Paintings from the Edge

In a painting on paper that hangs just inside the door of Miami-Dade Community College's InterAmerican Gallery on SW 27th Avenue, a man screams. The cartoonish figure's mouth is wide open, his beady eyes popping, conveying a darkly comic sense of slow-burning distress. Joseph Oakes, the artist, a resident of a halfway house for the mentally ill in Pompano Beach, calls the picture See a Lot Hear a Little Tongue Tied.

Oakes's roaring man is probably typical of the disconcerting images one would expect to find in a show of art by psychiatric patients. And it's an affecting work. But here it serves as a rather misleading -- and cliched -- introduction to the ninth annual National Art Exhibition by the Mentally Ill.

Like the work of all artists, the paintings, drawings, photographs, and collages in this spirited traveling exhibit reveal personal visions and deep emotions, including feelings of depression and anxiety. But while these pieces are often self-referential, it's a mistake to view them as desperate cries for help from their creators' hermetic private hell.

Perhaps it would be more reassuring for "normal people" like us to take in a display of scribbled postcards from over the edge, full of perverted pictures and unintelligible script expressing utter despair or total oblivion. But that is not the case here. The 50-odd entries, gathered from mental health facilities across the country, vary in subject matter, style, and quality. But for the most part the work is technically impressive, and overall the show reflects an astute awareness of self and an intense, informed, and often amused observation of the world.

Many of the most engaging works here are also the sparest -- still lifes and portraits in different media. Among these is a series of watercolors of chickens by Connie Witt English, who is from from Kansas. In each of her three Chicken Studies, hung side by side, a brood of tiny fowls painted in reds, blues, and other improbable shades poses and pecks on a white background. Witt English has an astute eye for movement and a sense of composition that makes the chickens come alive, seemingly engaged in Animal Farm chatter, telling stories among themselves.

Inspired by the urban landscape, New Yorker Rocco Fama's expressive pencil drawing Aster Hotel fills the paper to the picture's frame. The brick building evokes the grittiness of city life, while at the same time the looming perspective imparts to the hotel a fantastic quality reminiscent of Gaudi's wild architecture in Barcelona.

Sincerae Smith's commanding portrait Grandfather in Africa shows a proud patriarch with white hair, dressed in a blue print dashiki. The angular old man stares challengingly at the viewer, but the plaintive emotion in his eyes reveals that his stern expression is more protective than aggressive. A small colored photograph, The TV Is Always On, by North Carolinian Larry Parrish, is another work that evokes its creator's roots. A small living room with lace curtains and a worn velvet couch features a wall cluttered with family photos, diplomas, ceramic figurines of a gospel choir, and a plaque that reads "Jesus."

On the subject of religion, Arkansas native Learrie White, Jr., contributes an endearing naive painting of a black Madonna and child, Mary's Gratitude. Doris Staler, a Pennsylvania artist, offers a more critical statement, Please God Save Us from the Church, a photo-realist work that shows a quaint colonial chapel standing on a grassy hill, all done in shades of gray. In the foreground sits the giant disembodied head of a young boy, his huge eyes turned questioningly skyward.

Victoria Peterson (Maryland) turned her attention to secular icons. A slightly caricatured portrait of Mr. Pete Townsend [sic] Rock Musician hangs next to one of Miss Nicks -- that would be Stevie -- who sports shaggy blond curls and purple eyeshadow caked up to her brows. While these aren't on a par technically with the other works in the show, they're lively and amusing nonetheless.

More successful is Virginia artist John L. Trippel's Blue Food, a surreal supermarket scene populated by grotesque figures whose faces are all puffy eye bags and jowls. A perplexed cashier holds up a blue potato and searches for a price while one shopper looks curiously on and a man standing in line merely yawns. A marvelous collage by Roger Sadler (Texas), Dinopsis, depicts two tourist dinosaurs strolling past the leaning tower of Pisa while a Byzantine angel hovers in the sky.

Historically, artworks by the mentally ill have been of great interest to medical professionals as clinical documents, thought to serve as maps to the workings of the mind and as evidence of the thin line between genius and insanity. As writer John Maizels documents extensively in his book Raw Creation (published last year by Phaidon Press), by the end of the Nineteenth Century forward-thinking doctors were collecting and studying examples of their patients' art. Many artists have looked to the art of the mentally ill for inspiration, most famously the surrealists and the French painter Jean Dubuffet, who coined the term art brut (raw art) for what he defined as "an art which manifests an unparalleled inventiveness." Increasingly, especially over the past decade, collectors of outsider art have sought out the same sort of natural creativity in works by psychiatric patients.

That spontaneous combustion can be found in the strange and wonderful work of Miami's Milton Schwartz. Self-taught, compulsive, and prolific, Schwartz doesn't think of himself as an artist. He sees his busy collages as his legacy, a way of documenting and explaining contemporary life to future generations. Three small examples are displayed at the InterAmerican. Each features a carefully contrived selection of photos from newspapers, magazines, and advertising brochures, accompanied by neatly printed explanatory texts. One collage is a sort of Republican political parade, with pictures of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and the legend "Hail the chief and his precious first lady." A photo of George Bush is placed next to an illustration of a shell cut from a book, with the caption "President George Bush matted framed cshell miti fine." Elsewhere we learn that "Dee Dee offered sales position 20 hours $100 5 days," and there's more good news: "4 dolly and myself happiness is just beginning."

Schwartz began making his collages on his own and continues to do so in his room in a residence for the mentally ill in Miami Beach. But much of the work on display in the gallery was engendered during art classes, a typical form of contemporary therapy in hospitals and mental institutions. According to Juan Martin, a Miami substance-abuse counselor and president of National Art Exhibitions By the Mentally Ill, Inc., the nonprofit association that organizes the show every year, the only criterion for entry is that the artist has experienced some form of mental illness. (The works that make it into the show are selected by a jury.) The exact circumstances under which a given work is created are impossible to ascertain, raising the question: If the value of art by the mentally ill and other "outsiders" is its rawness -- or its perceived creative purity -- are works made in art class less "authentic" than those born in solitude?

Of course not, says Eric Holmes, who has been in and out of institutions throughout his adult life and now resides in an adult living facility in Little Havana. Holmes, who has three works in the current show, is a great believer in art therapy. He began painting in an art class, and although he now works on his own, he says he sees all of his work as "just a big therapy." (Both Holmes and Milton Schwartz were profiled last summer in the New Times cover story "Inside Looking Out.")

Holmes's paintings, inspired as much by his readings in German philosophy and art history as by his continuous battle with schizophrenia, are aesthetically powerful and emotionally moving. Starkly painted on a discarded piece of plywood, Eric shows a cross surrounded by geometric shapes and printed text. The words seem random, but on close reading it becomes clear that this is a picture of the artist's tomb, with the names of his family members and friends standing in for the real people like place cards for a future memorial service. In another work, Goddess Tragedie, a faceless figure of a woman floats on a large piece of unfinished wood. Holmes paints his subject with fiery, expressionist brushstrokes running down her body, and she appears to have her heart exposed.

Whatever his psychological profile might be, Holmes deserves a show of his own, without the "mentally ill" label. Quite simply -- and quite like others here -- he takes what is both monstrous and mundane in life and transforms it into something else: art.

National Art Exhibition by the Mentally Ill.
Through August 15 at the InterAmerican Gallery, 625 SW 27th Ave; 237-3278.

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