Geneva

Chiara Fumai, I Say I, 2013, collage and ink on paper, six sheets, each 11 3⁄4 × 8 1⁄4". From “Scrivere disegnando: When Language Seeks Its Other” (Writing by Drawing: When Language Seeks Its Other).

Chiara Fumai, I Say I, 2013, collage and ink on paper, six sheets, each 11 3⁄4 × 8 1⁄4". From “Scrivere disegnando: When Language Seeks Its Other” (Writing by Drawing: When Language Seeks Its Other).

“Writing by Drawing”

Centre d'Art Contemporain Genève

What do you get when you gather the individual artifacts of those who have been welcomed by the institution alongside those who were once committed to one? In the case of “Scrivere disegnando: When Language Seeks Its Other” (Writing by Drawing: When Language Seeks Its Other)—with dozens of works on view sharing mostly cursive, manual processes—the answer is a panoply of voices, both inner and alien, rendered visible. Some of them are critically acclaimed and infectious, while many others are as yet unheard and unsung, perhaps even unknowable. The unprecedented gambit of the show’s curators, Andrea Bellini and Sarah Lombardi, was to unite pieces from the Lausanne, Switzerland–based Collection de l’Art Brut—a renowned institution devoted to objects made by the psychiatrically afflicted as well as by “outsider” creatives neither subject nor privy to markets or discourse—with postwar and contemporary positions that engage with writing and lettering in an expanded field, in a material and often abstracting, if not asemic, manner. In so doing, the exhibition effectively defies the intentions of the founder of the Collection de l’Art Brut, the artist Jean Dubuffet. In persistently calling for the separation of such realms, Dubuffet sought to avert the “asphyxiation” of his art brut protégés by contrivances such as taste, fashion, erudition, fame, speculation, and other metropolitan evils. That protectionist approach to curating the uncuratable proved ambiguous from the outset, however, when he staged the first art brut show at the painfully insider Galerie René Drouin in Paris and subsequently moved the collection into the Creeks, one of the choicest properties in East Hampton, New York, then owned by the artist and collector Alfonso Ossorio.

Although the show skirts this history, it is hard to tune out the politics of inside versus outside to perceive the actual properties of the works, many of which quite pointedly don’t “mean” anything yet particularize something by virtue of a single sign or invocation. The late Chiara Fumai’s fast and letter-like collages on office paper, I say I, 2013, for instance, summon the Italian feminist collective Rivolta Femminile (Female Revolt); fragments of their 1977 manifesto are revived in snaking lines. Emma Hauck, institutionalized with schizophrenia in 1909, wrote largely indecipherably, in tightly placed, accreting characters, to her estranged husband, beseeching him simply to “come.” Steffani Jemison’s new variations from her series “Same Time,” 2015–, borrow exotic runes from The Book of the 7 Dispensation, a notebook authored in secret between 1945 and 1964 by the spiritual artist and janitor James Hampton, best known for his assemblage The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, ca. 1950–64. Upcycling this content by painting it onto various coldly decorative translucent plastics, Jemison produced an effect redolent of both salvation and ghosting. Michael Dean’s commissioned sculptures ffff (Working Title) and LOL (Working Title), both 2020, mine the parallel history of semiotic experimentation, concretized compulsion, and deformable communication from currently flourishing screen environments via emoji, acronyms, rants, and so on.

Yet for all the rich and frequently apocalyptic idiosyncrasies characterizing a lot of the brut exhibits, the formal recurrence and similitude among these meticulous compositions are as conspicuous as they are symptomatic. The juxtapositions highlight not least the uneven alliance and rapport between a modernist urge to untether, queer, and other both language and self—through drugs if need be, as in Henri Michaux’s famous “Dessins mescaliniens” (Mescaline Drawings), 1956–62—and the need to embody a transfixing impulse.