ArtWeekend

When the Spirits Guide the Hand

An intriguing exhibition focuses on art whose makers were compelled to create it by forces greater — and far beyond — themselves.

Anna Zemánková, “Untitled” (early 1960s), pastel on paper, 34.65 x 24.41 in (all images courtesy Cavin-Morris Gallery)

Oh, how the spirits moved them — in the early morning, as dawn emerged; or unexpectedly, demanding their full attention in deeply immersive, trance-like work sessions that could last for hours; or, to be sure, during hair-raising, table-rattling séances, in which contact was made with those who had long since “passed over to the other side”!

The inspired, bedazzled, bewitched, or befuddled who, in different ways, claimed to have been moved or even guided by something outside themselves to make art are the subject of Duende, an intriguing, often sumptuous exhibition of these artists’ unexpected and inventive creations at Cavin-Morris Gallery in Chelsea, where it will remain on view through June 9.

Taking its title from a word defined in the Royal Spanish Academy’s official dictionary of the Spanish language as a fantastic spirit that can cause disorder or tumult, or as a mysterious, ineffable kind of charm or allure, Duende features works in various media by more than a dozen artists. All of them fall into the overlapping art brut (literally “raw art,” a term coined in the 1940s by the French modern artist Jean Dubuffet) and outsider art genres — for those who want or need labels, that is.

Monma, “Untitled” (2004), colored pencil on paper, 27.56 x 17.6 in

Cavin-Morris’s directors, Shari Cavin and Randall Morris, have long pursued their own research about the wide range of art forms, from contemporary ceramics to antique Japanese textiles, African carvings, and definitive examples of art brut, that has shaped their personal collection, while simultaneously informing the scope of their gallery’s programming. Similarly, they studiously amassed the works on view in Duende over an extended period of time, sometimes responding to tips from fellow researchers (like Terezie Zemánková, a granddaughter of the mediumistic artist Anna Zemánková, whose work the gallery has long represented).

“We were looking for works made by artists who had clearly stated that they believed they had created them in collaboration with powers beyond themselves,” Morris told me during a recent visit to the gallery. “According to the artists themselves, all of the works here would have been produced in shared experiences with some kinds of external forces or spirits that they would have felt, and that would have irresistibly moved them.”

Anna Zemánková’s dynamic drawings provide a good point of entry into the exhibition’s cabinet of unassumingly sophisticated or alluring curiosities. Zemánková (1908–1986) was born in Moravia, in what is now part of the Czech Republic. As a child, she enjoyed drawing, but her father did not support her artistic interests, and she became a dental technician. After marrying a military officer, she stopped working and devoted her time to her family, with whom, after World War II, she moved to Prague. Later, she wrestled with depression and, when she was in her 50s, began spending the early morning hours of each day making boldly colored drawings filled with plant-like, organic forms.

Those now well-known, critically praised concoctions, luscious and oozing a fecund air, share spiritual affinities as much with the colorful experiments of such Early Modernist abstractionists as Wassily Kandinsky or Sonia and Robert Delaunay as they do with some of the much later, exuberant abstractions of the American painter Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007). Here, however, Duende offers some of Zemánková’s rarely seen, earliest images, which feel tighter and more strictly geometric; out of these symmetrical compositions and layers of transparent color, her later, looser, more sensuous expressions emerged.

Helen Butler Wells, “Spirit Drawing #99 – ‘Lane’” (1928), graphite on paper, 7.5 x 11 in

For some as yet inexplicable reason (which would make a good subject for a dissertation), Czech mediumistic artists of Zemánková’s generation were numerous, and many of their works featured plant-like, organically unfolding forms. In recent years, Cavin and Morris have been expanding their inventory of such drawings by often anonymous, Czech mediumistic artists, such as the one whose drawings from the early 1940s are included in Duende. Executed in pencil or colored crayon on paper, their gentle, vegetal forms could easily have been plucked from Zemánková’s compositions. “Someday we hope to find out why Czech artists made so many works of this kind,” Cavin observed.

Equally emblematic of the kind of art showcased here are the pencil-on-paper drawings of Helen Butler Wells (1854–1940) and those in pencil and crayon on paper by her adopted daughter, Norma Oliver (which appears to have been the pseudonym of Aurelia Zadory, about whom little is known, including her birth and death dates, which are believed to have been 1893 and 1979, respectively). As enthusiastic Spiritualists, they founded the Jansenists, a group whose members conducted séances, during which they claimed to have made contact with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pythagoras, and Tecumseh, the 18th-century Shawnee chief, among other deceased historical figures.

Wells and Oliver made drawings based on such experiences, believing that they were compelled to do so by a spirit guide. (Some of these works only turned up at a Manhattan flea market a few years ago.) Wells’s “spirit drawings” offer modest images of those she contacted from “the other side,” while Oliver’s symmetrical, ornately patterned, sometimes mandala-like compositions, each one a portrait of someone from the beyond, are more complex and interesting. Sometimes she paired them with photographs of their subjects. (At Cavin-Morris, such photos are attached to the back sides of Oliver’s framed drawings.)

Agatha Wojciechowsky, “Untitled” (circa 1963), watercolor on paper, 14.75 x 10.75 in

During her lifetime, the work of the German-born Agatha Wojciechowsky (1896?–1986) was sometimes recognized as Surrealist, but after she moved to the United States in the 1920s and settled in New York, she became known as a Spiritualist medium and healer. She once referred to her art as “the work of different entities who take over and step into my body, directing my hand,” adding, “I really have nothing to do with it.” Duende features two of Wojciechowsky’s watercolor-on-paper abstractions from the early 1960s, in which fleeting faces emerge out of dabbled patches of color in what seem to be overviews of richly textured landscapes.

Fans of the self-taught, African-American artist John Bunion (“J.B.”) Murray (1908–1988) — a Georgia sharecropper who believed he saw God when he was around 70 years old, and then began drawing (or would it be more accurate to say “writing”?) a script of his own invention on wooden boards and pieces of found paper — will be delighted by a vitrine filled with rare examples of his handiwork. Murray, who was illiterate, believed that if visitors viewed his writings through a glass bottle of “holy water” that he kept near his bed, they would be able to read what he called “the language of the Holy Spirit, direct from God.”

The vitrine gathers together a group of small, talismanic pages, all inscribed with Murray’s script, some matched with accompanying envelopes. There is also a small sheet adorned with the artist’s jottings and splotches of explosive color. Describing himself as a humble medium, Murray once remarked, “He use my fingers. I can’t use them on my own. Jesus use the instrument of my fingers.”

Terezie Zemánková led Cavin and Morris to the florid, Art Nouveau-flavored drawings in pencil and colored pencil on paper by František Jaroslav Pecka (1878–1960), works that depict stately human figures in profile enveloped by voluminous, elaborately decorated forms, whose patterns, again, bring to mind the plant-like motifs of her grandmother, Anna Zemánková. Pecka was a Czech writer, geologist, archaeologist, teacher — and Spiritualist — whose works were exhibited at the National Spiritualist Congress in Paris in 1927. A hint of the Czech Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha’s simultaneously sure and languid line can be felt in Pecka’s pictures, which, if they were not so neatly self-contained, could easily take a turn toward the psychedelic.

František Jaroslav Pecka, “Untitled” (February 16, 1925), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 34.5 x 23.75 in

A big revelation here is the work of the late Henriette Zéphir (1920–2012), a Frenchwoman who was born near Toulouse, married a man from Martinique, and moved to the French Antilles, only to return later to southern France and settle in Nice. In 1941, she experienced a vision, in which her “guide” compelled her to draw. Following that external power’s instructions, she later used colored inks to produce abstract images, whose organic forms and energetic compositions evoke nature’s varied forces and rhythms. She worked lying on the ground or kneeling for hours at a time. Dubuffet himself was interested in Zéphir’s vividly colored drawings.

From another part of the world — Japan — the story of the self-taught artist Monma, who goes by one name, echoes Zéphir’s. Born in Hokkaido, in northern Japan, in 1951, Monma began making drawings when he was very young. However, he has explained, one time when he was in his 20s, while working on a drawing, he felt a strong force overtake him and guide his hand. The drawing he created as a result of that intervention was like no picture he had ever made before. Many years later, the same force, which he calls “The Entity,” visited him again. Monma continued making art for a long time before ever showing his drawings to anyone.

In his meticulously rendered pictures, multiple layers of semi-transparent images seem to emerge out of the surface of the paper and then recede back into each other. Recognizable subjects in the mists of these dynamic compositions include clowns’ faces; half-human, half-animal hybrids; and glowing, ectoplasmic heads. Monma’s hard-to-classify drawings are some of the most enigmatic — and ravishing — works of art to be found anywhere on the international contemporary art scene right now.

Surprisingly, for all its potentially goofy vibe, and despite its sometimes unabashed earnestness, the best of this kind of art transcends kitsch. After all, purist-believers would argue, this art is an expression, made tangible, of the will of higher powers. With their peculiar aura and strange charms, the allure of some of these works is hard to miss. Some viewers might dismiss the artists’ stories, but when it comes to resisting the works themselves, they might not stand a ghost of a chance.

Duende continues at Cavin-Morris Gallery (210 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 9.

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