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ABCD: A Collection of Art Brut

at Chicago Cultural Center, through June 29

When I saw the “Outsider Art” show at the Chicago Cultural Center six years ago, I called it “inspiring and startling and visionary.” I also felt the need to point out that such work generally lacks the visual refinement of artists such as Durer and Rembrandt.

I was wrong. Many of the 106 works in the current Chicago Cultural Center show display the same formal complexity, networks of relationships between parts, and exquisitely calculated detailing as high art. At the same time, they often reveal wildly original visions.

ABCD, the Paris foundation whose collection the show is drawn from, is dedicated to the propagation of art brut, a type of art French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet began to collect in 1945; the oxymoronic name translates as “raw art.” Art brut is a subcategory of outsider art (a term that came much later) and excludes naive and folk art. Dubuffet defined art brut in 1949 as work made by “persons unharmed by artistic culture” who draw everything “from their inner selves and not from the conventions of classic art or the art in vogue.” But as ABCD founder Bruno Decharme points out in the exhibition’s catalog, though art brut is often considered “free,” its creators tend to be in thrall to their own hallucinations, following “those laws, more totalitarian than the rules of a society which one can always overrule.”

Part of what’s so extraordinary about this exhibit is its aesthetic quality (it was curated by Brooke Anderson and Jenifer Borum in association with the American Folk Art Museum in New York). The celebrated paintings of Adolf Wolfli can seem repetitive and overly systematic in large doses, but the examples here are wonderfully supple and suggestive. In two paintings, his geometric designs are tempered by the fluidity of his colors and shapes, which lead the eye in a variety of directions. A contemplative face at the center of Christoph Columbus (1930) is surrounded by multiple bands of color that form rough ovals; one of the outer bands is itself filled with ovals. A larger, untitled work circa 1926 reveals a complex mix of symmetry and asymmetry in its mosaiclike patterns: concentric rectangles contain a wide variety of similar shapes whose small variations seem nearly magical, as if filled with meaning. Also included are a few faces, one of which stares out enigmatically from bottom center.

Wolfli, who was imprisoned in a Swiss mental hospital after he attacked several very young girls, not only produced hundreds of drawings but composed music and wrote a 25,000-page autobiography in which he called himself “Great-Great-God” and one “lost amidst this scary world.” The effort to invent an alternative universe characterizes a number of other works here, including an untitled 1929 painting by Augustin Lesage that’s even more elaborate than Wolfli’s works. Adorned with an array of colored geometrical shapes, the work resembles a tapestry whose details are intended to frame small vignettes: a woman and child in a garden, a large fish against a background of trees. Its self-sufficient completeness is reminiscent of ancient works that map out the cosmos, from Huari textiles to Roman wall paintings.

Lesage–a miner who became a painter after he heard voices telling him to do so–is one of many artists in the exhibit influenced by spiritualism: he believed himself to be guided by his dead sister, among other people. Another artist here, Fleury-Joseph Crepin, became a spiritualist healer at the age of 56, through the efforts of a disciple of Lesage, and a painter at age 63. At the center of his untitled 1940 painting is a godlike figure with vaguely oriental features seated on a pedestal-throne. The catalog accurately describes Crepin’s work, which often groups geometrical patterns around a center, as having a “hypnotic symmetry.” But the aesthetic appeal of his patterns seems less important than the way the field of turquoise around the central figure glows, giving this “deity” an aura of magic.

In the best of these works the artist seems less committed to the artwork as an autonomous object than to the vision that inspired it; these pieces are meant as windows onto that vision. Appealingly, the artist stands before his or her own creation with a sense of awe. Obsessive detailing and design and the absence of any obvious borrowings from other art all suggest an idea that’s taken on an autonomous life. In Anna Zemankova’s untitled colored-pencil drawing (circa 1973), pistils at the top of an enormous flower resemble tiny flames, seeming to radiate energy upward. A diabetic who started drawing at 52 after losing both legs, Zemankova used to say, “I grow flowers which grow nowhere else”–and indeed the eight patterned “leaves” here look something like fish tails.

An untitled, undated gouache-and-ink drawing by J.B. Murry–an American born in 1908 who began drawing in his 70s–has none of the exquisite symmetry of the European works but is no less compelling: elongated pink shapes resembling human figures because of their bulbous heads emerge from a field of enigmatic marks, “sacred texts” Murry claimed he alone could understand. While other pieces depicting an alternative world seem to invite entry, Murry offers an elegant rebuff to the viewer: neither the hovering shapes nor the script make any logical sense, but together they seem to offer an unknowable civilization.

Four black figures in an untitled gouache (circa 1957) by an artist known simply as Carlo reminded me at first of some of the less intricately detailed outsider art of the 1997 exhibit. An Italian who made his work in asylums after he’d gone insane fighting in World War II, Carlo here creates figures with big holes in their heads as if wounded by a shell–or psychically destroyed. Tiny variations in the figures raise the question whether they represent many soldiers or are different depictions of a single man, but in either case they suggest an unending stream of injuries. Most compelling is the swirling reddish “sky” behind these black forms, setting them against chaos.

Raphael Lonne is one of the artists in the show whose ecstatic complexity and refined detailing suggest that some outsider work deserves the same kind of attention as traditional high art. A French postman who began making art in his 40s after he became involved in seances, Lonne made art in a trance, “always drawing from left to right and top to bottom,” the catalog says. An untitled, undated ink drawing presents a startlingly dense network of swirling lines broken by occasional white spaces, some of which contain silhouettes of animals or humans. The rhythmically curved lines gently lead the eye about and hint at a vast imaginary world–a cliff with inhabited caves, perhaps, or a turbulent river filled with underwater creatures.

Devotion to their vision leads many outsider artists to fuse their work with their own identities. In the catalog, Decharme says that art brut comes from those who are not interested in recognition, for whom “the act of creation is sufficient…because it is in the simple act of creating that he recreates himself.” Edmund Monsiel–a Pole who spent the last 20 years of his life hiding in his brother’s attic, fearing arrest by the Germans during and after World War II–re-created himself brilliantly. His graphite drawing Z BOGIEM= ZWYCIESTWO=WOZUCZYN=DNIA=26.IV.=1961 R (“Victorious With God, Wozuczyn”) includes hundreds of mustached faces that may not be Monsiel’s, but the overall effect is of an immense world collapsing into a single consciousness. There’s one large face in profile at the left, but virtually all the rest of the drawing, including the crescent moon at the top, is filled with the same face in smaller form, usually seen head-on but sometimes in other positions, looking in different directions. Hands pointing in various directions seem to indicate that all possible pathways are accounted for–or all escape routes sealed. It’s a bizarre vision brought to life and sustained by exquisitely sensitive lines and a multiplicity of rhythms.