Edmond Engel

at Judy A. Saslow Gallery, through April 26

Deborah Maris Lader

at InsideArt, through April 26

By Fred Camper

The lines, splotches, and smears that make up the paintings and drawings of Edmond Engel–15 of which are on view at Judy A. Saslow–seem a bit chaotic at first. Figures are filled with multiple colors and shapes, but the best of these compositions are remarkably unified. In the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat or Jonathan Borofsky, brightly colored graffitilike forms explode and expand in all directions. Here, there’s a dense convergence, a continual coming together, a gathering of visual energy. What seems confusing at first quickly becomes unaccountably intense.

Born in France in 1937, Engel is an untrained Swiss artist who in the early 70s caught the attention of Jean Dubuffet, a pioneer advocate of outsider art. Engel’s work is in the museum Dubuffet founded in Lausanne. Though Engel was supposedly unfamiliar with Dubuffet’s own pictures, his recent heads bear a strong resemblance to Dubuffet’s messy, mark-filled figures. But underlying his busy surfaces, Engel has a gentle lyricism that results in an almost pastoral feeling. The face in Arthur Rimbaud, L’homme a la cigarette…. is divided by thin white lines into many small areas of color. Though the design is hardly symmetrical, the colors don’t clash; repeating at reasonably regular intervals, they produce the effect of a carefully tended garden. But there’s nothing academic about Engel’s designs–their quiet poetry is hard to explain. An untitled 1996 head is surrounded by a deep blue background whose evocation of the night sky is heightened by white starlike shapes within the face, punctuating darker forms at irregular intervals. The darker forms suggest both the natural patterns of moss and lichen and the diverse colors of stars. At once expansive and modest, the picture reminded me that Engel also writes poetry–the title of one of his books is We Are Born of the Stars.

Some of his larger pictures have multiple focal points. The messy surface of an untitled painting from 1987 includes small lines that appear to be the result of scratching off one color to reveal an underlying layer, a scraping away that suggests decay. But concentric reddish circles in the middle provide a center, while other circles at the sides create their own, smaller centers of attention. Two figures in profile have playful tiny spiral eyes, almost giving them an inner life; the viewer isn’t the only one who “sees” in this picture. In Les cosmonautes, broad arcs swirl around the two green figures at the center, binding the wild diversity of surrounding shapes, tying the design together as if with string. Several rows of repeated multicolored orblike shapes, some biomorphic, seem to parallel the arcs. The figures are filled with tiny black and white lines that suggest folds of clothing and skin; these abstract waves create detail while giving the bodies an odd intensity. Outsider art is often compared to the art of children, but what’s striking about Engel’s paintings and drawings is his ability to combine the playfulness of children’s art with his own more sophisticated lyricism, in which an almost aggressive clustering of shapes signals the opposite of aggression: a vision of figures united with their world as well as with each other.

Gentle lyricism and the playfulness of children also inform most of the 28 constructions and drawings by Deborah Maris Lader now on view at InsideArt. Though she combines more diverse materials than Engel’s shapes (mixing drawn images with found objects, for example), the effect is not of strong contrasts; rather, the objects and images always seem to build on each other, like Lego blocks.

This metaphor is not innocently chosen, for many of the works contain imagery of a baby with Legos. Lego City Construction includes a large drawing in which this baby, crouching at top center, builds a Lego tower. A road seems to emerge from the tower, running below the baby into the foreground. The tower is fronted by fully constructed buildings. Various objects that suggest construction are mounted at the sides of the drawing–a rusty saw blade, a photograph of a crane. The work projects a quietly optimistic view of the power of a child’s imagination: Lego blocks, aided by real machinery, can give birth to a city.

A few pieces, though, have an odd edge. A green piece of wood has a carved twisting spiral rising in relief; a thin metal band curved into a circle traverses its length. Mallet & Crushed Stuff sets a nickel into an oval on the head of a mallet, as if the mallet itself had hammered it; metal and glass fragments are inserted into the mallet’s handle. Three large images recall the intense convergences of Engel’s compositions. Surface, Soul, and Heal are charcoal drawings on combinations of paper and plaster; they’re covered with a plastic polymer that makes them highly reflective. In each piece, hands appear to be kneading a large foot. In Heal, the hands curve toward each other, leading the eye to the line along the sole where the fingers meet; in Soul, the hands appear to be producing wrinkles, rendered as dark lines, in the sole of a foot, creating an extraordinary feeling of compression. The idea of compression is extended by the images’ formal elements as well–the curved hands and feet, the intense combinations of darks and whites, and the way the small relief effects of the plaster surface seem contained by the plastic’s reflective sheen.

The dark intensity of these pieces in an otherwise sunny exhibit likely stems from a fact Lader foregrounds in her artist’s statement: A year ago her son Daniel, now three, was diagnosed with autism. Lader told me that she and her husband had noticed Daniel “was not developing properly. He was late in developing speech; he would learn a few words and then regress.” This is the boy we see building with Legos, an activity he began at an earlier-than-usual ten months. The three “foot” drawings relate to the idea of healing–“the masseuse’s hands, healing myself, healing him”–and in fact one of Daniel’s therapies is massage: “He needs a lot of body work, joint compressions.” But his autism is mild–he’s “high functioning” and “not retarded.” A variety of intensive therapies are helping him to improve. Still, after the diagnosis, Lader and her husband “went through a period of mourning,” she says. “I couldn’t even talk about it; I was frozen. What I finally realized was that I was mourning the loss of my expectations of him, not Daniel himself. He’s a great kid; he just learns differently. I started doing my own constructions again after watching him make things out of blocks.”

Born in suburban Cleveland in 1961, Lader founded and runs the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative. Her main artistic interest has long been the figure: “I’ve always loved people. I’ve always thought the figure was the most beautiful thing.” Trained as a printmaker, she counts among other key early interests archaeology, dance, and writing. She remembers digging up clay from her backyard as a young girl and using it to imitate primitive artifacts–“I pretended I was a primitive being.” Long a collector of junk, Lader says she has always “been good at making something positive out of a bad situation. I find junk on the ground and try to make it into something interesting.” This optimism, which informs her approach to her son, can be found in her found-object sculptures as well.

In Fossil, a variety of objects are arrayed methodically on a board. A tiny metal triangle on the left corresponds to a spiral on the right; an electronic circuit on the lower left parallels a map fragment on the right; in the bottom center is a drawing that mimics pictographs. None of this is exactly symmetrical, and a fossillike footprint at right center is balanced only, if at all, by some nails at the lower left corner. But these frequent parallels and the presence of a large amount of empty board gives the work an open, almost cheerful air. In the larger Come Into My Kitchen (Cause It’s Goin’ to Be Rainin’ Outdoors)–its title based on a Robert Johnson song–a door opens to reveal a kitchen cabinet. On the top shelf are tiny vials of spices–the vials once contained Daniel’s vitamin supplements–while lower shelves have broken wine glasses. A broken plate is mounted at the bottom. In Lader’s constructions there is an equality of materials, with no value judgment attached to “broken.” Despite all this broken glass, there’s not one breath of tragedy. Indeed, she’s painted broken wine glasses and a broken plate on the main glass panel of the door. When closed, the door, illuminated by a lightbulb within the cabinet, looks a bit like a stained-glass window: All things can be seen in an almost spiritual light.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Les cosmonautes” by Edmond Engel and “Heal” by Deborah Maris Lader.