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The Eyes Have It:
An Exhibition of California Visionaries

A tour of the 2004 show by guest curator Bonnie Grossman.

California has been home to a sizable number of nationally and internationally renowned artists who are described as self-taught, visionary, and outsider. In recognition of this rich treasure of extraordinary California-bred talents, we assembled a representative group of the most noteworthy at the Library Gallery of California State University at Sacramento. We had to agree on the scope of the exhibit, and we had to find consensus on the dilemma of language. Outsider, visionary, folk, naïve, self-taught…how do we describe these artists? Outsider art refers, for the most part, to artists living outside of society, who create unique and highly personal work, uninfluenced by artistic traditions or the marketplace. In recent years, this genre has attracted its own audience of collectors and viewers. Folk art is of a community and tradition that is passed from generation to generation. Visionary art suggests forward thinking, the work of dreamers and idealists. Self-taught and naïve indicate lack of education and primitivism…with their pejorative implications. Few of these artists fit into only one category, yet we managed to come to a satisfactory agreement about both the language we used and a selection of work that covers the range of these California artists.

THE EYES HAVE IT: An Exhibition of California Visionaries celebrates a wide range of styles and techniques as diverse as the origins, ethnicity, and circumstances of the artists themselves. The unique visions of 3 internationally renowned artists, Martin Ramirez, A.G. Rizzoli and Jon Serl are at the center of the show. Some of the other 19 artists, like Martha Douglas, Ray Franklin and William Haddad are largely unsung, recognized primarily in their own Sacramento community. Six of California’s historic folk art environments are also included in photos and on video tape.

Walking through the gallery one notices the wide diversity in this community of artists. They range in age from 43 years old, (William Haddad) to 103, (Harry Lieberman). A few, like Leonard Knight, Harry Lieberman and Leon Kennedy, took their inspiration from their religion, while others looked to past experience or memories. Some were isolates who did not share their work during their lifetimes. Others, like Dwight Mackintosh, Ray Franklin, and William Haddad, worked in group settings, where praise and support were an on-going incentive to create. Esther Hamerman and Alex Maldonado worked in very traditional media such as paint on canvas, while Leon Kennedy, Judith Scott, Jim Bauer, and Robert Gilkerson chose to use unconventional material - - torn bed sheets, pie tins, window panes, and chairs, yarn, aluminum cast-offs and driftwood. In this way too, these artists differ from most academics. These twenty-plus creative souls show unabashed frankness because they are unfettered by "rules."

Martin Ramirez (1885 – 1960) is among the most valued of the creative geniuses in this field. He was born in Mexico but spent much of his life in a state hospital in Sacramento. There is some dispute regarding Ramirez’ ability to speak. It is commonly believed that he was non-verbal for the last 45 years of his life, but he spoke volumes through the legacy of his drawings. Horses with riders, steam trains, Madonnas and tunnels dominate his images. There is strong reference to his heritage in his subjects, which emerge through a sea of reverberating lines. Ramirez’s large format pieces are all the more amazing when we realize that his early work was done on saved scraps of paper that he salvaged and glued together with a paste made from mashed potatoes and his own saliva. Extraordinary images to have come from such quotidian beginnings.

By day, A. G. Rizzoli (1896 – 1981) was a draftsman in a middle-tier architectural firm in San Francisco, but he spent his nights depicting people he knew as intricate, towering Beaux Arts buildings. His exquisitely detailed renderings were done with colored drafting inks on rag paper. As a project, he created the plan for a magnificent fantasy exposition, his YTTE (Yield to Total Elation). The YTTE was devoted to living until the age of 80, at which time one could undergo euthanasia by stepping into "The Shaft of Ascension." Throughout his life, Rizzoli played with words, making up a language loaded in symbolism and rich with puns, anagrams and neologisms, some of which continue to defy interpretation.

Jon Serl (1894 – 1993) began painting in his fifties after a romantic and colorful life as a farmhand, chef, and vaudeville performer. His lively images, with loose flowing lines and supple figures, depict much of what was his daily life, and present some of the mystical creatures of his imagination. Lively and bold, they are infused with narrative drama, in keeping with Serl’s overriding urge to communicate. A prodigious painter, he produced more than one thousand works before his death in Hemet at the age of 99.

Leon Kennedy’s (b.1945) spiritually inspired pieces are also his "sermons." It may be particularly fitting that his choice of materials runs the gamut of redeemed cast-offs. Kennedy’s Biblical texts appear on bed sheets, window panes, pie tins and chairs. His eagerness to spread the word seems to consume him. The imaginative and humorous assemblage creations of Robert Gilkerson (1922 – c 1995) are made of driftwood and found materials. His limited palette of primary colors reminds some of the sculpture of Jean Dubuffet, while his brashness and unpredictable formations offer a jolt of humor. Judith Scott’s (b.1943) Down’s syndrome and deafness serve to isolate her from the world around her. She fills her time by creating wrapped sculptures made of yarn and scraps of cloth. Her forms, which are infinite in their variety, are worked over a structure made of cast-off wood, boxes, or bamboo. These web-like structures are mysterious and, like cocoons, they are enshrouding their contents, just as Scott seems to be protecting herself. Jim Bauer’s (b.1954) robot-like sculptures are assembled from coffee pots, irons, sprinkler heads, measuring spoons and other collected aluminum objects. A former auto mechanic and kitchenware retailer, his witty pieces invite close examination and analysis even as they make us laugh. Familiar and alien, comforting and strange, they stand as post-industrial icons.

John Abdujaami (b.1941) chops away at wood with an ax. He then refines his rough carvings with a chisel, and then finishes them with house paint. He uses redwood, walnut, or eucalyptus to create his animals, birds, and people. At times, he uses his art as political commentary. Julio Garcia (1920 – 2003) also worked in wood and house paint. He shaped, sanded, and painted an array of figures; voluptuous women and stalwart men, whom the childless Garcia and his wife considered their family. Always economical with his materials, he "clothed" each group of people, as they "arrived," in matching colors.

Both prolific and provocative, Barry Simons (b.1943) does some charcoal or line drawings, but he usually applies varied colored inks with pen or brush. Texture is often added with the use of collage. His drawings frequently reflect opposite moods: alienation vs. connection, darkness and foreboding vs. lightheartedness. At times, bits of text are integral to his pieces, revealing him to be poet, prophet and philosopher. Alex Maldonado (1901 – 1989), a production line worker and professional boxer in his younger days, began painting when he retired. His work reveals his child-like imagination as he portrayed his plans to solve the world’s problems, his ecological inventions, and the placid life on his Maldonado planet. He came to refer to himself as a "painter of the impossible". His naïve style has pointillist elements reminiscent of the mosaics in his native Mexico. Esther Hamerman’s (1886 – 1977) themes are unusual for a woman of her time. There are no pretty still-lifes, and no idyllic cottages. Instead she deals with her childhood in turn-of-the-century Poland; her flight to the U.S. by way of Trinidad; and her subsequent experiences in New York, San Francisco, and Israel with traditional scenes of community activities and in ambitious panoramic views of harbors and villages. Her palette, composition, and spontaneity are absolutely original, and her work is neither fussy nor contrived. Harry Lieberman’s (1880 – 1983) painted tales of Jewish life, religion, and literature provide wonderful Talmudic wisdom and insight. His earliest paintings were simple still-lifes, but he is best remembered for his more complex story-telling pieces. He used buildings without walls to show several dimensions of a story at once. His flattened perspective solved technical problems in a way that created a dynamic sense of immediacy and movement. When asked about the posterity of his work, Lieberman said, "This is my hereafter, I don’t ask for more." Dorothy Binger (b.1926) claims that an interest in fashion provokes her tight mixed-media images of women and their role in society. Some of her works are embellished with bits of paper and glitter, along with other unconventional materials.

Dwight Mackintosh (1906 – 1999) quietly created a prodigious volume of drawings. Many contain his curious, incomprehensible writing, which floats above his figures like many layers of unraveling yarn. Mackintosh’s obscure text often repeats the same sequence of letters, line for line, from one drawing to another. Occasionally, recognizable words do appear: ‘stair,’ ‘boys’, and ‘go’, but no one---not even the artist---could tell us what was written. Sam Gant (b.1954 – 2000) was born deaf, but found that his art was a means of communication. His joy in painting was evident as he filled the surface of the page with richly colored shapes and symbols. Planes and cars are favored subjects, but the splatter of random letters and numbers are always a presence. The bold, colorful images of Donald Walker (b.1953) contrast sharply with the works of Gant and Mackintosh. In Walker’s work, the pages are filled with animals and people combined with letters and numbers. Sometime he selects a single well-formed letter, which he repeats over and over to form a compact mass surrounding a profile or a shape. At other times his letters are splashed as if by the bold stroke of a brush. His placement seems quite deliberate, but rarely does any recognizable pattern or word appear. While Walker’s letters and numbers play a significant role in his images, the message, like those of Mackintosh and Gant, remains mysterious.

The work of these perceptive and gifted visionaries serves also to represent the many talented artists that could not be included. Paradoxically, this work has become the inspiration for many mainstream academic artists. And so, unpredictably, without the opportunity or even the inclination to seek an artistic education, these "primitive" artists are now the teachers. Hailing their talents in a university setting appears decidedly appropriate.

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The exhibition of six California folk art environments included in "The Eyes Have It" was curated by Steve Vanoni with the cooperation of Seymour Rosen, founder and director of S.P.A.C.E.S. In photo and video, viewers walked through Duke Cahill’s (1920 – 2000) Sacramento Menagerie; John Ehn’s (1896 – 1981) "Trapper’s Lodge" in Woodland Hills; and Romano Gabriel’s (1897 -1977) wooden sculpture garden in Eureka. Leonard Knight (b. 1930) is the sole survivor of this group of folk art environment creators. He continues his work at Salvation Mountain in Niland. Tressa Prisbrey ‘s (1896-1988) "Bottle Village" in Simi Valley and Simon Rodia’s (c. 1874 – 1954) Watts Towers in Los Angeles may well be among the best known of the many sites in the state.

Bonnie Grossman
Folk Art Messenger Vol. 17, No. 1
Spring/Summer 2004