I think about Jackson Pollock and Adolf Wölfli a lot. Pollock: Depressive, tortured and famous for flinging thousands of tendrils of paint onto a surface, the polarizing Abstract Expressionist who challenged both public taste and the sheer idea of representation.
Some see Pollock as a hero-genius who made the connection between art and the world unnecessary; others see him as a charlatan who hit it big with an easy gimmick. We know how Pollock worked but we're still trying to figure out exactly what guided his hand.
Wölfli: a Swiss sanitorium resident, a victim of abuse, a convicted child molester. He produced naïve drawings that were crowded with fantastic imagery, text, musical notation and numbers. But he never trained in a tradition. It's easy, then, to see his psychopathology replacing an art-decision-making process. Wölfli wasn't the first outsider artist in history, but he was "Exhibit A" for many art historians who originated the term.
Both artists were particularly on my mind at the Make Ends Meet group show currently on exhibit at the Flanders Gallery in Raleigh. Through labor-intensive, repetitive processes, Olek, Jonathan Brilliant and Mathew Curran produce visually impressive work that puts Wölfli's compulsion at the service of Pollock's expression. Their work also provides a great departure point for thinking about issues of authenticity and talent in contemporary art.
Each Flanders artist has a huge, exemplary work in the show, but it's Olek we notice first, even before we've parked the car: She covered the entire frontage of the gallery building in her trademark crochet. Inside the gallery, she displays a similarly swathed farm tractor. That tractor is dwarfed by Curran's 16'-by-22' stencil of a fallen deer, ready to be spray-painted onto the side of a building to produce a stunning mural. But to get to those works, you first must find your way around Brilliant's architectural floor-to-ceiling site-specific sculpture made from tens of thousands of wooden coffee stirrers tightly woven together, as well as several thousand to-go coffee sleeves inserted into each other to make a serpentine, uniting form.
Each artist also has smaller works for sale in the show. But the large pieces are the ones, after you finish saying "ooh," that provoke the interesting questions—even if, like me, you have a default suspicion of artists who habitually get hold of a lot of one kind of material and make site-specific work from it. In order to trust them, I want to see either an idea driving their accumulation of material or a transformation of the material. Otherwise the work seems cheap and opportunistic, just a flourish of scale that impresses you for a minute as you gulp box wine at the opening.
Fortunately, all three of these artists justify their maximalism. While reveling in their respective materials, Pollock found an escape from his demons and Wölfli found an acceptable outlet for his mental illness. Compulsion has to do with that—finding something safe to do and then doing it over and over. But it's also pretty easy to fake.
Olek's gallery frontage, however, is a legitimately disorienting spectacle. It messes with your depth perception and masks the building's entrance, leaving you smiling and shaking your head. By crocheting her large rectangular panels with camouflage patterns of either black, white and gray or purple, pink, green, black and gray, Olek subverts her masculine military source within a feminine handiwork tradition and material.
This turn, which is reflected in her "Crocheted Tractor" as well, aggressively expresses her opinions about gender and class power relationships. It's not actually compulsive in the least, even though the mind reels when you think about the hours she must have spent with crochet needles in her hands. Nor does it lack a sense of humor. Olek's tractor seems poised to turn a face to you and start a conversation in a cartoon voice.
I worried at first that Jonathan Brilliant's more deadpan structure, titled "The Flanders Piece," might have come from nothing more than an artist sitting in a café wondering what to do to take advantage of the offer of some gallery space, looking down at a stirrer in his hand, and saying, "Eureka! I'll take 50,000 of these!" But Brilliant, who's based in Raleigh, earns my trust by how his piece both reorients the gallery space and transforms the materials through his usage of light.
The piece blocks your entrance to the open room of the gallery, forcing you either to step into one of its folds or to duck beneath a drop ceiling-like section to pass around it. Either way, you have to pass close to it, which positions you to deal with it visually. Shadowy areas of the weave almost vanish as your eye focuses on the space of the gallery behind it, like looking through a lattice of dark underbrush into a lit clearing. The fold of the structure that ascends to a gallery skylight, however, goes opaque in the natural light above. "The Flanders Piece" isn't compulsive either, although Brilliant must have submitted himself to grueling work conditions to construct it. Instead it deals with how proximity affects perception. Its materiality is secondary to its concept.
Mathew Curran's process, which is ornate past the point of reasonableness, is not so much repetitive as his subject matter is. In addition to his giant "Pink Fawn Mural," the show includes 12 24"-by-30" raven stencils, five raven paintings from those stencils (some atop collaged Raleigh imagery) and 10 paintings of white-tailed deer (some atop a luminous, Krispy Kreme-glaze surface of North Carolina clay). His stencils are amazing, but you end up being more amazed by his images.
Curran's ravens and deer are rendered in a frantic black crosshatching that resembles etching and Arabic calligraphy. Although some of the animals are partial and others are in repose as if felled by a hunter, they're invested with visual energy and an almost textual anxiety by Curran's graphic style. Your eyes can't settle on any part of one without being distracted by an adjacent part.
Alleviating that anxiety somewhat, the giant deer stencil is a street art tour de force, accentuated by the pink wall behind it. It's hard to get far enough away from it to fit the deer in your visual field, but its thrill is in getting close enough to scrutinize Curran's decisions. It's pleasant to get to see how a master renders detail to this degree, something only scale can provide. Curran has mad chops, and a compositional sense to go with it.
Don't be lazy enough to take Make Ends Meet as a mere fun faking of outsider artist compulsion. Although there's a perverse pleasure in knowing the tortured biographies behind labor-intensive artists—namely, that you don't have to suffer to understand their work—you don't need a visionary frame to legitimize Olek, Brilliant and Curran. Their repetition expresses political, spatial and emotional conflict. And if it doesn't reach for truth, it certainly might provoke you to.