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PARIS — For a brief time, a former Catholic seminary on Paris’ classy Boulevard Raspail was overtaken with a psychoanalyst’s jubilee of art from self-taught creators who worked in secret or seclusion, in mental asylums or hospitals, or just from their own particular perspective of the world. The Museum of Everything is a traveling exhibition started by British filmmaker James Brett in 2009 that’s been widely successful in its unique curation of overlooked art, having now collaborated with the Tate Modern and the Missoni fashion house. Its Exhibition #1.1 popped up from October 2012 to March 2013 in the Saint-Germain space of the Chalet Society, a project of Marc-Oliver Wahler, the former director and chief curator of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. I was lucky enough to catch it in its last days, and it was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve had of viewing “outsider” art, as it’s usually classified, from the sheer overwhelming density of the work to the truly talented, and truly bizarre, artists corralled into one alternative arts space.
After paying for a ticket (with just a Euro extra getting you a lifetime membership to wherever the Museum may be) at a fairgrounds-like booth, I received a piece of candy and proceeded down a corridor to a courtyard where bold red arrows pointed me up an exterior staircase. The first gallery immediately plunged my mind into a very different art experience with a whole room packed with the work of Henry Darger, the artist who worked as a janitor in a hospital and obsessively created in secret an epic work called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion that is over 15,000 strange and surreal pages of drawings of girls who are boys, or boys who are girls. His work was discovered by his landlords after his death and has achieved a high level of fame for the unsettling drawings that twist American catalogue life, with the Vivian Girls in pinafore dresses alternately frolicking with trippy winged people with antlers, or being strangled by menacing soldiers. Pages from the book were exhibited as two-sided panoramas, the worn wood floors of the space giving them an appropriately unrefined display, setting the tone for the rest of the art that sprawled out over hallways, stairwells, ceilings, and all over the unconventional space.
The diversity of the art was staggering, with everything from Missouri-based Jesse Howard‘s cranky signs of block text Bible quotes first aimed at his despised neighbors and then later the world, to German artist Dietrich Orth who started doing art as therapy and paints imagined machines in simple shapes, complete with instructions on how to use them. The Museum of Everything’s Paris showing was heavy on Americana and art inspired by Biblical punishment and doom, but what was really a link between all the work was art as a compulsion and inextricable part of the inner lives of the creators.
Russian artist Alexander P. Lobanov was a deaf mute who spent years in a psychiatric hospital, and used pencil and felt-tip drawings to repeatedly transform himself into a hero, later staging photographs where he posed with fantasy cardboard guns as if in victorious commemoration. ACM, the artistic pseudonym of French couple Alfred and Corinne Marie, build intensely complicated temples of whimsy from typewriter and electronic parts, and Chinese artist Guo Fengyi, a retired factory worker who used art as her outlet for her Qigong practice of balancing energy, stopped me in my tracks with her gorgeous drawings on scrolls of rice paper of visions that take the forms of towering, but soothing, diaphanous figures.
Really, every turn of the corner in the Museum revealed some unexpected art wonder, with installations like street preacher and blues singer Reverend Anderson Johnson‘s “Faith Mission” of painted parishioners that he created in his Newport News apartment, Pennsylvania artist William Blayney‘s vivid paintings that gave an aggressive Gothic air to the Book of Revelations, or Idaho artist James Castle who, unable to write, read, hear, or sign, sculpted works from soot, spit, and string that are strikingly modern.
The Museum of Everything’s next stop is the Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow where they’ll open Exhibition #5 on April 25. At the Venice Biennale this year they’ll have a showing right by Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery. While a representative with the Museum of Everything told me they don’t yet have any confirmed dates for an exhibition in New York, they do have it on their radar. Here’s hoping I can use my lifetime Museum membership to get immersed again in this compelling conglomeration of artists who break all the art rules, by not knowing they even exist.
The Museum of Everything: Exhibition #1.1 was October 15, 2012 to March 31, 2013 at the Chalet Society in Paris. The exhibition travels to Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow and the Venice Biennale.