New York

Paul Laffoley

Kent Gallery

Though the art world has long prided itself on its tolerance for idiosyncratic cosmologies, there are still true believers out there whose single-mindedness outstrips even the forbearance of the avant-garde. For such artists, there typically awaits a lifetime of professional disappointment relieved only, if ever, by an official designation as an “outsider,” that class of cultural identity that transforms the very pathologies that originally barred its members’ assimilation by the mainstream into valorizing affirmations of their visionary singularity.

Paul Laffoley presents an intriguing case study in this trajectory. His many official and unofficial biographies brim with all the requisite qualities of the polymathic isolate, and then some—diagnosed as a child with mild autism (later defined as Asperger’s syndrome), he reportedly underwent eight shock treatments immediately after college; he lived and worked in the same utility room in a downtown Boston office building for over thirty-five years; and he claims that a 1992 CAT scan revealed a shard of metal lodged in his brain, an intrusion he has come to believe is an extraterrestrial implant motivating his artistic work. Yet despite a résumé direct from central casting, he’s shown his paintings in hundreds of solo and group exhibitions, not just in the gilded cage of “outsider art,” but also in many mainstream venues, including his longtime New York gallery, Kent, which recently mounted a thematic selection of some five decades’ worth of his paintings.

Trained in art history, philosophy, and classics at Brown University, Laffoley embarked on a career that early on was marked by great promise and repeated failure. He was booted out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and found his way to New York in the early 1960s, and there he began to work with visionary designer and architect Frederick Kiesler, who also eventually sent him packing. He worked on the architectural team that designed the World Trade Center, before being fired from that job, too, reportedly for advocating that bridges be constructed between the two towers. Defeated by the larger world, Laffoley retreated to Boston and began painting in earnest.

The recent show included eighteen works, dating from the late 1960s through 2006, and Laffoley’s signature style—often suggesting a wild admixture of Edward Tufte, Mark Tansey, and A. G. Rizzoli—has been nothing if not consistent. From the very first, his canvases (estimated to now number more than three hundred) have been animated by a fascination with esoterica, an overwhelming logorrheic intensity, and a vivid sense of horror vacui. Conceived as self-contained multimedia presentations on different subjects—from the kabbalah (The Metatron, 1977) to the relationship between Lucretius and quantum theory (De Rerum Natura [The Nature of Things], 1985), from gnosticism (Pistis Sophia, 2004-06) to the theories of Wilhelm Reich (The Orgone Motor, 1981)—the paintings are packed with painstakingly rendered images, cascading patterns of text that seem to contain roughly equal parts accurate religio-scientific information and obscurantist hogwash, and dizzying “engineering” diagrams, all set within improbably complicated compositional schemes.

Laffoley’s works tell a psychedelic tale full of compelling sound and fury, but what exactly do they signify? For all their frequent opacity of meaning, the paintings do manage to impart a message of informational consilience that is remarkably in line with cutting-edge science. And unpacking the kernels of genuine scholarship embedded in these crazed matrices will lead viewers on rewarding journeys through often fascinating historical marginalia. Located somewhere between sense and nonsense, between the realm of genius and the province of the crackpot, Laffoley’s work poses tantalizing questions about the line separating brilliance from bushwa—questions whose pertinence for contemporary art is by no means confined to the sphere of the outsider.

Jeffrey Kastner