It’s great that the American Folk Art Museum doesn’t charge an entrance fee these days. More than one visit may be required to capture the landmark “Photo Brut: Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie” exhibition.
This dazzling, sometimes heartbreaking show – a larger version of which was shown at a photography festival in Arles, France last summer – is a cornucopia of established and unknown names, from the acclaimed Henry Darger to the all-but-unknown Ichiwo Sugino; improvised media and often painful stories of isolated lives.
It is also the first major survey to examine what is called Photo Brut, the various forms of photography practiced by artists known as self-taught or outsiders in the US and Art Brut or raw art in Europe. They didn’t always name and name what they make art. Similar to their main colleagues, they use the camera and photos for collages, assemblages, appropriations, staged photographs and the like.
The works here come mainly from the extensive collection of Bruno Decharme, a French film director whose non-photographic holdings were shown in this museum in 2001. Organized by Decharme and Valérie Rousseau, senior curator at the Folk Art Museum, it adds further meaning to the useful term Photo Brut – rawness is synonymous with work here – and seems to be intended for wider use.
The show is 13 artists smaller than Arles, but its proportions remain epic. It contains over 400 works by more than 40 artists who were born between 1891 and 1992, about a third of whom are still alive. Some artists are known, but I will focus on the new ones.
The curators have divided the work into four loosely overlapping groups: Private Affairs, Performing, Reformatting the World, and Conjuring the Real. The section headings make more sense the more you get involved. But you also have to connect the dots yourself.
The entire show presented an installation challenge that was largely handled, but many of the images are small and recessive. The trick is to look at the work, read the short biography of the artist and look again so that the two can briefly form a little world. Here are some that I have visited.
One of the main motivators for the invention, or at least the constant improvement in photography, revolved around sex and the ability to see people naked. No wonder that this section is pervaded with hints of both and that this exhibition is predominantly male. The big names here are Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983), known for photographing his beautiful, strikingly innocent-looking, if scantily clad, wife; and Morton Bartlett (1909-1992) who photographed exquisite girl dolls that he made himself. Another is the great Czech artist Miroslav Tichy (1926-2011) who secretly photographed women unwinding in parks or on beaches with coarse cameras of his own kind and created images that afforded them a minimum of privacy.
Steve Ashby (1904-1980) gave solidity to cut-out images of faces and figures by gluing them to wood and mounting them on sticks, like a smiling, embracing couple. Elsewhere, the more natural forms predominate. In one particularly impressive piece, a woman has curved branches for arms and appears to be breaking out of a large root wood like a goddess.
The private matter of Kazuo Handa (1952-2016) combined images of women’s bodies and smoking. Handa is a dedicated chain smoker who died of throat cancer. He has made hundreds of holders for cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. His watchmaking technique consisted of cutting images from adult magazines into narrow strips and gluing them together. The display contains Handa’s tool box, the delicacy of which suggests the ritual nature of his craft – something like a tea ceremony. The small cylindrical cigarette holders are charming in themselves; Brightly striped, they suggest sophisticated cousins of Russian nesting dolls.
Cindy Sherman made camera dress one of the most enduring and useful staples in contemporary art. So, it makes sense that the Performing section should feel relatively timely.
The staged photographs by Marcel Bascoulard (1913-1978) show this small, older man in women’s clothes posing in his French village. Taken in by the villagers, who also looked after him, they look like run-down documents from another time: the pictures are often sepia-colored and the clothes are long and are reminiscent of the 19th century. His unchanging expression is indescribably poignant – unyielding and abandoned, male and female at the same time. Tragic characters like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina come to mind, but also William Wegman’s Weimaraner. It’s easy to walk past these pictures, but I advise against it.
Sherman’s work is particularly evoked by the photographs of Tomasz Machcinski (born 1942), in which he transforms himself into historical figures such as Maxim Gorki, Gloria Swanson and Mother Teresa with make-up, clothing and props. But, like an actor, it is the changes in Machcinski’s expression and demeanor that make his characterizations real.
The distinction between outside and inside, or brood and non-brood, disappears as well as with Lubos Plny (born 1961). His body art can be associated with the Viennese Actionists. And the connection may be real, since he worked as a model at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague for over a decade in the 1990s. But Plny’s work feels visionary. His large collage drawing surrounds pictures from anatomy books with swirling derwish-like lines. The piece from 2003, which consists of 10 large photographs, documents the artist sewing his right hand to his face in an act of dead martyrdom.
One of the stars of the show is Ichiwo Sugino (born 1965), a retired advertising designer whose efforts could point to the future of camera work: the vast underdog realm of online. In 2015 Sugino began to publish imitations of mostly male cultural workers of the 20th century on his Instagram account – all of them men. He mainly achieves these similarities by changing his face using duct tape and other props as needed. His subjects include Alfred Hitchcock, John Lennon, Marlon Brando as godfather and Che Guevara. Their faces roll by on a giant cellphone screen, making it easy to contrast the amazing accuracy of the images with their ingenious slapdash method. This can be online brut as well as a parody of the demanding transformations of his Japanese artist colleague Yasumasa Morimura, also for the camera.
Reformatting the world
A more straightforward, if longer, name for this section might have been “Doing Things With Pictures That Already Exist”. The great example here is Henry Darger (1892-1973), the caretaker of Chicago, who wrote and illustrated an elaborate and grandiose novel that focused on the alternately dangerous and pastoral existence of the androgynous Vivian Girls. Like some insider artists, Darger had pictures from newspaper ads and coloring books photocopied, enlarged, and sometimes flipped. This display may appeal to most Darger fans, but it adds to the complexity of its performance.
Several other artists manipulate photographs more directly, painting or drawing on or around them, or in the case of Everyone tangetes (born 1968), embroider images of sacred and secular figures with light-colored threads, emphasize the light or reinforce items of clothing with a scattered mosaic effect. With colored pencil, Leopold Strobl (born 1960), one of the most sophisticated artists here, transforms small newspaper images into surrealistic landscapes dominated, if not completely consumed, by curvy black masses under inevitably green skies.
Valentin Simankov (born 1962) makes turbulent, somehow subversive collages with torn picture pieces, newspaper and scores. And Elisabeth Van Vyve (born 1957) catalogs the contents of her family’s house object by object in precisely composed color photographs similar to those of Hanne Darboven, Stephen Shore and Gabriel Orozco, also autodidact.
Summon the real
Like several artists in reformatting, Jesuys Crystiano (around 1950-2015) works on photographs with drawings, mostly of fantastic faces and figures from medieval expressions. The best shows Joseph Beuys’ famous “Stuhl mit Fett” (chair with fat) from 1963, surrounded by drawn images that focus on a mountain landscape. They illustrate the only and probably apocryphal event in his art and life: the crash of his air force bomber in the Crimea in 1944 and his rescue by nomadic Tatars who wrapped him in fat and felt, two materials that featured prominently in his work played.
The work of Horst Ademeit (1937-2010), a recently discovered German artist who is already widely appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic, is the result of strong archival tendencies and a fear of dubious “cold rays”. He made thousands of Polaroids that showed a table with newspapers (mostly the colored tabloid Bild-Zeitung) and sometimes food. After measuring the rays emitted by each array with a Geiger counter, he numbered his results and wrote them in tiny letters around the picture. Ademeit photographed other alleged radiation sources such as electricity meters, but the collagen-like tabletops, which are wreathed in obsessive language, are particularly convincing.
This section ends with photos of supposed ghosts, extraterrestrials and UFOs, which were almost exclusively taken by unknown artists. But it starts with the enigmatic images that John Brill (born 1951) then takes and manipulates heavily both in the darkroom and on the computer, which speaks almost convincingly for the existence of the spiritual realm.
Photography has contained a multitude of cameras and films at least since the beginning of the last century. Now that film and cameras are disappearing, the art we see in this exhibition could be dying. If so, “Photo Brut” comes just in time to humiliate and inspire. It describes an alternate universe of urgent expression and sharpens the eye for another one that may be waiting around the corner on the internet. The show is indicted by desperate talent that cannot be denied and proves once again that art or a mere second will come out.
Brut Photo: Bruno Decharme & Compagnie Collection
Until June 6th at the American Folk Art Museum, 2nd Lincoln Square, Manhattan, 212-595-9533, folkartmuseum.org.