What makes a person withdraw from the seen and known world most people live in in favor of an environment fashioned solely according to his or her own visionary fantasies? Failure, disappointment, opportunity, true ecstatic experience? In the case of Eddie Owens Martin, it seems it must have been some combination of all those that transformed a son of sharecroppers in rural Georgia into the berobed creator of Pasaquan—the immersive art environment Martin worked on for the last 30 or so years of his life. Organized by Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, and running through March 11 at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, “In the Land of Pasaquan: The Story of Eddie Owens Martin” attempts to tell his tale through his paintings, drawings, clothing, sculpture, and ritual objects.
Born in 1908, Martin harbored artistic ambitions from an early age. He fled his rural Georgia home in 1922 at age 14, ending up in New York City, where he quickly became a Greenwich Village character. He made ends meet as a drag queen, street hustler, and fortune teller, all the while trying with virtually no success to make a living as a painter. Sometime in the 1930s he traveled back to his parents’ home outside Buena Vista, Georgia, and while gravely ill began to have visions of a fantastic land he named Pasaquan. He rechristened himself Saint EOM and set about making his vision a reality. After his mother’s passing in 1950, he inherited the seven acres of land he’d spend the rest of his life turning into the utopia of his fever dream.
Much of the Intuit exhibit is taken up by Martin’s repetitive renderings of androgynous dancerlike figures in form-fitting, aggressively patterned outfits. Most have wide cheekbones, pointy slim noses, and combed-up bouffants culminating in spit curls. Sometimes these creatures float in undefined space; other times they’re placed in crudely rendered rooms or landscapes. The more successful pictures are ones in which brightly colored patterns dominate, as Martin’s ability to render seen space is at about that of a precocious middle schooler’s. Robbed of the larger context of Pasaquan itself, the exhibit can only hint at the grand, immersive vision Martin tried to create.
The show made me ponder, not for the first time, the entire idea of the “outsider” artist. At the heart of most definitions is the notion of an isolated, self-taught, obsessive eccentric conjuring a mysterious universe we’re then asked to admire with awe, from the perspective of our own dull, everyday lives. But was Martin really even an outsider? He spent many years in New York soaking in art and culture of every type, while trying and failing to make a conventional art career for himself. After concocting an origin myth borne out of his illness, he set about creating an art environment on the land where he was born; still, at no point was he estranged from the community around him. He had help from locals in constructing and decorating the buildings on the grounds of his domain. Also, much of the imagery and symbolism in his work is recognizably inspired by various native cultures of the Americas and elsewhere.
It’s no accident that Martin made his living as a fortune teller for many years in order to fund his art. Photographs of him in turbans and colorful robes put one in mind of an amusing, mostly harmless charlatan. Wall text in the show indicates that he claimed the patterned suits many of his figures wear had magical powers of levitation and flight, but few of his pictures communicate any such magic. My favorite piece in the entire show is a simple tempera rendering of flowers in a container. It’s painted in flat colors, and the two flowers are like eyes looking back at the viewer. Few other pictures here have the same unadorned evocative power.
The Kohler Foundation has done an extensive restoration of Pasaquan, and it’s now open to the public much of the year. The best thing this exhibit can do is inspire its visitors to make the trip to Georgia to see Martin’s temple to himself and his vision. Whether he was a mystical genius or just an aspiring artist who lucked into having a larger canvas than most artists could ever dream of might be answered in Georgia. Robbed of proper context, the show at Intuit just leaves one with a lot of questions. v