Beatrice Socoloff: Shopworn Angel Movie Art Museum

at Intuit, through March 27

George E. Morgan: Maine Streets

at Intuit, through April 10

By Fred Camper

Artists who’ve seen little art often come up with unique and engaging solutions to problems of perspective and modeling long since “solved” by Renaissance painters. Sometimes such artists are also “outsiders” because they’ve seen little of mainstream visual culture. Bill Traylor, born in 1856, worked as a farmhand for most of his life. He began drawing in 1939, and the unique look of his isolated beasts and human figures makes it clear he was drawing from direct experience.

Beatrice Socoloff was an outsider artist aware of popular media, however; indeed, she commented on it. A Chicagoan born in 1914–she died in 1992–she worked for much of her life running small shops (making dresses, selling antiques from a store named Shopworn Angel) and creating and selling costume jewelry in her home. She also loved movies and spent the latter decades of her life painting movie stars. She opened her north-side home to the public as the Shopworn Angel Movie Art Museum in 1978, featuring 50 paintings “by that Singin’, Swingin’ Grandma” who’d never been to art school. Now Intuit has placed a similar number of her works on view–49 paintings, three pastels, and three collages–alongside objects from her home: movie books, magazines, and furniture.

A great painter Beatrice Socoloff was not. If these were not pictures of movie stars produced in quantity, most would hardly command a second glance at a neighborhood art fair. Her usual style is a watered-down postimpressionist cross between Cezanne and numerous anonymous bad painters, with an emphasis on the latter. One odd, posterlike image of Marlene Dietrich has a mild iconic power–the figure’s bluish skin contrasts eerily with her black suit and the red background–but for the most part these are far from original.

The show is nonetheless worth seeing: Socoloff’s obsessiveness, her many handwritten framed labels, and the way the artist seemed to invest much of her emotional life in the stars she depicted provide a portrait of a peculiar fascination. Socoloff apparently judged her stars the way other people do their family members: when Mommie Dearest, a tell-all book about Joan Crawford, came out, the disillusioned Socoloff vowed never to paint her again–until she saw one of Crawford’s old movies and was so charmed she had to resume. In a label for an Elvis painting, Socoloff laments that he “fell down” and “[broke] his crown.”

Socoloff’s portraits often humanize the stars in a way that movie posters and films did not. We see John Wayne in a familiar pose, peering into the distance from under his wide-brimmed hat. I’ve seen this somewhat puzzled look in his movies, but he seems more uncertain here. Socoloff gives Gary Cooper an interiority rare in his films: in her picture his face is tilted down as if momentarily diverted from looking forward, and his gaze is angled even further down and to the side. An arched eyebrow and the curve of his mouth also give him a pensive look.

It’s not that these paintings have any great psychological depth, especially when measured against a long tradition of portraits that seemingly reveal the soul, but they offer a more personal view of the male movie hero than is typical. It’s as if Socoloff wanted to make these public figures her own. Similarly, R. Crumb announced in one of his many autobiographies that he gets what he wants by making an image of the desired object–showing himself drawing a woman named “Kathy Tuffbuns.” Socoloff is not so directly sexual–indeed, her label for a Liz Taylor portrait laments that Liz had “at times” become a “femme fatale”–but clearly she sought some sort of personal relationship. Liz looks at us directly, as if looking into the camera–a direct gaze rarely found in commercial films because it detracts from the illusion they seek to create. Her face is irritatingly sweet: again, this is not great painting but one movie fan’s intriguing perspective.

As Socoloff paints him, Edward G. Robinson isn’t nearly as severe or as fixed in his mien as in most of his films; he could be a pleasant insurance executive. Nor has Mae West the objectlike presence she constructed for herself in films; in Socoloff’s work her figure seems less bulgy and less potent. With a few exceptions–such as the portrait of Dietrich–these people are less objects of worship than friends you’d invite into your living room. Indeed, the gallery has a copy of a letter Socoloff wrote to Janet Gaynor, inviting the silent star to visit Socoloff’s gallery (Gaynor politely declined).

The three collages on view–which seem deemphasized by their placement in a little niche–come closer to succeeding as art; they also make the impulse behind Socoloff’s star veneration clearer. Her juxtaposition of cutouts of female stars with stairways, corridors, jewels, and plush interiors suggests that movies were a kind of passageway for her. These pieces have the messiness and imprecision of much outsider work, but they still “open up” in the way Joseph Cornell’s collages do. In one, Marilyn Monroe’s head is echoed by a flower of similar size just below it, while a curious double stairway descends to some glass doors: for Socoloff, and for many others, movies represent an escape from everyday life.

George E. Morgan, a Maine resident born in 1870, worked in a shoe factory and as a harness maker; by the time he began painting at the age of 91 he’d doubtless been exposed to some of our visual culture, but the 23 pictures at Intuit don’t show it: he painted mostly townscapes based on his memories. The streets are usually empty, but when a vehicle is visible it’s as likely to be horse drawn as motorized, a sign that his childhood and youth were his sources. Morgan began making art in a nursing home that encouraged its residents to paint as therapy; tiring of the paint-by-numbers method, he began painting from memory. He apparently made only 24 paintings, stopping after a few years due to a loss of motor control. He died at 99.

This, then, is true outsider art, apparently uninfluenced by other artists or by mass media. The artist is instead trying to represent his direct observations–or memories of them–and in the process discovering how to paint. While this approach has resulted in plenty of bad art, in cases such as Morgan’s the artist’s inventions produce fascinatingly eccentric depictions. They also evidence the artist’s love for his subjects.

For Morgan, as for many untrained artists, a key issue is perspective. He paints different parts of a scene as if from different points in space, unintentionally reiterating a mix once found in the high art of many cultures; it’s become less common since the advent of Renaissance perspective and photography. Morgan renders some buildings from directly overhead, and others head-on. Many overhead views of a street or river, such as Hallowell River, render the buildings on one side “correctly,” from an oblique angle above, but show the facades of the buildings on the other side as if they’d been blown over backward. These are only two of the conflicting perspectives Morgan employed; in Freshet, Hallowell, Maine, the buildings are tilted at an even greater variety of angles.

One quickly gets used to this variety; it’s merely our schooled view that makes Morgan’s melange of perspectives look odd. Less concerned with photographic realism than with recovering his memories of streets and buildings, he’s simply trying to show as much of what’s important to him as possible: it’s as if he presented each building from the perspective that reveals it best. Morgan doesn’t give us much detail–his buildings are mainly solid-colored affairs whose principal features are their many windows. But he paints them with care, and his color sense is superb, just bright enough to be appealing yet muted enough to create a unified image, preventing any one area from unbalancing the composition.

The result, in a picture such as Bridge Dividing River, is both realistic remembrance and flight of fancy. The bridge is painted as if seen from an oblique overhead angle, while the river it crosses seems to be shown from straight above. The facades of most buildings on the two opposing banks are visible, as if seen from above and behind the opposite bank. The longer I looked at this painting, the more I thought of flying–which in Morgan’s youth would have meant the flight of a bird. You’re encouraged to twist about to see all of the painting’s parts, rotating your head to look at the buildings on the right, for example; just as many of Morgan’s townscapes seem to record the diverse perspectives available to a pedestrian, so the multiple perspectives here suggest a record of bird’s-eye views.

One of Morgan’s paintings, Bird of Paradise, even depicts a red-tailed bird in flight. Remarkably, red stems and leaves seem to sprout from its tail, suggesting that Morgan saw birds as miraculous–or as excuses for making little miracles with his brush.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Gary Cooper” by Beatrice Socoloff; “Freshnet, Hallowell, Maine” by George E. Morgan.