This summer, Lauren Eller is visiting some of Baltimore’s neighborhood-level museums. Like the communities they are located, these museums have a strong, colorful identity all their own. Each deserves a closer look, for though they may be off the beaten track, the history held within is both harrowing and fascinating in equal turns.
Before paying a visit to the American Visionary Art Museum this summer, I’d only been once before for a bat mitzvah that was held in the Jim Rouse Visionary Center. Even then, although the space was arranged to accommodate the celebration, I was struck by the works of art on display: their unusual, spontaneous forms and the ingenuity with which they’d been crafted.
On a recent visit, I had the chance to look at the artwork more in-depth. Right now at AVAM, “The Big Hope Show” is the featured exhibit. Much of the artwork contained in the displays represents the creativity felt by the artists, even during times of personal anguish and trauma. Such was the case with “Self Portrait of My Health History,” by Philip Carey. It was a multi-faceted piece, but something that stood out was the intricate drawings Carey had done on empty envelopes during his dialysis treatments.
The museum itself was incorporated on February 6, 1989, and features artwork by artists who are often self-taught and whose work is new and creative. The museum is located in what was once the 1913 offices of the Baltimore Copper Paint Company and a next door whiskey warehouse. While the location of the museum on Key Highway does not feel out of the way, entering into the exhibits does feel a bit off the beaten track and a bit like stumbling on an alternate universe.
Another striking piece was “The King’s Mouth” by Wayne Coyne. Yes, the Wayne Coyne who fronts the Flaming Lips. The piece is an interactive display with pulsing, technicolor lights and a gaping mouth (with squishy surfaces) that museum visitors can clamber around. Elsewhere, “Infinite and Infinitesimal” by Margaret Munz-Losch, is a luminous portrait of a young boy afflicted by illness. There were a number of pieces by artist Matt Sesow on display, and my attention was caught by the series of images called “Nuclear Family.” These revealed a placid-looking family whose depiction became more chaotic in each image until it morphed into a nuclear bomb and then into mere ashes.
There were so many pieces in the exhibit that I found fascinating and sometimes confusing. But I realized that I wasn’t going to understand every piece, and my understanding wasn’t necessarily the point. The point was that the artists had expressed themselves through their artwork — their visionary work, their outside-the-box work, their never-before-seen work — and I was interpreting it as a viewer and still taking away some insight, regardless of the art’s “true” meaning.
As I left the museum, still considering the artwork, I kept thinking back on one of the exhibit’s definitions of hope that was displayed on a wall. It read, “HOPE: How One Perceives Everything.”