HOUSTON — There is something fascinating about the outsider artist. They often toil away in obscurity, driven by some inner voice to tell their story.
Houston’s Menil Collection is putting an ear to those artists’ voices in “As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither” on display through Oct. 16.
Self-taught, or outsider art, is work produced by artists who have no formal training and who work outside the mainstream. The Smithers have collected work by many artists, and there are a dozen from around the globe represented in the exhibition.
In many cases, the works are highly decorative and filled with what look like doodles. Domenico Zindato’s “Untitled,” from 2007, is a case in point. The highly detailed pastel and ink work, three-feet wide and almost two-feet high, is filled with hundreds of time figures swimming among fish, faces, body parts and intricate pattern work. If one squints, it is simply a colorful abstract. The closer one looks, the more details present themselves. Another of the Italian’s untitled pieces looks at first to be an eye, but once again it is filled with tiny people. The museum’s literature notes that, like many self-taught artists, Zindato builds his works layer by layer, without a vision of the final result.
Thornton Dial’s “Tiger on the Run,” utilizes oil, spray paint, rope and rubber on canvas to create a vibrant, dynamic assemblage. The African American Alabama-based artist, in the museum’s literature, states that, “The tiger represents himself, but also the struggle of all African American men.” The tiger in his work is free, which represents the freedom to make his art. The “Tiger on the Run” is breaking free from the seated figure trying to capture him.
Adolf Wölfi’s “Der Frienis=Barge,” from 1920, is prime example of the genre. A drawing with colored pencil and graphite on paper, it is a perfect example of the highly detailed and colorful qualities of the genre.
Belgian artist Solange Knopf has a familiar back story for many outsider artists. She started making art in earnest after being hospitalized for depression. “I was completely destabilized, in the dark, lost, and confused,” she states in the museum literature. “It was at this moment that I began to draw, at first small mandelas to ask for help.” In “Spirit Codex No. 14,” Knopf uses acrylic, charcoal and colored pencil to create a work that is part grave and part earth mother. The work is complete with eyes and floral designs that infuse her work, as well as references to the occult.
Italian Carlo Zinelli’s 1969 “Untitled,” is a narrative piece that features flattened silhouetted people and animals. His works relate to the his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and WWII, and, like Knopf, he was in a psychiatric hospital. While the works are narratives, the exact story is indecipherable.
These self-taught outsiders create art that is, in a real sense, pure. For them the act of making the art is the end itself — they are driven neither by commerce nor celebrity. Their work is interesting and honest — and well worth seeing.
The Menil Collection is located at 1515 Sul Ross in Houston.