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Zebede Armstrong, “Untitled,” 1987, Marker on wooden object, 15.25 x 13.25 in (all images courtesy gallery Christian Berst Art Brut)

Christian Berst gallery’s inaugural exhibition Do the Write Thing: Read Between the Lines is a wake-up call to artists who risk losing their art in search of their career. That is, if by art, we mean creating works just to see them made — or at least made out of compulsion. The instinct to make, and make without instrumental ends, is at odds with the professionalization of the artist who must become ever more tactical in their speech and practices to achieve institutional success. Jean Dubuffet caught this, or something like it, early on, and ditched the art world for 25 years, returning only after he’d read psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill.

Hence Dubuffet’s now canonical concept of art brut or “raw art.” All of the artists in this Lower East Side gallery, which is actually a new outpost of Christian Berst in Paris, create their works in society’s margins. Some do so without any audience in mind, or any intended. Many of the artworks, if not most, are products, or byproducts, of obsessive projects, activities so personal and unleashed from cultural mores that to witness them is to become a kind of voyeur.

Kunizo Matsumoto, “Untitled” (June 7, 2004),” Ink on calendar, 15.24 x 9.25 in

Kunizo Matsumoto (b. 1962), for example, can neither read nor write. When not working as a dishwasher in his family’s restaurant, he takes pages from the calendar, or from Kabuki theater brochures, and fashions ideograms by reproducing words, or inventing them, in various arrangements. The spontaneity evident in the shifting of lines and scales creates an auto-poetic drama of typographic characters. Calligraphic plays of this sort cover the walls of Matsumoto’s bedroom where family members are not allowed to touch them.

Praying to St. Rita is not customary advice professors give their MFA students. Yet, it works for Jill Galliéni (b. 1948), who for 30 years has found in the medieval nun, the Patroness of Impossible Causes, an escape from anxieties. Meditative and meticulous, the horizontal bands of looping lines Galliéni inscribes on small sheets of paper tease out her words while keeping them a secret.

Royal Robertson, “Untitled,” 1990, Marker, ballpoint pen, gouache, and marker on paper, 28.11 x 22.17 (verso)

Shouting in ALL CAPS the righteous hatred one feels towards an ex-wife — for Royal Robertson (1936-1997) it is Adell — would be a strange art-world strategy in terms of form and content. But the screeching pain behind Robertson’s poster-like drawings, however misguided and offensive his words might be, rivals the emotional rawness that makes most of Van Gogh’s paintings difficult for me see. In fact, if the double-sided drawing in this show begs to be censored, find comfort in Roberta Smith’s praise for such graphic impossibilities.

Language as the primary medium of the works in the show is poignant in two ways. First, words are themselves important social markers delineating cultural and personal territories — of thoughts, of geography, of relations to others. Likewise, the linguistic patterns and obsessions of these artists, in their opaque appeal, make us the outsiders burdened with the task of interpretation. These works can’t be decoded in conventional ways art criticism offers.

Milton Schwartz, “Untitled,” n.d., Collage, Sharpie marker, and pencil on cut manilla folder, 8 x 18.25 in

Second, and relatedly, I think these works form an accidental critique of the word-burdened art world where artists both known and unknown are incessantly scrounging for more theoretical backing to justify what they want to make and show. Just this year I was talking with an acquaintance who, now that she’s collected by the Guggenheim, feels more pressure than ever to have theory be a part of her language, where it never existed before. My suggestion to her was to remain optical in her art and let the critics and writers do their job. She wanted to make art again, but felt like she needed permission.

Josef Hofer, “Untitled,” 2014, Colored pencil and graphite on paper, 16.68 x 27.55 in

Yuichi Saito (b. 1983) writes on paper the names of his favorite TV shows with such vigor that small tears emerge.  Josef Hofer (b. 1945) fills the space between his figural self-representations and the cells around him, with his signature “Pepi,” confronting his inability to speak. Patricia Salen (b. 1957) releases the lines from her cursive phrases to swirl in space before deciding, in their own freedom, where to end.

Patricia Salen, “Le Réseau Informatif,” 2009, Graphite on paper, 11.81 x 15.75

Do the Write Thing: Read Between the Lines continues at Christian Berst Art Brut (95 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 21.

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Rob Colvin

Rob Colvin is the editor and publisher of Arts Magazine. Reviews and interviews are published on Instagram,...