Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 21, 2016
Valérie Rousseau When the Curtain Never Comes Down: Performance Art and the Alter Ego Exh. cat. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2015. 136 pp.; 83 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $30.00 (9780912161242)
Exhibition schedule: American Folk Art Museum, New York, New York, March 26–July 5, 2015

In the American Folk Art Museum’s exhibition catalogue When the Curtain Never Comes Down: Performance Art and the Alter Ego, curator Valérie Rousseau highlights the creative expressions and artistic practices of twenty-six individuals and one religious community. With selections that span the late nineteenth century to the present, Rousseau succeeds in opening new discussions on objects and related performative actions of artists referred to as “self-taught” and “art brut.” A great many of these artists, mostly patients from psychiatric facilities in Europe and Latin America, are unknown in the United States. Critics responded positively to the exhibition’s line of inquiry. Roberta Smith of the New York Times touted its “strange and wonderful” approach to expanding “our understanding of how many outsider artists—like many insiders—are cross-disciplinary, working several mediums at once” (Roberta Smith, “Stepping Outside the Frame,” The New York Times [March 27, 2015]: C21). Similarly, in Art in America reviewer Abbe Schriber applauded the exhibition’s expansion of the notion of performance as “not only public interventions, but also the process-oriented mechanics of collecting, weaving, assembling and knitting as creative outlets or ways of marking time” (Abbe Schriber, “When the Curtain Never Comes Down,” Art in America 103, no. 6 [June/July 2015]: 143).

For Rousseau, the goal of her project is to engage what she refers to in the exhibition catalogue as the “less tangible qualities” of artistic production (8). These include visible and aural material such as drawings, photographs, video documentation, and musical recordings, as well as less conventional ephemera of expressive practices, such as handmade promotional postcards, mechanical devices seemingly without purpose, and meticulously embellished items of clothing. All comprise a group of art that is not necessarily archival, is process driven rather than object-oriented, and, thus, less collectible for the art market and public institutions. Rousseau describes this lot in a variety of evocative terms: “world-relics” (22, a phrase proposed by Daniel Fabre), “excesses of energy” (10, after Birgit Pelzer’s definition of performance art), and the “underside” of art brut and self-taught art (8).

While most of the work featured in the exhibition may fit into these descriptive phrases that foreground the alluring mystery and yet-to-be-explored aspects of the art forms and artists, there is one outlier—Lonnie Holley. Holley’s growing exhibition record and musical performances have been met with equal amounts of rigorous scholarship and critical acclaim. Major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum have acquired his work. In 2004, Holley had his first exhibition outside of the United States, at the prestigious Ikon Gallery, in Birmingham, England. Furthermore, Holley’s improvisational narratives and musical recordings are easily accessible via YouTube, his Facebook page, and CD’s on the Dust-to-Digital label. Certainly, Holley qualifies as a conceptually based performance and visual artist, but his level of recognition moves him beyond the exhibition’s focus on work that has “seldom been documented, recorded, or preserved” and demonstrates “no dependence on the Western art canon” (7).

Rousseau’s catalogue essay describes the artists as lifelong performers whose work embodies an “alter ego or second skin which can be conceived as a transitional object” (13). Here she equates D. W. Winnicott’s psychoanalytic theory of intermediate, developmental experience and primary creative activity, widely known as the “transitional object,” to performative artistic practice. Accordingly, under this interpretive lens physical objects, writings, and actions are an expression of an alter ego and form a bridge between an artist’s inner reality (a true self) and an external reality. For Rousseau, the artists assume this alter ego “for its power to transform the world and, above all, to transform their own connections to reality” (catalogue jacket). As applied to the exhibition, the “transitional objects” as performances constitute evidence of personal growth and negotiation with the world despite hardships and radical changes in circumstance. Consequently, in Winnicott’s hypothesis an opposing outcome of regression rather than progression is also possible. Trauma or other mental deprivations may cause an adult to divert from “normal” emotional development and retain infantile transitional relationships or even revert to hidden patterns (D. W. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 34, no. 2 (1953): 89–97). Whether the artistic expressions featured in the exhibition stem from a will toward empowerment, signs of suffering, or some sort of recurring psychosis is not altogether clear. Additionally, the catalogue does not address issues of cultural relativity regarding practices and behaviors among this group of international artists. Instead, the heterogeneous mixture of objects and performances is presented as universally unconventional.

When the Curtain Never Comes Down is predicated upon notions of difference inherent to the study of art brut. Difference, within this genre of art, is located within frameworks of psychology, not class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. “Art brut,” coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet in 1945 and roughly translating to “raw art,” encompasses art by institutionalized individuals created outside of academic tradition and history. Dubuffet’s collection and study of this work was preceded by the research in Viennese psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn’s Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) and Swiss psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler’s Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist), published in 1922 and 1921, respectively. Morgenthaler is credited with the “discovery” of Adolf Wölfli, one of the artists featured in When the Curtain Never Comes Down. The eccentricities of many artists within this show and their multi- and intermedia works pair well with art brut’s pursuit of charting and understanding the margins of human creativity. Take, for example, Bill Anhang, an engineer-turned-artist who inserts LED lights into aluminum and copper plates that he shapes into geometric forms and wearable adornments. Anhang frequents public spaces in Montreal, Canada, spinning his mesmerizing creations or brandishing illuminated scepters, shields, and breastplates. In these moments, Anhang spreads his metaphoric message of bringing peace and “a new light to the planet” (26). While several artists like Anhang are vocal about their intentions, or have left statements about their endeavors, others conduct their artistic practices without need for explanation or public proclamation. Rock N Roll, for instance, fabricates attire resplendent with bits of fabric and pop culture objects. Living in downtown Detroit, he dons his fabulous, encrusted outfits and entertains onlookers while he parades through dense crowds at sporting events and outdoor concerts.

Rousseau and her colleagues have curated a compelling exhibition of little-known work by artists operating on the margins of the art world. The catalogue is groundbreaking on many levels, yet it may disappoint scholars seeking interdisciplinary readings, especially on work by self-taught artists like Holley, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, and Joe Coleman. The psychoanalytic frames used throughout the catalogue separate performative practices from the social and political challenges that such practices, objects, and their makers raise. For example, Rousseau sees Holley as “historically associated to archetypes of the messenger, healer, or shaman because of the ‘revelatory experience’ manifested” in “unexpected and dissonant encounters” with an audience. As such, his art can be understood in terms of Jungian “primary representations” and “original emotional thought” (21). Likewise, the individual entry on Holley emphasizes cosmological references and spiritual resonances in his oeuvre. Concurrent scholarship in the exhibition catalogue Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley (Mark Sloan, ed., Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley, exh. cat., Charleston: Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, College of Charleston, 2015) conversely situates Holley’s multimedia body of production in cultural and historical environments, including those pertaining to personal history and African American struggle and spirituality. His poetic works are evidence of lived experiences, archived by the artist and relived through Holley’s engagement with his audience. In an interview with folklorist Bernard L. Herman, Holley explains, “I love gathering stuff that belonged to and has been used by somebody. . . . Everybody says, ‘It has a spirit.’ No, it has information! . . . That’s what we try to gather. Not no spirit. They need to get us out of the hoodoo, voodoo, and the witchcraft and the warlockcraft. Get us out of that zone! We’re much further than that zone” (Something to Take My Place, 38).

Rousseau argues that her exhibition’s inquiry stems from “more than just a seductive romantic conception about the origins of art,” but also acknowledges that this type of examination “does not interest many today” (21). Regardless, the litmus test for a catalogue such as When the Curtain Never Comes Down: Performance Art and the Alter Ego rests in its ability to challenge preconceptions and revitalize the discourse surrounding the entwined fields of self-taught art and art brut. While the catalogue meets these challenges on some levels, it would benefit from more diverse, cross- and interdisciplinary perspectives, specifically those engaging issues of mental disability and the role of ritual, narrative, and mnemonic devices in folk expressions, performance art, and religion. Even with this suggestion, the importance of this work cannot be underestimated to those in the disciplines of art history, visual studies, psychoanalytic studies, and performance studies.

Leisa Rundquist
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of North Carolina, Asheville