look at this Dad!! What are these?!". The dismissive reply "Those are light switches son, we're not here to look at those" became one of the most satisfying exchanges I'd overheard in some time. You can't hurry love and you can't force someone to get excited about tchotchkes they're not ready for.

Most of my time was spent admiring two displays of unusual works by Martin Ramirez and Henry Darger, men with histories as intriguing as their art.

Mr. Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant who spoke no English came to the United States looking for work and instead found himself institutionalized having been labelled a schizophrenic. Once there, he began creating drawings in earnest using whatever was at hand (cigarette papers joined together, lined paper, brown paper bags) and the result was hundreds of rather mesmerizing pictures of tunnels, horseback riders and Mexican themed scenes.

Taking in the large paintings of Henry Darger at close hand was a fascinating and mystifying experience. The context provided was that Henry Darger had been a janitor by trade and a recluse whose work was discovered only at the end of his life. Among his belongings was found a 15,000 page novel he wrote illustrated with fantastical paintings, many over 10 feet long, journals, his life story and 10 years of daily weather journals. On display with his paintings at the museum was one of the large volumes of his novel. The documentary on sale at the museum begged to be bought and so it was.

When I got home, I searched on my favourite documentary loving blogger's site and Chris had indeed written about the film In The Realms of the Unreal. Yesterday I watched it (trailer here) and for the first time really considered art in a different way and why and how it's created at all.

My conclusive thought on seeing these exhibits, the film and my general life philosophy remains that there is nothing better, worse, stranger or more interesting than people.

Next up on Passion of the Dale: dogs in bowler hats and celebrity sightings.



Flannery Alden said...

People are fascinating. And why not examine the light switches while you're at it?

Esther said...

I will definitely have to put the Folk Art Museum on my always expanding list of things to see and do in New York. (So much to see, so little time. Sigh.)

I love unusual art created by unusual artists. And I agree with Flannery - I bet it was a very fascinating light switch! Sometimes it takes a child to enlighten us.

Some Guy said...

I'm glad you liked it, Dale. I just re-watched that movie recently. It's amazing. I'd love to see some of his artwork in person.

SkylersDad said...

Glad you had a good time, and by the way, did you take any pictures of the light switches to share with us?

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Kudos on being able to work the word "tchotchkes" into your post.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to find some paper bags and a pencil so I can draw a lightswitch.

BeckEye said...

Glad you mice had such a good time in the Big Apple while mama cat was away. Harrrumph.

Melly/Melody/or Mel said...

I just went thru your underwear drawer and I must say, I impressed. Very neat, you are. I've never known of anyone else who keeps their batteries there.

I am fascinated with light switches...we have em all over our house!

Helene (the Artist Formerly Known as Kate) said...

Sounds like an great trip!

I love people. So diverse and interesting!

Hope you had a great weekend... with interesting non NYC people!

katrocket said...

I have a light switch cover of a buff naked man and the switch is where his peener should be. I don't care what you say - I think it's art.

Holly said...

I HATED that museum. I agree completely with the belief that utilitarian objects can be works of art; at something like the Frick, I spend as much time looking at the tables and lamps and chairs as I do the things in frames or on stands. I also admire and am interested in the time and care people often devote to make as beautiful, original and interesting as they can things that will decay--like textiles, which rot eventually.

As someone who grew up doing every kind of craft imaginable, and who still quilts, knits and sews, I thought their choices for works to include were often terrible. On display was a giant floor mat single-crocheted from old wonder bread bags--something that didn't require any talent or skill or imagination. Someone had found it in an old lady's garage when she died. If she had alternated wonder bread bags with some other kind of bag, so that a design emerged, or if she used different stitches so it had some visual appeal to it, then it might have succeeded as folk art. As it was, it was just a big boring plastic circle hanging on a wall.

It's the difference between someone who makes a beanbag by getting a rectangle of fabric and folding it in half and making a square beanbag, and someone who takes a few triangles and a few scraps of felt and a couple of buttons, and makes a beanbag shaped like a chicken. Leaving aside the question of why people make beanbags in the first place, the square one requires no skill to make and is not visually interesting to look at, while the second one requires some skill and, at least on the part of whoever figured out how to compose the chicken, a little imagination, and is much more interesting to look at, at least for the length of time most people would devote to inspecting a beanbag shaped like a chicken.

Most of the stuff in that museum is the equivalent of a square beanbag.

The curators didn't seem able to tell the difference between something made at home, and something made at home and displaying at least SOME originality, thought and skill. They needed not only art history degrees, but a few stints at summer camp, doing decoupage and learning to cut dr pepper cans into strips, punch holes in the sides of the strips, and then crochet them together into a hat. Then they might understand folk art.

I realize this is a very cranky comment I'm leaving but I feel very strongly about this issue.

Dale said...

It's all about the people Flannery and if the light switches make an appearance, we're all better off Flannery.

It's a unique place with some incredible items and some really oddball stuff Esther. You're right, sometimes it's a child who enlightens and sometimes it's a switch.

It was really interesting Chris as I'd never even heard of him but as soon as I was confronted with his paintings and prior to reading the accompanying context, I was spellbound.

Sadly I did not Skyler's Dad. Will folks like me ever be of any use?

Your work too can be displayed Barbara, notice how I said your work and not you? You're no museum piece.

Don't you have contacts at customs Beckeye? They might have held us until you arrived back in town.

You should see how they look out of the drawer Melly!

Fun trip, an assortment of people to wonder at and all is well Helene. Your trip looks a bit more exciting!

Whatever turns you or the lights on Katrocket!

I found the space itself strange Holly with many of the displays in the stairwells. Another offputting thing was the fact that about 40% or so of the art seemed to be from unidentified artists. Do the curators just go to garage sales and put things behind glass?

That said, I enjoyed it because it was a huge change from more conventional museums and there were some excellent things to behold. I see your point though about creativity and skill, some items just seemed to be taking up space.

I enjoyed the Frick when I visited it for the same reasons you did. I really enjoy cranky comments too so good for you, good for me!

AC@46 said...

I remeber reading about Dargar once, I have only seen the images on the web.
It must be kind of over powering.

Sean Wraight said...

Good for you for bringing some culture to your blog Dale. And good on you to include a mention of the great Henry Darger my favourite outsider artist. I now understand how the Vivian Girls got their name. Heck even Sufjan Stevens has written a song about him.

Great post, I enjoyed this one immensely.


Melly/Melody/or Mel said...

Katrocket...I used to have a lightswitch (glow in the dark) of jesus and some children...and the switch was in the same spot.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but did you buy a pretzel or hot dog from a vendor while in NY? These are the things we want to know Dale.

Bubs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bubs said...

How very cool! I saw that Henry Darger movie a while back and really liked it.

Speaking of people working out obsessive visions, I just visited the Watts Towers on Sunday. If you've never seen them, check them out if you're in LA. It was well worth the time.

Dale said...

Ramirez mesmerized me but Darger kept me a bit more spellbound AC.

Lots of culture in my life Sean, perhaps just not enough on the blog for you. I'm glad to have pleased you so. :-)

Melly! You dirty dirty flicker!

Next time I plan on buying some street meat from a vendor Suze but this trip was reserved for room service and real restaurants.

I'll be adding that to my list of things to check out Bubs. I'm glad you enjoyed them and the Darger. Now I'm going to read more on Darger and figure out how not to end up like him.

justacoolcat said...

Clearly this is a call to imprison all artists.

It's good for their art, right?

Coaster Punchman said...

I'd like to give that light switch hating father a piece of my mind.

Cormac Brown said...

And you, Dale, what wonderous works will you unlease upon the world?

Anonymous said...

I'm a museum junkie though I've not been museum hopping recently. Those are light switches.
How Warhol. Never smother a little kid's taste & creativity. ~Mary

Westcoast Walker said...

Your experience sounds quite folk-o-licious!

People are indeed strange, wonderful and complex creatures, and I would be just as fascinated by the type of homosapiens that would hang around a folk art gallery as I would be with the art itself.

Personally, I think light switches are a great starting place for curiosity about the world and an immediate avenue to learn the joys of cause and effect.

Chancelucky said...

I often think that being an artist is just a form of OCD.

I remember going to art museums as a kid (I actually liked them) and getting fascinated with the water fountain or the heating grates instead of the exhibits.

Anonymous said...

I always wanted someone to publish In The Realms of the Unreal, but I think that 15,000 pages of little girls with penises might be a little much.

Or maybe not.

Chris said...

Way cool!

I wrote a piece not too long ago vaguely trying to express my definition of art. Light switches count...

BeckEye said...

How dare you post something only to have it disappear! Stop leading my following gadget on!

Alex Appleton said...

Nice posting. I am glad to read this.

Russian Dating

Dale said...

I demand they all be locked up at once Coolcat. I have nothing to worry about, I'm stuck in the land of the free.

He was truly insufferable CP and it would have been a joy to hear you go after him and set the kid free.

I'll leave behind a crazy cat and a pocketful of sorrow no doubt Cormac.

You've got the right idea there Mary!

You're right WW, why not light switches to light the way?

Clearly it's the gateway to genius Chancelucky, you're proof.

It'd be a fascinating thing to regard let alone read Idea of Progress.

Light switches can never be underestimated Chris, just like you.

Sorry Beckeye, I was at work and didn't have time to check it with random management types walking up behind me again and again.

Alex Appleton, sounds like a good old fashioned Russian name!

Anonymous said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.