Since its opening in 1952 (as Janet Fleisher Gallery), Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia has done a great deal to propel the field of self-taught art into the mainstream. From early representation of Henry Darger and James Castle to their current, consistently cohesive representation of both traditionally trained and outsider artists – often exhibited together inclusively – the gallery continues to develop new frameworks for experiencing artwork.
In Fleisher/Ollman’s latest exhibition, Measurably Long Kool, the gallery presents an eclectic collection from a particularly varied group of self-taught artists, centered around the theme of works on paper. The works span centuries – from Bill Traylor (b. 1856) to John Patrick McKenzie (b. 1962) – and includes both well-known names (James Castle) and relative outsiders (Margaret Brown, a painter who sold her pieces in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square). Measurably Long Kool’s focus on paper works allows for some particularly interesting pairings of style and imagery, with a focus on mark making and the handling of paper as a material in itself. Measurably Long Kool’s curator (and Fleisher/Ollman director) Alex Baker describes this inclusive range as “a reflection of the Fleisher/Ollman mission in general (and my curatorial strategy): a leveling of the playing field so that new meaning, connections, and understanding of the artists and work can come forth.”
The Lesser Known and Icons of Self-taught Art
Fleisher/Ollman’s representation of self-taught artists often includes individuals supported by art centers for adults with developmental disabilities, a choice that offers a wider range of new artists than typically seen in galleries specializing in self-taught art. Some of the most arresting images in Measurably Long Kool are Julian Martin’s pastel drawings. Martin is an artist who works at Arts Project Australia, and is one of two artists in Measurably Long Kool who creates artwork in a supported studio environment (John Patrick McKenzie of Creativity Explored is the other).
In each of Martin’s drawings, a sophisticated combination of colors operate in a powerful harmony with one another, forming and surrounding shapes in a variety of abstract and representational compositions. Each piece is small, approximately 15 x 11 inches, and the surfaces have a soft, almost furry consistency from the dense application of pastel, an element of the work that Baker specifically responds to: “I admire his use of the pastel medium: how he applies pastel to paper, pitting and abrading the support in the process.” Working both from photographic imagery and small still life set ups, Martin has developed a powerful portfolio of unique compositions, creating simultaneously flat and deep spaces where free-floating objects interact playfully, with great force.
A grid of Martin’s hangs adjacent to a few Eddie Arning compositions, and the groupings work in conjunction with each other to communicate a profound experience of color in composition. Both artists employ similar saturated hues, referencing the bold coloration of advertising copy, to distinctive, innovative ends. The more lyrical, narrative style of Arning’s compositions is articulated by a series of bright drawn frames, which create concise windows on specific scenes. Martin’s distinctively surrealist sensibility, with organ-like rounded shapes bobbing on a soft bed of pastel, is articulated by strong color shifts that bring his forms into sharp focus.
A surprising element in Measurably Long Kool is the inclusion of lesser-known works of James Castle. Drawings featuring re-drawn cartoon characters from political cartoons (paired with more familiar abstract patterns), stretch the thematic boundaries of his work. These pieces push our perception of his distinctive and arcane style into the realm of popular culture. A Daffy Duck-like figure wearing a sweatshirt with a Soviet hammer and sickle addresses Uncle Sam in one composition, both characters gently rendered in soot and spit. The characteristic tactile softness that Castle brings to his soot drawings gives this appropriated cartoon a nostalgic quality, while speech bubble is filled with indecipherable scribbled lines of text, creating a sinister undertone.
In Measurably Long Kool’s diverse offering is a unifying sense of confident, individually realized approaches to art making, perhaps clearest seen on the humble surface of a sheet of paper.
“Measurably Long Kool” is on view through August 26th at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia.