Madness and Art

A local gallery spreads the spotlight on artists at the margins.

In a charming old two-story pink house on the corner of a quiet Little Havana street, several middle-age folks are gathered at a dining table for lunch. Some appear medicated and sit with their arms folded, staring into space with glazed eyes. Others lean together, communicating in whispers.

The pungent scent of frying food and the buzzing chatter of an unseen cook waft out of the nearby kitchen. A man at the table stirs from a nap, raises his head from his shoulder, and rubs his palms hungrily while sniffing the air.

Lisa Chuan Lee Cheng's Wolf and Violet Angel
Lisa Chuan Lee Cheng's Wolf and Violet Angel

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NAEMI 20th Annual Art Exhibition: Through May 29. MCPA Gallery, 1601 SW First St., Miami; 305-649-0324, www.naemi.org

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Standing in the sunny parlor of Delta House, an adult assisted-living facility, artist Eric Holmes greets Juan Martin, executive director of the National Art Exhibitions by the Mentally Ill (NAEMI), with a beaming gap-toothed grin. The Colombian-born self-taught artist is barefoot and wearing a long-sleeve camouflage shirt and jeans. Salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair, black wire glasses, and scruffy, nicotine-stained chin fuzz frame his weathered face. He looks like a hippie version of a Civil War general.

Martin is exhibiting one of Holmes's expressionistic portraits in the "20th Annual NAEMI Art Exhibition," which opened last Friday at the MCPA Gallery about a mile up the road. Two dozen local, national, and international outsider artists are exhibiting close to 50 mixed-media works in the enticing show.

British art critic Roger Cardinal coined the term outsider art in 1972 as a an English synonym for art brut, or raw art, a label French artist Jean Dubuffet employed in the Fifties to describe art created by insane asylum patients.

Dubuffett argued that mainstream culture asphixiated a "pure and genuine creative impulse." He and others found inspiration in the "exalted feverishness" of these works.

Cardinal's term broadened the scope to include other self-taught or naive artists who had never been institutionalized. Today the label outsider art is used even more loosely, describing art produced outside the "art world" mainstream, regardless of the circumstances of its creation or its content.

These and other forms of marginalized expression have soared in popularity the past two decades. An annual fair was inaugurated in New York in 1992, and major museums have organized outsider art shows that have toured the country.

"Throughout the history of the avant garde, well-known figures from the surrealists to Dubuffet have looked to the work of the mentally ill for inspiration," Martin says.

All of the works on display at the NAEMI show are priced from $100 to $300. "We want collectors to support these amazing artists, and with the exception of $25 from each piece sold, all of the money goes directly to the artist."

The cover of the exhibition invitation is Holmes's Perestroika, which depicts the chalky-white, childlike face of a male with an Orville Redenbacher-style carrot-top over a muddy earth-tone and yellow field. Scrawled on the bottom of the composition, where the artist's signature should be, is the painting's title in blue letters. The phrase the guillotine Hovers over head floats on the surface slightly right of where the figure's head meets his neck. A tarry swath of black paint slices across the top of the picture, interrupted by a crimson smear.

Holmes leads his visitors to a bright second-floor space he shares with the man who had been napping at the table downstairs. The drowsy roommate shuffles behind him and silently sits on a twin bed.

On a wall above a dresser hangs a painting of a young blond woman clutching a bible to her chest. The girl's name, "Jane," is exuberantly spelled above her head.

"She's a virgin goddess," mumbles Holmes. His motionless roommate suddenly becomes animated, sharply nodding his head while muffling laughter with his hands.

"I painted Jane from a snapshot I took of her in Carmel," recalls the 61-year-old Holmes. "I heard she got married 20 years ago, but I painted her as if she was still a virgin. She was a major relationship. Her father thought I was crazy. He was the one who put me in the madhouse in the first place, you know?"

On the floor next to the dresser, dozens of Holmes's paintings of daisies, Easter Island idols, and friends' faces are stacked like old records at a garage sale.

"What I most admire about Eric is his free, spontaneous style, both in his work and his life," Martin says. "His work and life is similar to what you see in children."

As Martin fingers through them, Holmes points out his makeshift "studio," which is about four-by-four feet in size and crammed under a window-unit air conditioner.

He paints on found wood and other scraps people bring him. Plastic containers hold his brushes, and tubes of paint line the floor. On the top of a silver boombox next to his paints, Holmes has written "Plato," "Jesus," and "El Che."

"I got the idea from the end of Finnegans Wake," he cracks.

Holmes, who earned a history degree at the University of Pennsylvania, says he began painting in an art therapy program in 1977 at a facility in Philadelphia called "The Institute."

But it was at another facility in California that he says he discovered the inspiration for much of his work.

"I consider myself a Jesus freak. I was hitching a ride in Long Beach and was picked up and taken to a Jesus-freak halfway house and adopted the habit there," says the artist, whose cabinets and workspace are peppered with words such as God, mercy, and please pray.

Holmes fishes out a recent painting of a flower with fat petals against a baby-blue sky. The lone blossom sways under the phrase 1,000 years in Heaven.

"Look here," he says, flipping the image over. He has painted the flower on the back of an ornately framed copy of a Ruebens picture of cherubs.

"It looks like I don't have much space to work, but Georges Braque painted on his knees too."

Martin points to Holmes's bed, on which several open paperbacks are scattered, and asks the artist what he's reading now. Holmes picks up Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, and Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization and laughs.

Then he palms Jean Paul Sartre's gloomy existentialist treatise Being and Nothingness and croaks, "He's the reason everyone goes insane!"

Before answering the chow bell, Holmes digs up a postcard of his painting Joy America, which is in the permanent collection of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

It was opened in 1995 and designated by Congress as the nation's official museum for self-taught art. The museum's café is named for Holmes's painting, which depicts a nude girl waving her arms above her head.

Martin has been exhibiting Holmes's work for 15 years and says he is among the most popular artists at NAEMI exhibits.

Another of the outsider artists he works with regularly is West Virginia's Echo McCallister, whose condition, echolalia, compels him to often repeat the last words of conversations he hears.

"Echo is autistic and spent most of his life in Spencer State Hospital in West Virginia, which was shut down by the government in 1989. Ironically Echo is his birth name and has nothing to do with his echolalia," Martin explains.

"I went to visit him at the Prestera Center, where Echo now lives," Martin adds. "NAEMI was publishing a book on his life and art and I was amazed to see how many other accomplished outsider artists have been discovered in that area."

As a child, McCallister drew pictures on everything from matchbook covers to coasters to labels on canned foods.

Before the hospital closed, an art therapist named Tim Urbanic discovered McCallister and took him under his wing, Martin says, noting that Urbanic also found artists Raymond Hall, Lucy Wilkens, and Kathy Hanshaw at Spencer.

"When I was visiting Echo, I heard stories of how patients would plead with Spencer orderlies not to throw them in the hole. It turned out that when some of them became agitated, they were often tossed down the hospital's laundry chute," fumes Martin, shaking his head in disbelief.

McCallister has four works on exhibit, rendered in vivid bursts of color and fantastic figures in a primitive and innocent style.

Miami's Boris Lopez has three pieces on display at the MCPA show, and they hijack the peepers. Yo Soy La Caridad depicts Cuba's patron saint in a sumptuous gown as she floats above three fishermen praying to be saved from a storm. The background convulses in a swirl of dense spots that oscillate with energy. A flock of malevolent black angels tears through the air.

Lisa Chuan Lee Cheng's Wolf and Violet Angel also delivers a haunting image. The mixed-media-on-paper work depicts an otherworldly vision of a sacred ceremony where animals and humans commune mystically.

Martin is excited by his recent discovery of Spaniard Ramon Losa. "Losa is a schizophrenic who disdains doctors and medicine, and self-medicates with marijuana," he says.

"His parents have sent Losa to live in the countryside, where he creates these incredible paintings and has lately started making sculptures using wood he cannibalizes from his parents' furniture."

Losa, who is exhibiting four mixed-media works at MCPA, recently commanded more than 2,000 euros — a little more than $3,000 — for a painting.

Martin, who has devoted two decades to uncovering and presenting the astounding vision of society's marginalized, deserves a tip of the chapeau as well.

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