AVAM’s ‘The Great Mystery Show’ Probes Universal Mystique, Human Tragedy, Spirituality

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Ingo Swann’s “Madre Dolorosa.” Image courtesy of American Visionary Art Museum.

What do missing persons, Edgar Allan Poe, the mother of Jesus and a robotic cat have in common? That’s what you get to sort through with the American Visionary Art Museum’s newest 11-month exhibition, “The Great Mystery Show.”

Mystery “is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science,” museum founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger told a small crowd at a show preview earlier this week. Running with that idea, Hoffberger has worked with 44 outsider artists – the self-taught and not professionally trained variety — to assemble an exhibition exploring life’s most bewildering aspects.

As usual, the featured makers in AVAM’s show span many backgrounds, from scientists and astronauts to mystics and philosophers. A pamphlet for the exhibition describes it as “one part lively fun house, two parts cosmic dream lab.”

Visitors are greeted by Margaret Munz-Losch’s moving colored-pencil portrait of a young girl named Villa, the daughter of Munz-Losch’s close friend, decked out in a dress of beetles and butterflies and clutching an innocent-looking small dog in her lap. Villa nearly died of encephalitis at age one but recovered, albeit with brain scarring that causes “occasional epilepsy,” according to an accompanying placard. Behind her are a bevy of stars, representing the universe that inexplicably allows these things to happen to small children. The drawing is one of several in the exhibit section titled, “The Mystery of Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”

Ceramic heads from Mary Bowron’s “Silent Witness Series.” Photo by Ethan McLeod.

For a more literal reflection on mystery, in the lobby sits a small shrine titled, “The Mystery of the Missing.” Included are a map of the U.S. states with the most missing persons (Arizona and Alaska are the leaders) and shelves of artist Mary Bowron’s ceramic heads from her “Silent Witness Series,” a tribute to those who have been silenced or gone missing.

Beneath the heads is Leonard Jenkin’s painting of Kitty Genovese, a Queens bartender who was murdered outside her Queens apartment in 1964.

“That story came back into the news,” said Jenkin, standing before it. “It was just for me, I always remembered that story…she’s really gorgeous, and really strong, tender.”

Ironically, Poe’s hulking likeness on the second floor feels less gloomy. That’s probably because it’s made of 5,000 marshmallows assembled by Christian Twamley (not including the ones used for the black cat at his feet). That section, “The Father of the Modern Mystery Story,” pays homage to one of Baltimore’s most mysterious historical icons at the foot of the harbor. Hoffberger suggested someone could see it and hear James Earl Jones’ reading of “The Raven” airing in the background.

Edgar Allan Poe sculpture by Christian Twamley. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Psychedelia and the spiritual awakenings of DMT figure heavily into this exhibition, which is never a surprise at AVAM. Ingo Swann’s grandiose paintings that are permanently installed in the museum’s stairwell are complemented by a recently found oil painting of Mary, Mother of Jesus, who weeps standing over a nuclear explosion uncomfortably close to the Earth.

In an address before the walk-through, Hoffberger described the mysterious feeling as a child of being reminded of “total annihilation” and running through futile head-covering exercises in school that were supposed to prepare everyone for a nuclear explosion. She drew a dark parallel to modern times, where “we hear such casual talk about the possibility of nuclear war” between the United States and North Korea.

Elsewhere in the show are reminders of soul-searching spirituality that humans yearn for (or avoid). Peter Eglington, an Australian pro surfer-turned-artist, has contributed a number of his jaw-dropping colored pencil sketches of cosmic sights and the Bodhisattva, who in Mahayana Buddhism has achieved nirvana but delays entering that state of being to help others. Other subjects of his are more tangible mysteries: Amelia Earhart, famous for not only for crossing the Atlantic by plane but also vanishing over the Central Pacific; Rachel Carson, whose warnings about environmental degradation in Silent Spring went mysteriously ignored.

“The Tinker,” by Lorann Jacobs, depicting The Tin Man who famously lacks a heart. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Some sections explore human qualities and relationships. “The Mystery of the Human Heart” considers how mysterious the organ beating within our chest is. “The Mysterious Cat” mulls the ancient allure of felines that so many of us take up as companions.

David Bowman, a Pennsylvania school biology teacher, carpenter and taxidermist, built a mechanized cat just for this show. He uses real animal bones and pounded copper in his recreations of creatures, making movable robots out of them with antique Mechan-O sets imported from England.

His own work is a mystery, he posed: “How do you take parts of a past living animal and reanimate it as a mechanical version of the actual thing?”

David Bowman’s mechanized cat. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

If you’re like me, many of the questions posed by “The Great Mystery Show” will leave you in a daze after a couple hours, questioning everything from your attachment to your pet to why humankind has even been allowed to evolve and grow so self-absorbed in an infinite universe.

Even if not, a viewing of AVAM’s newest show can help you reconsider what otherwise seems obvious about the world. Hoffberger quoted Albert Einstein to describe this quality of the show: “Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.”

“The Great Mystery Show” runs from tomorrow, Oct. 7, through Sept. 2, 2018. Admission (non-members) costs $15.95 for adults, $13.95 for seniors, $9.95 for students and children. Children ages 6 and under get in free.

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