The growing spotlight on artists with developmental disabilities simultaneously questions ethics, challenges definitions in Art and inspires viewers. The current exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, Create, features the works of 20 artists from three pioneering Bay Area centers for arts and disability – Creativity Explored, Creative Growth Art Center and the National Institute of Art and Disabilities.
Once in the museum, I found myself at an ethical crossroads. The only information provided was a brief introductory wall text at the beginning of the first gallery, and a slightly longer anecdote in the take-away, written by the co-curators Larry Rinder and Matthew Higgs, respectively. Both texts note that the artists included all have a developmental disability of some kind, but little else about their process, experience or intent. Except, of course, to clarify that the artists are not performing art therapy in a drab gray room with bars on the windows. The paradox for me remains in determining for whose benefit exactly, is the mention of the artists’ conditions made? In the introduction, Rinder mentions that the artists’ “status as outsiders is rapidly shifting to that of insiders.” This can be taken in a few ways: for my Mom, and others like her, who insist they were among the first to discover the phenomenon of outsider art, they may be greatly bereaved to hear that outsider art has hit the mainstream, and now even their t-shirts are $60 a pop. For others it can be seen as an advancement that has been a long time coming. The artists featured in Create all possess the level of talent, individual voice and depth to be expected of the those supported by the Berkeley Art Museum and other major institutions. This issue elicits a nagging feeling that questions the motivation of listing the artists as developmentally disabled. I cannot help but wonder how I would have viewed the art if I had not known this facet of the exhibition.
Trying to look at the artwork as untainted by the knowledge of the artists’ conditions, I saw three galleries filled with pieces so creative and uninhibited, my eyes hungrily devoured the unique detail in each piece. Four examples of Attilo Crescenti’s sprawling, surreal and abstract figure drawings demonstrate the potential of an unrestricted vision of the human form. Written in huge, black scratchy handwriting on the entire back wall of the first gallery, is Michael Bernard Loggins’ text piece “Fears of Your Life.” Loggins included all fears in his list, both the profound and the mundane:
13. Fear of being lost.
21. Fear of spiders and roaches.
And mouse raccoons and rats too.
52. Fear of rolling down a hill backwards.
82. Fear that if you are bad or naughty noone’s isn’t going to love you anymore.
Carl Hendrickson and Jeremy Burleson both created sculptures that blur the line between practical application and surreal artistic liberty. Hendrickson’s wood sculptures resemble recognizable structures at first glance, yet further inspection reveals that their construction negates their utilitarian function. Burleson’s sculptures of medical equipment made from tape, plastic and paper, maintain an amazing amount of detail and accuracy, yet cannot be forgotten as non-functional art objects.
Create brings up several important questions that remain unanswered, and perhaps will not be answered for some time. How are these artists different or the same as others featured in major institutions? How does an artist’s past or present condition affect the reception of their work? Is the image of ‘outsider’ art exploited by the mainstream in the same way as other minorities, subcultures or fringe societies? The success and importance of the exhibition is in its posing of these questions, and the opening of a dialog that may be continued by the art world, both inside and out.
Create was curated by Larry Rinder, the director of BAM/PFA and Matthew Higgs, the director of White Columns. On view from May 11, 2011 – September 25, 2011.