Thursday, April 12, 2012

Outsider Art in Chicago: The Henry Darger Room

Brief NAR post I did in February:

This past weekend marked New York’s 20th Outsider Art Fair, an annual celebration of self-taught artists. While New York is sadly too far to regularly enjoy such events, Chicago has long been home to the United States’ premier nonprofit organization for outsider art. Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art offers a collection of over 1,000 works, as well as a study center. I’m surprised at how little I’ve heard Intuit mentioned at Northwestern [ie. never], but it is one of my favorite destinations in Chicago. Although the center offers various fascinating temporary exhibitions, it is worth a visit for the Henry Darger room alone.

Darger, who has gained notoriety as a 20th century outsider artist, is best known for his epic suite of paintings and collages, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Through hundreds of paintings, Darger tells the intricate story of the Vivian Girls, an army of young girls rebelling against a regime of child slavery in a war-torn world.

The Henry Darger Room at Intuit was created from the contents of Darger’s own living room in Chicago, where he lived until 1973. Chock full of children’s book clippings, cracked cakes of watercolor, and religious paraphernalia, the ashen Darger room brims with the presence of the compulsive creator who once occupied the space. A brief timeline of his life is illustrated outside of the room, and various works and handwritten texts are on display. The lurid beauty of Darger’s paintings has also captivated numerous contemporary creators. References to his work are continually emerging in popular culture, from the female indie-rock trio the Vivian Girls, to the armies of female fighters in the work of contemporary artist Marcel Dzama.
Visit the Henry Darger Room yourself for a firsthand encounter with Darger’s fascinating home and studio, and a brief foray into the artist’s mind. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the other wonderful exhibitions that Intuit offers (Heaven & Hell is on display from February 10-June 30), and pick up a copy of The Outsider magazine. An experience of Chicago’s art scene is incomplete without a stop (or many!) at this venue.

Cross-Pollinating the Grassroots with Beehive Design Collective

My post about hanging out with Beehive Design Collective back in August.

After three years of being immersed in the privilege and pre-professionalism that is college at Northwestern, I opted for a change. This summer I lived with an anarchist collective in small-town Maine for several weeks. I got the whole package: vegan meals, writing letters to prisoners, showering once a week, and camping in a damp tent amidst clusters of valerian.

This was the Beehive Design Collective’s annual Work Party, a summer event wherein the graphics-making Collective invites the public to camp and work with them for a month. Aside from hanging out with a lovely array of open, friendly, and inspiring people and radicals, I had the opportunity to glimpse, firsthand, the processes involved in executing the Collective’s graphics campaigns.

The Beehive Collective began over a decade ago as a mosaic-making group. The Collective’s emergence alongside the anti-globalization movement of the early 2000s resulted in a shift to posters and drawings, as the Collective searched for a more effective way to fit into the media of the movement. Since then, they have launched several major graphics campaigns, usually centered around anti-capitalist and environmental concerns.

Twice a year, the “Bees” go on tour to publicize their campaigns by delivering presentations around the country. I had the opportunity to witness their presentation on The True Cost of Coal, an intricate collaborative illustration that draws attention to the issue of mountaintop removal mining, a method of coal mining that requires the removal of mountain summits for easier resource extraction. I was also able to discuss other graphics campaigns, notably Free Trade of the Americas, with members of the Collective as well as other volunteers. While the posters show stylistic nuances—a result of the illustrators’ varying artistic modes and drawing techniques—the overall style of the posters is consistent. The viewer is first assaulted with a harsh, sharply contrasted black-and-white thicket of imagery. The confrontational nature of these posters is magnified by the monumental size, as the original illustrations are large enough to span a small room. The size also works to underline the vastness of the issues that the posters deal with, and to unravel the mass of images on each poster requires tremendous attention to detail.

One striking feature of the illustrations is their lack of human representation. The space of each poster is dominated by plant and animal imagery, with each and every detail symbolizing an aspect of the issue that the posters tackle. In order to create such meticulous illustrations, each subject is researched extensively before drawings are conceptualized. To do this, the group spends months traveling and speaking with locals (in the case of the True Cost of Coal, these were communities in Appalachia that are directly affected by mountaintop removal) and others who are involved with the issues at hand, as well as investigating the flora and fauna that are meaningful to the areas of concern. After the research is completed, the group relies on the use of mind maps to encourage a non-linear way of visualizing various features of the illustrations, and a team of illustrators collaborates to draw each element. Months later (sometimes years), a graphics campaign finally arises. The presentations given on the subsequent tours clarify the narratives behind each poster, illuminating the significance of each feature.

Another notable aspect of the Beehive’s posters is the “anti-copyright” label that appears on each print. The anti-copyright promotes free use and dissemination of the collective’s graphics to the masses. In this sense, the graphics operate as educational implements designed to supersede commodity culture and inform without charge. The reproducibility of the work is further highlighted by the achromatic quality of the posters, which follows a tradition of political artwork that abstains from the use of color.

Consistent with the collective’s emphasis on autonomous and communal education, many of the posters and their narratives are available online at the Beehive Collective’s website. Check out their artwork and be on the look out for upcoming tours!

Social Mobility at the Block Museum: Art as Service


Social Mobility: Collaborative Projects with Temporary Services, on exhibition at the Block Museum until August 14th, is an interactive installation of a wide range of works by the Chicago artist group Temporary Services. Temporary Services, originally formed in 1998, is comprised of Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin, and Marc Fischer. The group’s name is indicative of the work they produce, which includes instigating social actions, publishing do-it-yourself manuals, and providing other “services” to the public.

Before entering the main exhibition room, the viewer is greeted with large-scale mosaic banners. Made of plastic shopping bags, the banners transform the bags—symbols of shopping, capitalism,and excess—into a raw material that can be reworked and remade. The slogans on the banners speak to the anti-hierarchical, pro-collaborative, let’s-built-a-better-society-together ideals that Temporary Services advocates, with messages such as “The inexperienced dreamer simply cannot survive alone.”

The exhibition room itself contains several glass cases full of materials that acquaint visitors with the group’s practices. Taken from previous projects and collaborations, the materials include everything from stickers and humorous essays (“Don’t Wait for the Hearse to Take You to Church!”) to vegan recipe booklets and do-it-yourself instruction guides (“Re-Exhibition Strategies”). On another wall is a “Self-Reliance Library,” a shelf of books that includes various educational publications that museum visitors are invited to read. Topics of the publications range from instructional writings on nomadic living and sustainable nesting skills, to books of color photographs of decorated “art trucks” in Japan. Whatever the topic may be, one can expect to come away with a renewed sense of creativity, as well as the idea of rendering the mundane valuable.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the Designated Drivers project, presented as a series of reels mounted onto the wall. On each reel is a laundry line with a flash drive attached to the end. For the project, 20 artists and artist groups from around the world were invited to contribute data onto flash drives. Visitors are encouraged to view the content of the drives (which includes films, interactive websites, essays, music, and more) on the desktop in the exhibition space, or even bring their own drives to download and explore from home. By encouraging visitors to engage with the files directly in the museum, Temporary Services transforms the exhibition space—traditionally a passive viewing area—into a social arena of dialogue and interaction.

The interaction encouraged by the exhibition is well-reflected in the show’s title. “Social mobility” is generally perceived in the upward sense, the ability to ascend the social ladder. But in the context of the Temporary Services exhibition, it becomes instead a reminder that our positions in society are not fixed,that they can be subverted through simple skill-sharing and mutual communication—the reminder of human creativity and potential. Through the exchange of information and creation of dialogue, social hierarchy has the capacity to be overturned. The entire crux of the exhibition is perhaps best summed up by a word that is illustrated in a manual that visitors are invited to take home from the exhibition:share.

X-Posting from NAR

Cross-posting a few of my blog posts from the Northwestern Art Review blog here.