It hardly seems fair to assemble a collection from a group of up-and-coming artists under a rubric like Vocabularies of Metaphor and then throw Henry Darger into the mix. By now his work (and life) are so well known, that any curatorial design is in danger of fading into the background, and I confess it was his inclusion that drew me to Hosfelt’s current exhibit.
For a second time this week, I discover that the art advertising an exhibition on a gallery’s website isn’t even present in the show. Strangely, the large work by Darger actually on display is reproduced on Todd Hosfelt’s blog instead. There I also found a pic of the “Abbieannian Flamingo Girl Scout in Winter Uniform,” which is a relief because I hadn’t written that down and no memory no matter how precise would have preserved that one from being mangled.
To be honest this simple painting was more interesting to me than the broad panorama suspended from the ceiling. It wouldn’t look out of place in a page from a book produced by Osprey Publishing. This small but prolific press produces slim reference works on military history that go into obsessive details about every article of clothing and regalia worn by nearly every fighting unit, obscure or otherwise, that ever existed. The accepted explanation for Darger’s bizarre output is that he was mentally ill, certainly his induction in the vague category of “Outsider Art” only prejudices the appraisal further. That said his work seems to display amazing amounts of capability (to me anyway) for someone who was suffering from some undiagnosed disorder. The excerpt of some of the prose from his notebooks quoted on Todd Hosfelt’s blog seems relatively lucid for the ravings of a madman.
There are those little girl penis pictures of course- there’s no getting away from them. But the simple image of the uniformed Scout reminds me of the obsessive level of detail about the utterly fanciful that appeared in Pulp Fantasy and Sci-Fi stories and the large panel their inclination to soft porn if of the most pollyanna and ultimately chaste variety. Darger’s imagination seems to have drawn from the prose and layout of books on history as well as that of fantasies like the Oz books. It’s just that his boundaries went well beyond the norm. It’s this tension I think between agency and compulsion, between a curious and awake mind and unbidden thoughts that make him interesting. Just when you think you can dismiss him as insane, you become aware for example of the composition and colors and you are forced to reassess. He wouldn’t be the first artist after all who mingled the repellent and the attractive in their work. Looking at the paintings it’s easy to dismiss them as the work of a lunatic, but wouldn’t you say the same about Bacon of Dali or Duchamp if you didn’t know better? Perhaps the most frightening and unutterable thought is that mental illness is after all, a very human condition. The thought that you might “catch it” is less disturbing than the thought that one could be a functioning person who still exhibits behaviors and symptoms of the “sick.” Society probably isn’t ready for the notion of sanity on a sliding scale.
So don’t despair budding artists out there. The real appeal, despite the ad nauseum repetitions of Darger’s tragic childhood and insinuations of deviant even criminal obsession, is I believe the juxtaposition of the rational and irrational and not just some kind of freak show. It is the collision of these two together that create the real absorption. People may have paid a penny to gawk at the poor souls in Bedlam, but they did the same to get a glimpse of the tightrope walker (Is he or isn’t he? Will he or won’t he?). Case in point, one of those poor not-Dargers featured in this exhibit: Fay Ku. Her precise, delicate renderings are at once troubling and mythic. Well worth heading to her site for a look.