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Galerie St. Etienne

Fairy Tale, Myth and Fantasy
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FAIRY TALE, MYTH AND FANTASY: Approaches to Spirituality in Art

Timed to coincide with the annual Outsider Art Fair (January 26-28), FAIRY TALE, MYTH AND FANTASY: Approaches to Spirituality in Art explores a topic that has proved compelling to "outsider" and "insider" artists alike.. The focus is on self-taught artists, including Ilija Bosilj-Basicevic, Henry Darger, Madge Gill, Minnie Evans, Pavel Leonov, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Michel Nedjar, Vasilij Romanenkov, Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern and Scottie Wilson. However, these works will be augmented by a smaller selection of pieces by trained modern and contemporary artists, such as Leonard Baskin, Ernesto Caivano, Paul Klee, Alfred Kubin, Emil Nolde, Pablo Picasso and Kiki Smith. The exhibition includes loans from the Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art in Milwaukee and a number of private collectors.

Through all its varied manifestations over the last century--from thhe "naive" to Art Brut, "folk" and "outsider" art--the paradigm of the unschooled artist has served as a repository for the ideals of expressive intensity and authenticity. The early modernists, believing that the work of academically trained artists had lost these qualities, sought a re-birth of the spiritual in their own work. To counter bourgeois materialism, some of these artists turned to abstraction, while others, including Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Hermann Max Pechstein, revitalized traditional Christian iconography by presenting it in a new pictorial language. Modern artists did not hide their spiritual preoccupations, but the fact that they employed an arcane formal vocabulary made their spirituality less than obvious to the uninitiated. Abstract art, in particular, was open to many interpretations, and as the twentieth century progressed, these interpretations veered away from the spiritual to focus on purely formal criteria. The aesthetic marginalization of the spiritual paralleled the broader marginalization of religion in an increasingly secular world. Consequently, interest in religious art was largely confined to work created by "outsiders," and mainstream spiritual art was often interpreted in a secular fashion that down-played the potentially divisive particulars of a given faith.

Despite its modern-day secularization, however, art-making is still tantamount to a spiritual practice, a way of understanding and giving meaning to one's existence. The universal archetypes preserved in Judeo-Christian theology, older or non-Western mythologies and fairy tales form the basis for a common spiritual language that many artists have dipped into. The contemporary artist Kiki Smith, for example, gravitates to the more atavistic aspects of Catholicism: its visceral connections to the human body, the practical interventions of saints, and the embodiment of the sacred in animals and the natural environment. The African belief that souls can communicate with the living through spirit mediums influenced the African-American artist Minnie Evans, whose work was nonetheless wholly informed by Christian theology. In Haiti, many artists are vodou priests, whose paintings document religious ceremonies or trance visions. In the far reaches of the former Soviet Union and the European continent, Eastern Orthodox Christianity merged with local history and folk tales to create a rich tradition that endured despite being opposed by the Communists. Vasilij Romanenkov, working as a gardener at a Moscow hotel, uses art to connect with the spiritual roots he left behind in his native Smolensk. The Serbian artist Ilija Bosilj-Basicevic, persecuted in succession by Austro-Hungarian occupiers, Croatian fascists, Nazis and Yugoslav Communists, sought respite in his own personal paradise, a parallel universe he called Ilijada.

In the absence of a comprehensive, satisfying spiritual faith, artists often invent personal fantasies that amalgamate elements from religion, history and fairy tale.  One of the best known of these fantasy worlds is the one painted by the reclusive artist Henry Darger. Such fantastical creations are not, however, the sole province of self-taught artists. Ernesto Caivano won acclaim at the 2004 Whitney Biennial with After the Woods, a series of ink drawings narrating a romance between a young knight and a princess who turns into a spaceship. Artists who evolve complex personal mythologies often need narrative cycles to explain their stories, whereas those who integrate common cultural property are able to create more concise images. Greek mythology is one of the best known narrative traditions, drawn upon by artists as diverse as Lovis Corinth, Pablo Picasso and Leonard Baskin. Fairy tales form another common visual heritage, used by the Austrian artist Matthias Griebler, among others. Rather than employ existing tales, some artists, such as Michel Nedjar, seek  more elemental images to express the emanations of their souls. Though entirely self-taught and included in Jean Dubuffet's Musee de l'Art Brut, Nedjar has consciously searched through primitive visual material to locate archetypal images that evoke the spirit world. A similar self-styled spirit language was invented by peddler-turned-artist Scottie Wilson.

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