Darger & Company

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.


2 Responses to “Darger & Company”

  1. 1 toddhosfelt September 12, 2008 at 9:13 am

    hmmmmmm. where to start? the curatorial “design” of the show is presenting narrative works on paper in which the artists develop a highly personal visual vocabulary to tell a story that is open to interpretation. it’s not about assembling a collection of up and coming artists. if it were, i wouldn’t have included amy cutler, shahzia sikander or liliana porter, any one of whom is arguably more famous or highly regarded or widely exhibited than darger.

    as to our website advertising art that is not in the exhibition, you are mistaken. every image of artwork on the page about this show, is an image of work in the show.

    “outsider art” is a term used by the art industry to signify someone without art training. usually artists labeled “outsider” are marginalized from the mainstream art market because of psychological, developmental or socioeconomic characteristics. that is not a term used in my blog or on our website or in any of our materials. neither do we discuss or presume to understand darger’s mental state. we certainly do not refer to him as “sick,” “deviant.” “criminal,” or a “lunatic.”

  2. 2 hideoussunday September 12, 2008 at 9:52 am

    I seem to have touched a nerve where it wasn’t at all intended. Your point about the term “up-and-coming” is well taken and I should have gone with my gut and left out the term as it is misleading. I would argue a bit about whether Darger is less well known though than the other artists you mention however. In any case I wasn’t attempting to suggest that the show was simply a collection of up-and-coming artists and I mention that there is indeed a theme. The point was that Darger’s work because of its singularity and popularity could endanger a balanced appraisal of all the work on display and to be honest, I’m not the first to have brought this up:
    I’m unsure altogether why you would be offended by the term curatorial “design.” The curator is all the stands between a show that suggests and provokes and one that is just a collection of stuff. Surely “design” is apt?

    And apparently mea culpa regarding the Darger pic displayed on the website that I claimed was not in the show. Was it on the reverse of the panel I mentioned? Because I don’t remember seeing it at all. I thought you had stated on your blog that only one was on display. Is the other at the New York gallery?

    Finally, none of the digressions regarding Darger’s mental health and its relationship to his work were at all implied to have been suggested by your exhibit. Digressions are all they were. The structure of my musings went along the lines of: Darger’s work is so powerful and recognizable that putting it in an exhibit with others invites the danger or shortchanging the other artists / Admission: I came to this exhibit because Darger was in it myself / What is his appeal anyway? Is it because we look at his work and say “Man, that guy was nuts?” / I don’t think so / I’d suggest that it is a friction between rational and irrational – both together help create the fascination / I love Faye Ku’s work.

    Thank you for the corrections and comments. They are appreciated.


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