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Outside the Box



Some are on a mission from God. Others are merely on a mission, but all have a vision, a worldview that is unique, singular, one of a kind and maybe even a little ahead of its time. In fact, many of the artists featured in the Ogden Museum's From the Outside (In) show are among folk art's leading luminaries, its wizards of sincerely and deeply felt weirdness. And yet it can be misleading to call them folk artists.

For one thing, most are not "just folk." And most share little in common with their more entrepreneurial, faux-naive counterparts who may call themselves folk artists yet are actually businessmen -- often with their own galleries on Magazine or Royal streets. No, the cast of characters at this Ogden show is the real thing, untutored and eternally unready for the white wine circuit. What they do, as the French modernist Jean Dubuffet noted, is to take art back to its roots in the deepest recesses of the imagination. He called it art brut, but in America it is more commonly called "visionary" or "outsider" art, which is apt for work that is so outside the box.

What they do comes in all colors, shapes and sizes, and all kinds of media. Some are prophets of "moral clarity," which like a lot of moral clarity these days is clear mainly to themselves. For instance, Royal Robertson has long been known for his visions of a future world of space aliens and fantastical architecture, as well as images from his troubled past that focus on a former wife whom he verbally reviles as a "Betrayer" and a "Whore of Babylon" in his paintings. In this show he keeps it simple with sweet little works such as Untitled, a painting of a rather rakish submachine gun signed in big print: Libra Prophet Royal Robertson, Vision Artist.

No less certain of his moral compass is the Reverend Howard Finster, whose heroes are George Washington and Elvis and whose messages come straight "from God." Ever aware of the looming final showdown between good and evil, Finster creates works such as his aptly titled Man of Vision, a pastiche of anonymous gray men and strange, mutated animals, all bordered with verbal exhortations to lay away provisions and build bomb shelters in anticipation of the pending cataclysm. It sounds dire, but there is also a good-humored quality about his imagery despite its apocalyptic delirium.

Others, however, are just plain weird. Memphis artist Henry Speller, who was born in Mississippi to a family of sharecroppers, has the background of a blues musician. Yet his paintings on paper, with their wavy architectonic patterns and wild-eyed, vibrantly libidinal women, resemble the art of Viennese mental patients. Untitled features three such figures in miniskirts with bare breasts and predatory, long-toothed grins. Not to be outdone in the weirdness department is a local contender by the name of Welmon Sharlhorne. Though less famous than Henry Speller, Sharlhorne, who spent much of his adult life honing his visionary skills at Angola state prison, has attracted a global audience with works such as The Lady Kissed the Beast That Turn Back Into the Prince. Executed with his usual Bic ballpoint pen on a file folder, Lady's classic visionary expressionism displays an almost Miro-like interplay of line and form.

More strange creatures abound in Bessie Harvey's The First King and Queen, a bevy of darkly festive spirits occupying what resembles the hollowed tree stump. According to Harvey, they all correspond to her visions, which she says have haunted her for many years. Such gothic sensibilities contrast with Clementine Hunter's "memory paintings" such as Panorama of a Baptism on Cane River, a sunny and charmingly lyrical slice of rural life that epitomizes what was originally meant by the terms "primitive" and "folk" art. It's a far cry from the darker work of Royal Robertson, Welmon Sharlhorne or Henry Speller, but strikes a resonant chord with others such as Georgia's George Andrews, whose buoyantly patterned paintings fill the back gallery. In all, it's impressive survey of Southern visionary art, and a fine complement to the Louisiana State Museum's Goin' Cross My Mind show of work by self-taught Bayou State artists at their Madame John's Legacy facility.

Welmon Sharlhorne, a former Angola state prison inmate, has gained worldwide attention with works such as The Lady Kissed the Beast That Turn Back Into the Prince.
  • Welmon Sharlhorne, a former Angola state prison inmate, has gained worldwide attention with works such as The Lady Kissed the Beast That Turn Back Into the Prince.

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