Revelation: The Quilts of Marie “Big Mama” Roseman

at Intuit

There’s something weird about living in a town so fixated on outsider art. Sometimes defined as art created by anyone without formal training, it’s also called “visionary” art, a term that better represents the scene: collectors anoint certain intuitive geniuses, validating work never intended for a gallery–art made with a loose, gestural touch and some hint of mystical spirituality, its primal energy often distilled by the artist’s mental disorder. This leads to the weird part, and by “weird” I mean “sort of creepy”: though these artists are often still alive and exhibiting regularly, they don’t seem to know one another or invite their own communities into the art world.

No less weird is that, for over a century, “insider” artists from Picasso to the Chicago Imagists and Basquiat have co-opted the visual markers of the transcendently deranged to give their own scribbles some reflected charismatic authority. In the past few years, a few art collectives–Dearraindrop, Royal Art Lodge, Paper Rad–have appropriated outside artists’ hallucinatory takes on pop culture. Now that these dudes have blown up, doing videos for VH1 and designing shirts for Urban Outfitters, it’s refreshing to find a show that reminds me what educated aesthetes have always liked about marginal art–a bracing, inspiring disregard for visual tradition.

“Revelation! The Quilts of Marie ‘Big Mama’ Roseman,” now on display at Intuit, gives hope for the future of fiber art. In her irregularly shaped quilts, pillows, and foot warmers, subtly combined found fabrics provide a surface for dazzling free-form embroidery: dense accretions of yarn render scattered fragments of text, meandering lines, and plant and animal images that electrify the visual cortex. A twisting storm of stitchery that corrupts every genteel standard of needlework descends onto her serene pastel patchwork landscapes. But I don’t mean to project an avant-garde fantasy of violence onto this highly contemplative artwork, whose strange and delicate gestures seem both obsessive and unconscious. The disjointed vines, shimmering birds, and starburst flowers are more like mysterious, half-finished indications of forms, forces, and flights that exceed everyday experience. The dynamic balance of joyful excess and uncentered fierceness in the work suggests a lush, blossoming meadow whose oldest, most majestic tree has been split by lightning, creating a mighty ruin in turn slowly becoming a home for a colorful variety of new life.

Roseman, who was born in 1898 and died in 2004, emerged from the improvisational African-American quilting tradition, which also produced iconic identity artist Faith Ringgold. Like Roseman, Ringgold began working expressively in the early 1970s, chronicling African-American history through its landmark characters (Douglass, DuBois, King) and experiences (the Underground Railroad, the Harlem Renaissance, the march on Washington). The painting in Ringgold’s mixed-media pieces consciously references the simplified forms of African-American folk artists but also displays clear technical ability; the quilted areas are executed with equal if not greater sophistication. Ringgold’s works promote an ethic of culturally aware empowerment. By comparison Roseman’s pieces are far more abstract and esoteric. An admirer of Ringgold’s polished populist work might see in the gallery appropriation of Roseman’s textiles a rather unsavory infantilization and political neutralizing of African-American art. On the other hand, Ringgold’s art might be seen as prosaic, cliched, and preachy when set alongside Roseman’s intense, entirely original compositions.

Still, Ringgold enjoys an obvious advantage over Roseman: she has far more control over how her work is presented. It’s in no way obvious where the “Revelation!” in the show’s title comes from: though Roseman was a homebody who obsessively cranked out fiber artwork, that doesn’t make her a snake-handling seer. The same sort of specious conjectures about who Roseman was, relating her to a mystical otherworld of feminine primitivism, also appear in Martha Watterson’s curatorial statement. She suggests that the small dolls Roseman sometimes attached to her quilts are “a reference to her experiences delivering children” and that her images of flowers and vines relate to her “role as a Native American healer and herbalist.” To me, guessing at the motivations of an artist who has no voice, either as an individual or as a spokesperson for a group, is pretty far-fetched. If you’re going to hang her work in a cryptic modernist space as a cryptic modernist artist, let it speak for itself. Otherwise, call the gallery an ethnographic museum and provide more convincing data.

In fact the nature of outsider art allows a gallery to frame itself as something of an anthropological research organization, perhaps even a social service agency, which can contribute to its success. Intuit is open daily, has a gift shop, does educational outreach, and publishes a serious journal on outsider art. There’s no reason to impugn its efforts overall–I mean only to point out that, in Chicago, resources at this level are not being devoted to independent, educated gallery artists however worthy. Two locals who take visionary illustration to a complex, evocative place are Edie Fake, creator of the meta-transgendered comic-book character Gaylord Phoenix, and Robyn O’Neil, who makes large-scale allegorical landscape drawings. Both have left Chicago. That the contemporary art scene here remains rather small and stagnant may have something to do with collectors and galleries seeing the work of marginal creators as the purest form of expression. They then fetishize such art rather than recognize its formal and narrative potential the way Fake and O’Neil do, with the result that there’s not much of a Chicago insider scene worthy of export.

When: Through 9/2: Tue-Sat 11-5, Thu till 7:30

Where: Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee

Price: Free

Info: 312-243-9088