Intuit: Chicago’s Outsider Art Gem
Tucked in the West Town neighborhood, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, is one of Chicago’s most democratic and unique museums. They are also the nation’s only nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to Outsider Art. Their permanent collection is an anthology of work that encompasses the history of the movement while adding artwork by newly discovered artists. Unlike many major museums, Intuit is reliant on donations to their collection since they are unable to purchase works.
The way they garner their collection through donations further highlights Intuit’s communal vibe and its mission to elicit a knowledge and appreciation of Outsider Art through education and, simply, sheer accessibility. Executive Director, Debra Kerr, told us she wants Intuit to be the most accessible museum in Chicago.
Chicago has been a hub of Outsider Art for decades. As this classification of contemporary art continues to gain interest from collectors, scholars, and large museums, Chicago has become a destination for studying and viewing this kind of art, and Intuit is the corner stone. “Chicago has always been really receptive to [Outsider Art] and has always had a number of enthusiasts, collectors and galleries based here, so we really are ground zero for this.” Kerr explained. “Intuit is here because of all of these enthusiasts in the city.”
After passing through the main gallery and the shop, there is a smaller gallery space for other exhibits. Off of that space is a homage to Henry Darger, who used to call a one-room tenement at 851 West Webster Avenue home.
The room is a testimony not only to Darger’s prolific work and fanatical drive to create, but it is also a testimony to Outsider Art’s energetic diligence and raw power. To complement the visual power of The Henry Darger Room, the Robert A. Roth Study Center offers researchers and enthusiasts an extensive breadth of non-circulating materials about Outsider Art. The Study Center catalyzes Intuit’s pure and passionate mission to promote and educate the public on this enchanting art genre.
The current exhibition, Exposed! The Intuit Collection, aptly showcases the space’s impressive bevy of works aside many promised gifts that will be added to their permanent collection. From sculpture, to furniture, to paintings and drawings, the show is encyclopedic in its scope, giving visitors the unique opportunity to fully delve into the genre. The narrative context of each artist accompanies the work, furthering the immersive experience of the exhibit, adding a nuanced dimension.
Work by the Reverend Howard Finster, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Henry Darger, Martin Ramírez and many others make this show feel much like a journey through the movement as it occupies many time periods, medias, forms, and styles. More recent works are folded in such as Simon Sparrow’s Untitled (Assemblage) from 1987 and Michel Nedjar’s Untitled from 2001.
Sparrow’s large panel is a mixed media work composed of solid layers of glitter as appendages of plastic beads frame the central action as a kind of bas relief. The color filling every inch of the piece is electric, giving it an infectious kinetic energy.
Nedjar’s work differs from Sparrow’s in its sedate, even meditative, use of color and form. Possessing a primal and earthy aura, his organically rendered portrait of two figures brings to mind The Venus of Willendorf as well as a Kewpie doll figure. They harken a cave painting aesthetic as they hint at fertility and birth which is a theme of many of his works.
Social Justice Through Art
Opening on July 10th is Palimpsest, an exhibition of rarely seen works by Betty Zakoian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Curators Leonard Cicero and Heather Holbus refer to the show as an “unveiling [of] the multiple layers of Betty Zakoian.”
Cicero elaborates on those other layers, “We are presenting the artist’s work with the intention of examining the many layers of this one woman’s history, to not only see her as a holocaust survivor, but also as a mother, a strong woman, and an artist. We want our audience to dig deeper into their perceptions and the possible reasons they believe what they believe.”
Although not primarily focused on the political, it is woven into the essence of Zakoian’s art. These paintings illustrate the power of art in healing while imploring a viewer to ponder social injustices.
Holbus adds, “Betty Zakoian is a woman whose life was upended at age 7 by an international struggle over ethnicity and religion. She chose how to let that injustice define her by beating the odds and persevering by whatever means necessary.” She continues, “No one else can command what we hold dear or how we choose to tell our own story. Her paintings are just one of the many voices that could have been eliminated.”
Outsider Art possesses an amalgam of rich stories and Intuit is a museum that tirelessly nurtures those stories. Art is not only rigorously represented in this space, but it is used as a catalyst to enlighten and enliven, promote and stimulate through education and accessibility.