Friday, May 13, 2011

"Create" - opening May 12th at the Berkeley Art Museum

Create, which opens today at the Berkeley Art Museum, highlights the extraordinary contributions of three of the foremost centers for artists with disabilities: Creativity Explored (San Francisco), Creative Growth Art Center (Oakland), and NIAD Art Center (Richmond, CA). The exhibition features over 135 works from twenty artists who have produced art at these centers.

Aurie Ramirez
All of the centers were founded by two pioneers of the art and disabilities movement, Florence Ludins-Katz, an artist and educator, and Elias Katz, a psychiatrist. In the 1970's, various laws were passed to "de-institutionalize" the mentally ill. As they began to land on the streets of communities unprepared or unwilling to deal with them, the Katzes saw the need for a new approach to dealing with those with developmental disabilities. 

Their approach focused on a group studio environment, professionalism, and engagement with the broader art community. Today artists at these three centers work daily alongside one another, create new works specifically for exhibition and sale, make frequent visits to local galleries and museums, and have regular access to artist mentors who assist them in developing new approaches and techniques. The staff's commitment to these artists is life-long. None of the centers takes the popular contemporary approach that an artist is "hot" at 25 and passé at 35. The youngest artist in the show is 27 but many of the other artists are in their late 40's or 50's and have been coming to the centers for decades.One thing should be emphasized - without the staff's dedication and hard work, it's unlikely that any of this art would have been produced, much less shown or critically acclaimed.

John Patrick McKenzie
Although outsider art is hard to define, one thing is true of the artists represented in Create. They are all dealing with various mental and/or psychological disabilities and in an earlier period, would have been institutionalized - that is if the family didn't hide them as "the family secret in the attic."  Maybe it's time to retire the idea of "outsider art."  Unlike sophisticated insider artists who chose to label themselves as "outsider" artists to be more fashionable, these artists had no choice.

Judith Scott

Some suffer from some form of autism or lack average intellectual abilities. For Instance, Judith Scott, whose widely admired bulbous yarn sculptures are on display, had Down syndrome. John Patrick McKenzie, whose works are visual poetry, is autistic and does not interact with people except through his art. Several works in the show exhibit a quality of obsessive industry sometimes considered typical of art produced by those with mental disabilities but are fascinating works in themselves. Many of the artists create their own mythological systems, numbering systems or compulsively write down their activities in zine or comic book format.

 It's really a shame to call them "artists with disabilities" because they are artists first, and mentally challenged second. Yet, to ignore their condition is to make light of the difficulties they face. Anyway, the work knocked my socks off and I have an even greater admiration for the staff at the local centers who are committed to working with these artists. In fact, it's the best contemporary art show that I've seen in a long time.

Thanks to the lack of a safety net, the disabled roam our streets, beg on the sidewalks, mutter to themselves, are messy, dirty, frightening. They challenge us to define what it is to be normal, to be compassionate. They test the limits of what we can do, can afford to do, have the will to do. But they can't always communicate how extraordinary they can be, with help, with encouragement, with love and a support system.

One of the artists in the show, Michael Bernard Loggins, has communicated, with words. A contemporary Ginsberg, the Berkeley Art Museum has given him a whole wall which he has covered with a work on fear, "fears of our life."  It's creative, brave and heart wrenching - "fear of hospitals and needles, fear of monsters. fear of getting left alone." Some of the fears are almost funny but many are universal. Work like this makes you question why we create such fear in a fellow human being.

Daniel Green populates his creations with figures from TV shows, number systems and synthesizes topics as different as Star Trek and the staff at Creativity explored. There is an collaborative work in the 2nd floor gallery, an altered, patchwork, embroidered couch with cute animals sewn into the ends. Tracy Eminen, eat your heart out. Next to it is a three-piece screen by Marlon Mullen who would be seen as a modern day Matisse in any other context.  Aurie Ramierz takes Gothic and horror movies and evolves them into a unique presentation of self.

Altered Couch with Bean and Owl (?)

So much contemporary art is all about the text and the theory. They tell you; they don't show you. This art shows you the souls of the artists, their unique visions, without reams of theory or wall text telling you what you are supposed to see. It confirms the adage "art saves lives" and is truly extraordinary.

Article on Willie Harris:
Harris, who's deaf and intellectually disabled, is deep into his work at Richmond's National Institute for Art and Disabilities (NIAD), creating the vital monochromatic paintings that art mavens might relate to the abstractions of Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. Read more:

Curator's Talk with Dr. Lawrence Rinder at the Berkeley Art Museum: 5/12/2100. 12 - 1 PM

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