Art

The Obsessive and Strange Storytelling of the American Visionary Art Museum

American Visionary Art Museum
American Visionary Art Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

All visitors to the American Visionary Art Museum get their hands stamped with a singe gazing blue eye, the logo for the museum that focuses on self-taught artists who use their work as an avenue for their personal vision. But while it’s an institution devoted to the inner voice, the museum is hardly an introverted place. In fact, its exterior is an overwhelming jumble of mosaics, strange sculptures embedded in the garden or riding motorcycles on the roof, and even a gold “hand of god” reaching out from one side. I visited on a recent rainy afternoon and even though the weather was dreary, the art inside and out of the museum was a flurry of whimsy and gleeful, almost manic, creation.

American Visionary Art Museum
Sculpture garden at the American Visionary Art Museum
American Museum of Visionary Art
Esther Krinitz, “We Fled Across The Fields, No. 16” (1992), embroidery on cloth, 22 x 22. (Courtesy Art & Remembrance)

Temporary exhibitions rotate in taking over most of the museum’s gallery space, and The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor & Truth is the current broad umbrella theme for an incredibly eclectic showing of more than 30 visionary artists. This is the 18th annual exhibition and is all about art that relies on narrative, from the curious tiny mixed media assemblage “Theaters of the 13th Dimension” by Mars Tokyo to the intricate sliced Tyvek silhouettes of Béatrice Coron to the 36-piece series of embroidery works by Esther Krinitz on her personal story of surviving the Holocaust. The late Krinitz’s work is definitely a highlight and is given a whole gallery for her somber story of escaping the death camps by hiding on a farm in Poland to unfold in stitches and dense layers of thread.

American Museum of Visionary Art
Mars Tokyo, “Teatro della Seduta Spiritica (The Seance)” (detail) (2003-07), from “Theaters of the 13th Dimension,” mixed media assemblages. (Courtesy the artist)

While there are indeed many stories and wandering tangents, the overriding theme is unbridled obsession. The most unsettling and extreme in this area is probably the relics of Possum Trot, which was a tourist trap in the California desert where you could see some really creepy dolls “sing” and “dance” in jerky movements. All the dolls were carved and styled by Calvin and Ruby Black, and a documentary screening alongside some of the bleak-eyed doll faces shows them creaking along to disjointed music. It’s one of those glimpses of a lost and very strange roadside Americana that I really wish I could have witnessed, potential nightmares be damned.

American Museum of Visionary Art
Chris Roberts-Antieau, “10 Things to Be Happy About” (2012), fabric appliqué. (Courtesy the artist)

Along with Esther Krinitz’s embroidery, another really wonderful example of narrative in fabric art comes from the contemporary artist Chris Roberts-Antieau. Each one of the works is composed of cut-up cloth shapes and shows Roberts-Antieau’s clever sense of humor — my favorites being “Good Intentions Gone Bad” with the ill-advised ideas of birthday clowns (they’re scary), parade candy (potential trampling), and diet cookies (you will eat them all); as well as “Recent Alligator Attacks” which maps and visualizes reptilian predator incidents in Florida from 2003 to present. There’s also “10 Things to Be Happy About,” which includes such inarguably joyous items as “a big sandwich,” “kittens under a blanket,” and “winter trees covered in glistening ice.”

American Museum of Visionary Art
“Fifi” in the 2011 Kinetic Sculpture Race. (Photograph by Shawn Levin)

It would be impossible to take in the whole American Visionary Art Museum at once without becoming totally overwhelmed with all the spirited art determined to convey its unique vision, but I do recommend including a visit to the adjacent Jim Rouse Visionary Center for its incredible London’s Cabaret Mechanical Theatre automata (which has miniature mechanical sculptures that move at the touch of the button, such as an Anubis taking off its face or birds riding on waves), and a few of the participants in the Kinetic Sculpture Race. The Kinetic Sculpture Race annual event is comprised of human-powered moving works of art that roll through the Baltimore streets and are challenged with obstacles of water, mud, and sand. The next race is May 4 of this year, and if the pink poodle Fifi is any indication, it looks incredible and delightful and a little insane. Just like the American Visionary Art Museum.

American Museum of Visionary Art
P. Nosa, “Communicating with Music” (2012), machine embroidery on fabric. (Photograph by Dan Myers)

The Art of Storytelling is at the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway, Baltimore) through September 1.

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