The term “outsider art” can call to mind an isolated creator, apart from society and following an impulse that is personal, a reward unto itself. But that idea ignores a central tenet of art, which is to communicate.
In When the Curtain Never Comes Down, the latest exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, curator Valérie Rousseau selected a series of art works that have aspects of performance art integrated, which proves just how social self-taught artists can be within their environments. Through costumes, music, installation, etching, and inventions, the exhibition sheds light on this underappreciated facet of the genre.
“I was really interested by the natures of the interactions they were generating around them, the way they engaged in parodies and self-referential artistic actions, and how they were shaping their lifelong journeys in multidisciplinary and conceptual ways,” Rousseau said in a recent interview.
One artist showcased in the exhibition is Raimundo Borges Falcão, who was discovered by an art dealer while walking the streets of Salvador, Brazil, during Carnival. In place of traditional dress, he wore an intricate, multi-piece creation of found materials. The artist, who lives alone in a windowless wooden shack, makes a new costume to wear each year, which he dons only once as part of the celebration.
One of his outfits is on the wall at the museum. Long, multicolored fish hang from a sparkling headdress. A mermaid and harp made of yarn and wire sit where the forehead would be. The aquatic theme continues with a hand-piece featuring drooping octopus tentacles and a brass-colored giant crab accessory decorated with scallop shells. There’s also a belt, a necklace, and multiple bracelets. As one of the exhibition’s biographical texts explains, his costumes could be interpreted as an altar to the Yoruba goddess of the oceans, Yemanjá.
While Falcao paraded through streets full of onlookers, other works have reached smaller audiences.
“One of my intentions for this exhibition was to reveal an underside of art brut, studying undocumented artistic practices and works that have not been traditionally conserved and collected,” Rousseau said. “I turned my attention to works historically overlooked and not preserved, because they were ephemeral, parts of wider projects, or not considered as artworks at the time they were made,” Rousseau said.
When the Curtain Never Comes Down situates the history of scholarship in this field and highlights invaluable contributions in researching, studying, and conserving this artistic heritage, from Cesare Lombroso, Hans Prinzhorn, and Jean Dubuffet to living photographers like Mario Del Curto and Walter Firmo.
Fernando Oreste Nannetti is another of the twenty-seven artists in the exhibition. In the mid-twentieth century, Nannetti was confined to a judiciary asylum in Volterra, Italy, after attacking a fascist officer. Pier Nello Manoni, a photographer interested in the lives within such settings, documented Nannetti’s work. Manoni’s daughter, Erika, joined him in producing a film that expanded upon her father’s photographs.
Nannetti engraved the building’s walls in an invented language. “During the one hour of free time that he had to go outside, this is what he would do, with the buckle of his belt,” Erika Manoni said in a recent talk at the museum.
“This has been decoded so it can be read, and the stories are mostly about a family— mostly his imaginary family—not having one, he invented it,” she said. “There are references to the war because he was in Rome in World War II and there are also references to science fiction worlds.”
Today, the wall markings are naturally eroding and being covered by plants. But they live on through the Manonis’ documentation. To both Erika Manoni and Valérie Rousseau, one line of Nannetti’s text was particularly important to commemorate:
“As a Free Butterfly I am Everything the World is mine and I made everyone Dream.”
A confined setting was a critical element also in Giuseppe Versino’s cultivation of his art. A resident in an Italian psychiatric hospital where he was admitted for early dementia, he was given the duty of cleaning. He fashioned his scrubbing rags into clothing.
The exhibition shows a range of a dresses, trousers, boots, hats, and scarves. He wore these heavy costumes daily. Some weigh about 100 pounds each.
Made with cotton strips of white, blue, and red woven together, they look like coarse carpets. But Versino tailors his distinct vision with the detailed intention of a Project Runway contestant. He uses taut stitches and open crochet-like ones; a top features a fringy trim on its collar and sleeves. The many strings hanging off a pair of boots look like dreadlocks. If his life had taken a slightly different tack, he might have been a clothing designer.
The Illinois artist Charlie Logan, who spent years in prison, is represented by a painstakingly detailed jacket embroidered all over, with beads and buttons sewed on everywhere, as well as coins—to avoid being robbed.
The Chicago artist Rock N Roll created a jacket and matching pants covered in disposable bits of pop culture, including Mardi Gras beads, novelty sunglasses and political pins.
“The term ‘outsider’ generally used to describe these creators can be misleading when used out of context. They are not confined to some kind of marginal spaces. On the contrary, they occupy a central place in our daily lives and play an active role in defining our actual visual culture,” Rousseau said.
In addition to costumes and paintings, the exhibition is full of video, music, and audio interviews.
“Many of these works include music components, storytelling, writings, portable sculptures they wear on their bodies, tools presented in a street parade, ephemeral installations, and elements from previous performances, like this priest robe surrounding a meticulously rendered painting by Joe Coleman that he wore for his 1980s exploding act as ‘Professor Mombooze-o,’” she added.
One of the most vivid showings of how such artists conducted themselves can be seen in the video and costumes of Vahan Poladian.
Poladian—a well-traveled Armenian well-known on the streets of Saint-Raphaël, France—bore himself as a dignitary, offering blessings to those he passed, nonetheless self-aware of the parodic extent of his performances. The video shows him in elaborate headpieces playing instruments of his own creation, like a horn that blows smoke. One hat is tiered and white like a wedding cake, with jewels hanging off.
Also on display are elaborate jackets he created—one furry with a saxophone attached—as well as accessories like purses, scepters, and an umbrella draped in gold beads.
“Exhibiting performance art requires the presentation of a sense of the original enactment, in order to maximize the experience. A special connection with the work can emerge from an archival document carefully selected or a detailed description of an action.” Rousseau said. “Many works in this show are accompanied by music, interviews with and about artists, films, equipment used by the creators—somehow I tried to include documents that captured a revelatory moment of the initial performance. The exhibition is also quite verbal, with substantial texts for each artist.”
One of the more enigmatic artists shown is Marie Lieb, a patient in a Heidelberg psychiatric hospital at the turn of the twentieth century. All that is left of her work are two small photographs, which have been enlarged full-scale on a fabric surface.
They show the ephemeral installations she made, with strips of cloth ripped into delicate snowflake-like stars and asterisks and words written in an alphabet of her own on top of a herringbone floor, arranged in a deliberate, seemingly ritualistic way.
On a far grander scale is the work of German artist Gustav Mesmer. On display are models, sketches, and drawings for his flying machines, as well as a set of wings he used in his attempts to fly.
In the film presented in the exhibition, Mesmer attaches to a bicycle what looks like an oar with white flags on either side, to make a sort of propeller. Another piece with a translucent plastic, sail-like appearance serves as what he calls a “swinging wing device.”
He puts a cage-like helmet with shoulder pads on and pedals down a hill. The wings billow and the propeller spins, and he sets off, hoping that his meager materials, combined with creativity, can take him to a higher plane.