“PHOTO | BRUT: Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie”

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American Folk Art Museum

For better or worse, the “raw” creativity expounded by Jean Dubuffet as being unscathed by culture has at this point been thoroughly acculturated to mainstream museums, markets, and magazines. Now the American Folk Art Museum has alerted us to a new, lens-based subspecies. Spanning a century and drawn primarily from the international holdings of French filmmaker Bruno Decharme, this show—organized with Decharme by the museum’s senior curator, Valérie Rousseau—divides more than four hundred objects into overlapping sections roughly focused on gender fluidity, sexuality, appropriation, and occultism, ably demonstrating how people on the margins have long twisted the camera’s mythic objectivity to their own imaginative ends.

Photography’s absence in the vexed discourses of art brut, or outsider art—the latter term was coined by Roger Cardinal in 1972 to anglicize the former—makes sense, considering its onetime exclusion from artistic status. Dubuffet’s own interest in the medium was chiefly clerical, relating to the comprehensive documentation of his esteemed collection of work by institutionalized, socially estranged, and child-aged auteurs (to use his word), most painters and sculptors like himself. Chez Decharme, artists amass photographic archives to sublimate shameful desires, “making their daily life an unreality or making their chimeras hyper-real,” as historian Michel Thévoz notes in the exhibition’s catalogue. Consider the unheimlich Balthusian portraits of the anatomically correct dolls of adolescents carved by Morton Bartlett, or the deliberately blurred, blotched, and misprocessed output of Miroslav Tichý, whose surviving snapshots of women in public, furtively recorded with instruments cobbled together from street junk, achieve a haunted, erroneous pictorialism.

A broad contingent of these imagemakers work across mediums: collaging, sculpting, or marking photographs to develop more tactile relationships to representation. The now-blue-chip brutists Henry Darger, Charles Dellschau, and Adolf Wölfli all reconstituted mass-media detritus in their roiling fabulations, as did Steve Ashby, the Southern figurative assemblagist who, with plywood and scavenged magazine pages, devised witty effigies on love, racism, and grief. Those familiar names all gainsay art brut’s foundational clichés of cultural purity—as does the lesser-known Russian mystic Valentin Simankov, who makes intimate, abrasive collages layered with newsprint, sheet music, and manipulated photographs. His alchemies remind us that so-called visionary artists react not only to the stirrings of an inner voice, but also to the state-backed visual regimes that subtend official history. One untitled piece by Simankov, dated between 1993 and 2015 and featuring a mottled exposure of a young girl, evokes a cosmonaut sailing through a radioactive cloud.

Needless to say, all of these artists refute the dratted insider/outsider binary, perhaps none more fabulously than Lee Godie, the soi-disant French Impressionist who, starting in the 1960s, transformed Chicago’s public photo booths into sites of radiant reinvention. In pictures frequently embellished with acrylic, pencil, lipstick, or eyeliner, she captured herself as brazen, gender-bending personae: Parisian socialite, fading starlet, streetwise mogul, muse and maker. Widely considered Chicago’s most collected artist, Godie, who died in 1994 and spent much of her life homeless, often sewed these self-portraits onto her offbeat paintings as certificates of authenticity, charging extra for the addition. Her devoted clientele could find Godie in her usual spot in front of the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, where her art now resides in the permanent collection.

Formed in the reflection of a single acquisitional eye, Decharme’s photo brut is inevitably defined by biases and blind spots, some more regrettable than others: Of some forty artists represented in the exhibition, Godie is one of only four women, who number twice the Black artists included. A question arises: How should something like “outsider photography” be framed in an age when digital images have transformed the very infrastructure of sociality? Ichiwo Sugino, whose celebrity masquerades with adhesive tape belong to Instagram, is among the show’s handful of living artists who shares his work online. But the most prophetic artist here never considered himself an artist at all. A man known only as Frédéric, undergoing psychokinetic experiments in France during the summer of 1976, claimed to be able to reproduce images from his mind onto Polaroids. We see them here: spectral wefts and phosphene-like embers seared onto a black abyss. His “thoughtographies” affirm, if not the supernatural realm, the photograph as conduit of pure facticity, available to every and no meaning, an otherworld in itself.

Zack Hatfield

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