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Shadow minds

Art | The very different works of two troubled 20th-century artists find a home at the American Folk Art Museum

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour."

Acclaimed artist (and church elder) Mako Fujimura, WORLD's 2005 Daniel of the Year, meditates in his excellent new book, Refractions (NavPress), on those words from 18th-century poet/artist William Blake. Fujimura writes about how "we must pause to pay attention to the details of life, to let our eyes wander into the crevices of the earth below, to observe the shadows as well as the light."

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is one of Manhattan's crowded showplaces. Next door to it on 53rd Street stands the lesser-attended American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), which has to hustle to come out of the shadows. While MOMA celebrates the well-known work of Salvador Dali-who developed what he called "the paranoiac critical method" designed to portray a world in constant flux, with melting clocks and objects dissolving into another-AFAM's main attractions through April are two artists whose minds lived in shadow.

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Its prime saint is Henry Darger (1892-1973), whom the museum puffs as "one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century." Darger created nearly 300 watercolor and collage paintings and AFAM has more of them than anyone else, so if critics and historians sign on to this notion of Darger's significance, AFAM's influence soars.

Darger was an abused kid who as an adult worked as a janitor and lived alone for four decades in a Chicago room, often shouting late at night in apparent argumentation with himself. When he died his landlords found numerous balls of twine and 300 drawings, collages and watercolors, with characters largely traced from coloring books, fashion ads, and comic strips--but some of those drawings were 10 feet long and painted on both sides with impressive coloring.

The drawings accompanied a 15,145-page manuscript entitled "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion." The manuscript narrated the adventures of seven prepubescent and radiant blonde girls who lead a Catholic uprising against males who enslave and kill children.

The drawings display a strange element: Darger usually depicted his little girls with no clothes on and . . . male sex organs. Weird, but feminists have praised Darger, arguing that boys in traditional children's literature usually find adventure and danger, but girls are stuck arranging tea parties, so Darger's substitution of organs is a sign of liberation. Many books and a 2004 film, In the Realms of the Unreal, now celebrate Darger; some musical groups and songs are named after him; he was even referenced in an episode of The Simpsons.

Curiouser and curiouser: Darger depicts thousands of these naked little girls being tortured, strangled, choked, and disemboweled. He appears in his own composition in many different ways, sometimes as a "protector of children," sometimes as a murderer. AFAM helpfully has on its wall a viewer advisory: "Some visitors may find these artworks inappropriate for children."

One art critic has wondered whether Darger was a child-killer in real life or just a mentally ill loner who took out his rage in fiendish work. Even some feminists have wondered what kind of liberation is present in Darger's celebration of mutilation. It's certainly been liberating for art gallery owners who have a piece of the action: These days a perverse Darger creation-he named one work "Have thrilling time fleeing through field of gutted bodies of children"-can sell for $80,000 or more.

Viewed from 20 feet away, Darger's work exhibited at AFAM does display interesting fields of color and curving shapes. But viewed close-up, the works depend on "cut and pasted reproductions" (the museum's polite term) with originality largely confined to imaginative abuses of girls with penises. We should have empathy for Darger and others who are disturbed, for they also are created in God's image, but is his artwork significant, or just sick?

Currently, one floor down from Darger's work at AFAM are drawings by Martin Ramirez (1895-1963), who during the last three decades of his life was confined to two California state hospitals for the insane. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, Ramirez evidently obsessed about trains entering and leaving tunnels (he drew hundreds of them) and caballeros riding steeds. He drew at least 80 pistol-packing cowboys who typically appear as if on stage, surrounded by parallel and perpendicular lines that suggest the proscenium arches of theaters.

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