Personal histories and biographical information often add depth and interest to exhibitions. Museums in particular are able to devote space, energy and research to providing historical and personal background information on both the artist as an individual, as well as the environment within which a particular artist is working.
In the case of outsider art, where life and art are usually closely linked, there is a strong argument for the importance of the biography of the artist as it very often significantly influences the work. The Russell Bowman Art Advisory offers the public a chance to take a studied look at the very interesting lives of the artists in its current show “Masters of Self-Taught Art.”
The artists on view typically are hermetic individuals who refrain from mainstream artistic interaction. Ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s, the exhibition allows us to explore the particular circumstances and situations surrounding each artist's creative production.
Sister Gertrude Morgan, New Jerusalem, c 1970. Tempera and crayon on paper, 11 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Russel Bowman Art Advisory.
One theme prominent in the show was American spiritualism. Sister Gertrude Morgan’s New Jerusalem, c. 1970, done in tempera and crayon, explores the desire for collective salvation, rendering an abundance of figures occupying what seems like a church. Outside amongst the angels is a young couple in wedding garments: a metaphor for the union of love and happiness. Sister Gertrude, an African-American nun, provides a redemptive, hopeful image that both served her calling as a missionary, as well as her artistic drive.
Prophet Blackmon, Untitled (King Uzziah Goes Into the Temple), mid 1990s. Painted wood, 26 x 26 inches. Image courtesy of Russel Bowman Art Advisory.
African-American artist, Prophet Blackmon, had a prolific, decades-long artistic career. Blackmon's work Untitled (King Uzziah Goes Into the Temple) comes out of the latter years in his life during the mid 1990s. This particular work is robust with text and a full spectrum of colors. Despite the work's vividness, it is difficult to discern precisely the iconography and treatment of space, as well as his textual phrases scattered across the canvas. Blackmon's enigmatic visual language challenges the viewer to construct significance and meaning, while simultaneously blocking that process from completion.
Charles Steffan. Alisha Nude, 1994. Image courtesy of Russel Bowman Art Advisory.
Charles Steffen, an artist born in Chicago in 1927, was little known as an artist until after his death in 1995. His nephew, Christopher Preissing, stored much of the work that Steffen himself did not destroy (and he did destroy most of it); the surviving pieces have been in exhibition circulation since about 2006. Steffen's piece, Alisha Nude, 1994, features a nude that bears formal techniques slightly resembling a surrealist piece, with the swift curving of lines and coloring echoing a Joan Miró work. This affinity with earlier 20th century avant-garde technique is probably not a fluke; Steffen attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1940s, until dropping out in 1950 when he experienced a mental breakdown and subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia. Much of his life thereafter was in the care of his family after his permanent release from the Elgin State Hospital in 1963. Steffen’s history of mental pain and suffering surfaces and takes form in Alisha Nude. Much of Charles Steffen’s work includes diaristic text that overwhelms the space and draws the viewer into Steffen's interior monolgue.
“Masters of Self-Taught Art” is certainly an opportunity for those interested in outsider art and self-taught artists to take a look at an impressive accumulation of pieces.
-- Sonja Srdanovic