A recent experience attending an exhibit of “Outliers,” self-taught artists, reminded me how the act of observation, of really seeing, is a form of communion. Communion, meaning: the “sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.” Like the Christian religious ritual, really seeing is a profound, deeply meaningful experience.That day, I entered the gallery in a state of conscious awareness, ready to view the art with mindful, undivided attention, my eyes and ears attentive.
The show (at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC), “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” featured hundreds of pieces of so-called folk, primitive, visionary, naïve, or outsider art by people whose “contributions have been largely disregarded or forgotten.”
My advance research revealed the museum’s statement that outlier artists “have played a significant role in the history of modernism… Lacking formal academic training and often unaware or indifferent to art historical traditions and values, these unschooled creators have typically proposed novel ways of imagining the world, making art that has challenged the norms validated by mainstream institutions.”
Apparently these self-taught artists had grabbed up whatever materials and tools they could and made things by hand because something in them wanted to, had to, respond to feelings evoked by their environment. They had heard a call. And their paintings (quilts, sculptures, photographs, drawings, etc.) were their response, their story.
With eyes wide open and with a sense of curiosity, I began my walk through the exhibit.
Over the time at the show, through mindful observation, I connected with much of the art there, not “just” visually, but with a sense of recognition and I viscerally-felt the emotion and energy reflected from the pieces. It was as though I understood the stories that were inside the works even though I didn’t know the majority of the artists–or their “real stories.”
Yet stories and personalities emerged from quilts made out of remnants of cloth, paintings made with soot and saliva on reused scraps of paper, sculptures made with yarn and found objects, messages painted on sheets, and photographs made in old photo booths. The brilliance of colors, the energy of brushstrokes and assemblages, and the pleasing, sometimes jarring, creations engaged me on a deep level. I noticed and felt a lot. But I had no way to respond–except through feelings.
“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” –Jonathan Gottschall
Moving quickly to paintings which beckoned to me from across rooms, I came to stare intently at the painting to the right, “Feuilles,” by Séraphine Louis. The explosive swirl of color and movement were dizzying. And the varnished layers of leaves on leaves created an ever-increasing sense of depth–like falling down the rabbit hole. I could almost feel the slightly squishy roundness of the pearls beading up on the leaves. The artist’s scrawled, bold signature floating like a cartoon bubble seemed to point to a confident, accomplished artist. Someone who found and captured great power in nature. Her painting felt like a psychedelic dream, and held me close for a qood while, making my head spin and enticing me to touch the painting (I didn’t, don’t worry).
The experience was one of kinship… a recognition of feelings that I shared with the painting–and by extension, with the unknown artist. (Have you ever felt that; a certainty that you have known a person, have been somewhere with them?) I felt an urge to get to know Louis better. I wanted to talk to her. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask her…
And here is the big take-away I took from this show of outlier art: by looking without preconceptions, by seeing clearly and taking all the time you need to feel and to identify what a painting (or any work of art) is doing to you, you enter into a state of communion with art. Communion is observation on steroids. This is mindful seeing: being completely “with” a work of art. Noticing what it is doing to you, how you are responding to it. And hearing the story that reveals itself through your observation and responses.
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
Some of the works of art in the show, like Howard Finster’s “Vision of a Great Gulf on Planet Hell,” above, left, obligate you to take a good amount of time observing the work. While you get one impression standing back from the painting not reading the myriad writings or noticing the little figures falling across it, so much more awaits your discovery when you move closer and pay attention to the details.
From a distance, Morris Hirschfield’s proud “Tiger,” seemed to be woven. It seemed so textured that it begged closer inspection (and again, created a desire to touch it). Up closer, the bold feline floats above a crisp, cleanly delineated forest where everything is in sharp detail, speckled or striped, hills exploding upward in leafy green, a few birds sticking to the leaves of a tall tree. Behind the tiger, a cerulean sky is streaked with rhythmic white clouds mirroring the tiger’s stripes. Spending time with the painting, I began to see it as music. To me, the texture of it was a raucous jazz sound: original, ferocious, proud and unapologetic. I saw the details as forms of “shape notes” that I read as sharp and frenetic, a clearly scored piece of music to which I responded with delight.
I was exhausted walking out of the show. I had been seeing and feeling so much in the few hours I was there. And at the same time, I was filled with hope and ideas, and with love of the human spirit and the immortality of creative voices that had revealed themselves to me.
Buoyed with positive energy, I vowed to practice mindful observation more often, and not just in art galleries. As the Dutch psychologist Matthijas Baas has said, “To be creative, you need to have, or be trained in, the ability to carefully observe, notice, or attend to phenomena that pass your mind’s eye.”
“There are flowers everywhere, for those who bother to look.” — Henri Matisse