New Orleans

“Passionate Visions of the American South”

Raymond Coins’ cedar sculpture of his wife Ruby is covered in a flower print dress. The clothes are cheap and flimsy, but the figure underneath couldn’t be more solid or insistent. With “Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present,” an exhibition currently at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, a kind of sanctuary has been created for 80 artists whose 270 creations reflect an inner strength and obstinance that transcends their impoverished environment.

The term “self-taught,” with its Abe Lincoln-reading-by-the-firelight stubbornness is emerging as a replacement for the James Dean flashiness of “outsider” to refer to the work of isolated, untrained artists bypassing the culture factory’s conveyor belt. Both equally vague terms connote the romanticism with which we view these artists: as, to cite Jean Dubuffet, “obstinate visionaries brandishing not diplomas, but sticks and crooks.”

The exhibit is divided into six thematic units such as daily life or religious and visionary imagery, but in such agrarian lives it is often difficult to separate these elements. Indeed, it is the subject matter that insists on this art’s Southernness. Though a cursory glance will reveal the crowded design, often vibrant hues, and imaginative use of found materials that mark self-taught art from Switzerland to Haiti, it is the evangelical slogans, church picnics, reminiscences of slavery, and barnyard menageries that serve to underline the influence of landscape and religion.

Despite the applause for an anticanonical art, a canon of sorts has nevertheless emerged. Sister Gertrude Morgan’s visions of herself as the bride of Christ, ex-slave Bill Traylor’s distilled pictographs of rural life, and former tombstone carver William Edmondson’s monolithic sculptures, so deep and solid they must he carved from bedrock, distinguish themselves from the Grandma Moses folksiness of lesser painters like “Uncle Jack” Dey and would comfortably keep Paul Klee company.

Just when you think Edmondson’s weathered, gray eloquence has cured you of your irony, enter Howard Finster, self-taught art’s self-sufficient star—Elvis and Colonel Parker wrapped into one prolific, preaching painter with a Baptist agenda and money to make. In The Discovery of Finster Art, 1976, the Georgia reverend chronicles a reporter’s introduction of his work to the world. “WHAT A GREAT FIRE EDITH WILSON STARTED WITH HER LITTLE MATCH,” it reads. Finster’s fire symbolizes self-taught art’s corruption by the art world—the soaring prices, the rock ’n’ roll album covers, the art made, not from an implicit creative need, but to peddle. Yet even the sellout syndrome indictments of Finster, perhaps justly fashionable of late, emphasize the divide between creators and consumers. While connoisseurs cultivate preciousness, Finster has souls to save before world’s end. The more warnings and calls to prayer he cranks out, the more successful he becomes in his own eyes.

The film accompanying the exhibit notes the museum world’s relatively recent involvement in displaying outsider art. Formerly, it was necessary to “travel the back roads and ask directions at the gas station.” Now, instead of seeing David Butler’s figures populating his yard, they’re tacked up on a climate-controlled wall. The availability of these inspirational works, in all their self-reliant brilliance, should be welcomed, but that the objects have been kidnapped from their original context and function starves the viewer of what Eudora Welty called “a sense of place.”

Sarah Vowell