A period of self-examination surely transpired during the COVID-induced pause on doing business and might be responsible for art institutions’ renewed focus on racism, criminal justice, gender equality and immigration.
In the case of Boca Raton Museum of Art, it has led to a spectacular celebration of diversity and inclusivity.
You are welcome, says the self-taught artist times 44.
That’s the number of anonymous names that remained largely underappreciated until An Irresistible Urge to Create: The Monroe Family Collection of Florida Outsider Art opened earlier this year. Boca Museum selected 86 works from the collection of photographer Gary Moore, who discovered these artists while traveling across Florida and has been collecting their art for more than three decades.
“Being surrounded by artworks made by self-taught artists was invigorating. This was because of the makers’s freedom of expression,” Monroe explains in the exhibition catalogue. “Their work questioned assumptions of what art is or what art can be.”
Passion can’t be learned but needs resources and connections to flourish and find fame, which is of no interest to these “outsider” artists. Moore discovered them by chance and has gone on to amass 1000 pieces.
The works on view through September 5 are introspective, unpretentious and transparent. They convey joy, trust, hope, anger and pain. We imagine the experiences and thoughts driving them would have make for magnificently long artist statements. Therein lies another surprise. Labels are kept modest and resist the temptation to offer extensive background.
Corrugated cardboard served as the vessel for Brian Dowdall’s painting depicting an oversized orange wolf and a red-haired mermaid taunting it. Both seem engaged in a contest of sticking out tongues but if sharp teeth are the winning criteria, the wolf wins hands down. A deformed fish swimming at the top of the frame suggests the exchange is taking place at a safe distance through a glass fish tank.
Depending on how we look at it, the four-legged animal could be seen as aggressive or playful; it’s hard to know. A similar uncertainty surrounds Dowddall’s years of living a “dharma-vagabond” life in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s. This experience informed his paintings of “animal spirits” and “goddesses.”
A happier counterpart to Dowdall’s torturous scene hangs nearby. Compared to most pieces here, Rodney Hardee’s barking black dog is light, meticulous and cleaner; even the tail of the animal withdraws into a perfect curl. Healthy-looking ferns and vines frame the picture. They don’t recoil at the sound of the bark but reach out instead toward the center of the flat-yellow canvas, as if drawn by a song. The positive energy emanating from the work is intentional.
Hardee likes to share the message that “Jesus Loves You” through his works, which also feature entries mimicking a phone conversation on the back.
To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the show doesn’t starve for want of wonders. It has plenty of marvels. It also resists labeling and categorization and dispels the notion that artworks only get a collector’s or curator’s time of day after being sanctioned by industry experts – though it might take them some time.
The only experts in An Irresistible Urge to Create are the artists themselves. After all, they have been creating from outside the acceptable spectrum and without the tools that facilitate entry into the respectable art industry, which is to say no rep, biography, art degree, portfolio and champagne-trained pinky finger. Walking through the gallery, we get the sense that creating was not optional to them. It came down to necessity, almost like a matter of life and death.
For a sense of what I mean, turn to a portrait by Eddy Mumma. Big round eyes sit on clusters of green paint divided by a broad nose. Brown smudges appear on the subject’s white shirt. The thick paint application and flat colors give this portrait a messy, mud quality. There is no glamour here. The subject is genuinely stunned though we can’t tell whether the cause of that single tear escaping the right eye is a specific event or the daily reality.
Mumma was intimately familiar with hardship, having battled alcoholism, lost unemployment and lost both of his legs to diabetes. Homebound, he set out to paint a picture a day. Somehow, the despair he captures on this canvas is still controlled. Notice that is one tear, not a waterfall. The contained emotion finds an ally in the orderly arrangement of the subject’s hair – parted down the middle – and the hands, which presents fingers of virtually the same length, like piano keys. Mumma’s execution mimics the motions of pain: sudden and intense one second, slow and mild the next.
The original sharp intentions typically eroded by waves of second-guessing are kept intact in An Irresistible Urge to Create. They haven’t been refined through rounds of feedback or layers of political correctness. Unconditional, like a child’s love, the works demand nothing in return and are unconcerned with reciprocity. They just give and give and keep on giving. This type of altruism is rare and could spoil us all for exhibitions to come.
An exquisite example of art not engineered to check the boxes that guarantee success is a series of six collages by Aurelia “Mamma” Johnson. Featuring her signature carefree gestures and energetic lines executed with felt-tip markers, the pictures come across primitive and crude. A veil of dots covers the scenes showcasing families, bids, snakes, flowers and alien characters.
When not grounded at the edge of the canvas, the upright figures appear to float in space. Their reductive features consist of round eyes, formless limbs and a red smudge or circle for mouths. Though Johnson’s works appear childish and rustic, the underlying current flushing them is one of loss and struggle.
Johnson was born in Tampa in 1918 when the city was experiencing huge growth and showing great promise. One of 15 children, she grew up in public housing. Her faith became her coping mechanism when she lost her husband and son. As exhibited here, the artist tended to drown her surfaces with black and purple lines that gradually left her characters enclosed and rendered them powerless; similar to what she must have felt facing the challenges that overwhelmed her life.
Even if these strangers’ art has never seen the light of day, it should all feel familiar. The calls to practice self-care have been sounding off for some time now and gotten notably louder recently. What has the fantastic ability to boost mental and emotional health? Creativity. Indulging the mind and letting it dive as deep or shallow as it wants is precisely what these 44 artists have done.
More so, they have managed to push through the annoying alarm of self-doubt (not just snooze but dismiss it entirely) and produce pure works. Vulnerable. Unfiltered. Uncomplicated. Raw.
And no BS.
Ruby Williams’s painting of a bright green alligator encaged by the phrase “tired of being the good guy” gets straight to the point. No more platitudes or excuses or forgiveness. Maybe it’s time to see things for what they are and act accordingly. Let animals show their claws and spots. That’s precisely what Williams has done by literally crowding red dots all over the protagonist’s body to the point that it resembles a flower field more than a menacing predator.
In typical self-taught fashion, there is no sense of depth. The animal – with his long claws, uniform teeth and red tongue – is painted flat against a vibrant orange surface as if splattered on the road. But make no mistake, it is ready to pounce. The work hints at a desire to be truth to oneself and suggests that desire is done being dormant. As it turns out, text often appears in William’s compositions.
She began painting signs to draw customers to her farm stand located off of State Road 60 in Bealsville. Now in her 90s, she and her children continue working the land maintained by her family for more than 150 years.
The mission of art institutions constantly requires realignment. Boca Museum is no exemption. With An Irresistible Urge to Create, it declares the clear intention of striving for unity, empathy and understanding. The show’s main message is acceptance and its audience a society perpetually suspended on trial mode over who gets to be accepted and rejected.
Ironically, it came down to an established 71-year-old museum to lend self-taught artists a public platform for collectively yelling: Screw the establishment.
An Irresistible Urge to Create runs through Sept. 5 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Admission: $12, seniors $10, children 12 and under, free. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays and holidays. Call 561-392-2500 or visit www.bocamuseum.org.