Agony and Ecstasy
New AVAM show draws on stories dark and light
Published: October 10, 2012
The Art Of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor & Truth
At the American Visionary Art Museum through Sept. 1, 2013
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The American Visionary Art Museum organizes each of its nearly year-long exhibitions around a theme, but in recent years the themes have become so amorphous that almost any work of art could fit under the umbrella. The brand-new show, for example, is The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor & Truth.
There’s an advantage to such broad categories. The curators are not tempted to include mediocre work that fits a narrow theme; they can pick the best work available and then invent a connection to the wide-open premise. For the new show, curators Rebecca Hoffberger and Mary Ellen Vehlow have done just that and have come up with a better AVAM show than any since 2007-2008’s All Faiths Beautiful. They’ve done so by abandoning the lighthearted, whimsical tone of All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs & Karma and its predecessor, What Makes Us Smile?, to include darker, more troubling images.
“Storytelling is not inherently good or evil,” Hoffberger says. “It’s a powerful force that can demean and destroy as well as inspire and illuminate. In this show we look at the underside of storytelling as well as the bright side.”
Postcards from Marylander Frank Warren’s PostSecret series line a wall on the first floor. Warren, who used to stick self-addressed postcards between pages at the Book Thing in Baltimore, inviting strangers to send him their secrets, has received half a million postcards that he has organized into countless exhibitions and five books. He has been a regular presence at AVAM shows since 2007. For this year’s show, he selected postcards around the theme of bullying—troubling stories on 3-by-5-inch rectangles. It turns out that bullying was his own deepest secret.
“I recently got a postcard about a childhood humiliation,” Warren says, “that reminded me of a similar experience I had had in the fourth grade. Some guys pinned me to the ground, held open my eyes, and spit into them. A stranger’s secret had reopened this memory and helped me to deal with it. I filled out a postcard and mailed it to myself anonymously. I included it in an exhibit of my postcards at Artomatic [an annual arts festival in Arlington, Va.], but no one knew I was the author. I could stand back and watch patrons react. Often they would make a sound as if punched in the gut. Or, if they were there with someone else, they’d tap the other person and say, ‘Look at this.’
“Here was a way to share my secret without social consequences. I finally understood why so many people send me their secrets on postcards. . . . Secrets can blow up inside us, and PostSecret is a way to deflate that.”
The late Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, another Marylander, found her own way to deflate painful secrets. As a young Jewish girl in Poland, she escaped the Nazis by pretending to be a Catholic farm girl. She translated those memories into fabric tableaux that are remarkable for their content as well as their visual subtlety. When she depicts a meadow, she gives us not a solid field of green but five different kinds of green thread, sewn in a pattern of sunlight and shade. She sews the lines in the bark and in the leaves of a tree. This is vividly visual art.
“When she was about 50, she wanted me and my sister to see what her village looked like,” says Bernice Steinhardt, one of Esther’s daughters. “She wasn’t trained as an artist, so she took what she knew: sewing. Ten years later, after she had moved from Brooklyn to Frederick, she went back to those memories and added narrative elements. When she discovered she could tell a story that way, she kept going till she had 37. It was clear they deserved an audience larger than the people who came to our house.”
Nine panels from Fabric of Survival were first shown at AVAM in 2001, and the full set was displayed there from 2003 through 2005. From there it traveled to museums all over the world. “So much has happened because of those early shows,” Steinhardt adds, “so it’s nice to have them back here, where it all started.”
Baltimore’s Mars Tokyo has dealt with her memories by creating more than 200 tiny theaters with miniature dioramas inside. An admirer of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Tokyo has created evocative microcosms in even smaller boxes shaped like mini Parthenons. “Teatro della Fumatrice,” has the big red sun of a Lucky Strikes cigarette pack setting over a woman buried in a mist of white lace. It was inspired by Tokyo’s mother, who died as a result of her smoking habit. Tokyo also pays homage to her mother—who never went to college and spent her life as a housewife—in “Teatro dell’Opportunita,” which shows a woman on her knees, scrubbing the floor, surrounded by a battleship and a giant eyeball on a pedestal.
The most striking works in the show are six large sculptures by Pittsburgh’s Vanessa German. The image of a pickaninny doll with short braids sticking straight out recurs in all the pieces: a racial stereotype recontextualized as a young African-American woman, struggling to make herself heard. In “Imagination Tree,” nine blue bottles are stuck on the roots rising from the doll’s head; the doll, holding a mirror and a silver pheasant, teeters atop an elephant’s head atop a child’s chair atop an adult’s chair, a balancing act as precarious as it is miraculous. In “Minstrel Blood,” a table is simultaneously a piano, proscenium stage, and a black woman’s body. In the center, a hatchet covered in small black and white dolls spins before a mirror.
“I grew up in a rough section of L.A. during the ’80s when gangs and crack were taking over,” German says, “and one way mom kept us off the streets and in the house was to have us making things all the time. If we wanted books, we made them. If we wanted dolls, we made them. My first doll was a plastic detergent bottle with a light bulb for a head. When we moved to Pittsburgh, mom asked us to make angels for the tree, but I was depressed, so I made a clay doll and stuck rusty nails into its head. My sisters said, ‘Vanessa, you’re supposed to make an angel,’ but I said, ‘This is how I feel.’ Later on, I found out that, in the Congo, the Nkisi are wooden power figures with nails pounded into them. When I saw that, chills went down my spine, because they were doing things for hundreds of years that I did on my own just because it felt right. I realized if I could make a Nkisi, it just might change my life.”
When AVAM reaches beyond the whimsical and clever to art born out of crisis, when it doesn’t settle for the exotic or unusual but finds artists who speak to us, it can hold its own with any museum anywhere. This is a smaller show than usual—it only takes up half of the second floor—but it’s AVAM’s best exhibit in five years.
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