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Creature Comforts
Latest Visionary Show Celebrates The Wonderful, Horrible Fragility Of Living In Our Own Skins
MY LIFE IN A HOLE IN THE GROUND: Art Adkins' "Black Bear."
MY LIFE IN A HOLE IN THE GROUND: Art Adkins' "Black Bear."
Home and Beast

Here's the thing about being visionary--all its quintessential qualities exist and function outside of definitive categorization. Home and Beast, the latest big show at the American Visionary Art Museum, demonstrates this idea in the most inclusive way possible, savoring the tragic news at the end with the joyous abandon of a second line jazz parade.

The snaking conclusion of this wildly leaping and slithering exhibition--which envisions both the beast within and the home without--doesn't exactly nail a specific argument on their mutual relationship. The rejoinder to the theme is that neither is what you might have been thinking, or perhaps even hoping, but it's all part of a brightly striped piece of fabric.

The exhibition is dedicated to and inspired by one particular artist in the show, Temple Grandin. Grandin, a scientist and author who suffered autism from childhood on, translated her extreme hypersensitivity into a deepening consciousness with regard to the experiences endured by slaughterhouse animals. Her acutely conscious designs champion the humane treatment of animals in the meat rendering industry and introduced the quiet spaces that calm the animals as they are lined up awaiting execution. Grandin's original plans are in a section titled "Grazeland," located in Home and Beast's core.

More than any other artist in the show, Grandin instructs her audience that home is not a place but a set of mutable and relative circumstances offering degrees of mortal comfort--and that we are all mortal beasts in need of that evanescent comfort. For although her winding slaughterhouse channels and sanctuaries are specifically invented to calm the panicking hearts of doomed livestock, they are also a bird's-eye architectural plan of our own brief meandering journey toward death through life: our body, our home.

Surrounding Gandin's work on all sides and from either direction are animal icons--a jungle of them. It is almost as if Temple Grandin--what a wonderful, perfect name--is the pharaoh at the heart of the exhibition's tomb, surrounded by her avatars: the protector animals of every breed, style, ritual, and industry, which she herself protects. Nearby her "Animal Handling Systems" are the marvelous carved animal-head walking sticks of Russell Rice and Tim Lewis to assist and support this projected journey through life and afterlife; found-object weather vanes by Vollis Simpson to gauge the way; and an astonishing anonymously crocheted horse dress to protect its wearer from whatever eternity's demands might involve.

There are countless myths from every culture that assign meaning and power to specific animals. The three-headed dog Cerberus guarded the Greco-Roman underworld, the Egyptian Akh bird resurrected the departing soul, the Dogon Kanaga lizard administered passage between the earth and the heavens. Animals are intermediaries between the physical and the spiritual principally because they keep safe within them pure forms of action and awareness that we humans, with all our tools and trappings and myriad distractions, have forfeited. Humans are generalists, but animals are specialists, having honed their focused powers while we were lacing our shoes. Every folk artist knows this well, and their knowledge drives them to make animals to take them home.

A very egalitarian jubilation of creatures occupies Home and Beast's grand entrance area. It's a who's who of representatives from the visionary art world: Minnie Adkins' black bears, Abraham Criss' and Isaac Smith's dogs, Clyde Jones' circus animals, and O.L. Samuels' sublime composite creatures--all carved from wood with varying degrees of refinement and gesture, sometimes polychromed, sometimes left as natural wood.

Nancy Josephson offers the real thing with her taxidermy animal forms. Their carcasses have been covered so effectively in luscious sequins and glass mosaic that the only way to know what lies beneath is through the labels. These works give more than a little pause, although you come to them before you reach Grandin's work, so you are not as converted yet. Josephson's prairie dogs and bear are a visual indulgence, and, certainly, precedents exist for the shamanistic transformation of mummified animals into fetish objects through the application of amulets. You hope Josephson sincerely understands and believes in her endeavors, though, because to pursue this practice purely in the name of ornament, experiment, or artistic distinction would be seriously close to profane. Borrowing from other cultures' ritual customs to expand art's language is done all the time, but the notion that middle-class Americans can appropriate significant rites and resources--such as assuming shamanistic roles, especially when using animal bodies--whenever they feel so inclined risks committing a careless form of sacrilege.

The artist who feels to be the most indicative of the titular and is Christine Sefolosha. The mesmerizing images that she summons from shadow through tar and oil paint on paper resonate with an amazing prehistoric quality. Distorted images of animals that summon up the idea of silhouettes flickering up from a fire upon a cave wall, their specters sometimes reveal little fetal humans secreted inside.

Two installations--one by Mr. Imagination, the other by Loring Cornish--address the concept of Home and immediately capture attention through their obsessive infusion of works. Mr. Imagination constructs his home as the highly personalized residence of the ego. The glittering environment is entirely adorned in mixed-media portraiture that isn't--but also very much is--creative self-portraiture. Cornish, on the other hand, leans toward establishing a sacred place to sustain and nurture the super-ego: One-word prayers and platitudes montaged from nickels, bottle caps, buttons, and sequins fill every space, making his actual bed a further reminder of the constant rigor of righteousness.

The show's grand finale stars the viewer by default. A fabulous array of caskets and funerary urns, a few vacant, line the space. Some are maquettes for famous residents now reclining in eternal style. One particularly enchanting urn is the glamorous future resting vessel for Nancy Josephson, who has personally opted not to be taxidermied and coated with sparkles.

Home and Beast is a stunner for all ages. Anyone who loves animals will love this show, regardless of the didactic material, and hats off to AVAM founder/director Rebecca Hoffberger and museum registrar Sarah Templin for envisioning it, organizing it, and filling it with many meaningful messages



Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper