Museum of American Folk Art, New York, January 18 – April 27
Henry Darger’s work is at once fascinating and disturbing. His immediate access to aggressive and sadistic sexual drives is portrayed without any humour, camp or irony employed by contemporary artists with similar subject matter. Without these distancing techniques the viewer is rendered vulnerable to implication, complicity and identification with his aesthetic pathology. Enjoyment of Darger’s work begins with an appreciation of a nostalgic style and the charmingly amateur illustrations, but is quickly fraught with discomfort as the dark dementia of the images is comprehended.
The exposure of Darger’s private sexual aggressions and drives represents not only the anxiety of the artist, but also the censurability of the museum. The representation of children is more than ever a guarded and difficult task. Artists and curators who have attempted to portray children over the last two decades are in danger of not only censorship but also imprisonment. It is surprising to find something so explosive at the Museum of American Folk Art. It seems that contemporary folk art includes not only “self-taught artists” but also “outsider artists,” those considered insane, criminal or “too far gone” for the polite society of ordinary art galleries.
Henry Darger was a feeble-minded, crippled and dirty old sociopath who devoted his life to an obsessive log of the weather, but, more importantly, to writing and illustrating the epic story “In the Realms of the Unreal.” He lived forty years in a one-room apartment in Chicago. The work, never intended for public consumption was discovered in 1973 after his death. A voluminous amount of paintings and written material was found, suggesting he never stopped working. Eventually this impressive body of work was excavated from his room with the ardor of archaeologists at King Tut’s tomb. The landlord, a wealthy art collector, and a well-known art psychologist both pledged to protect the collection (from other wealthy art collectors?) and keep his room “intact.” Often described as indescribably dirty, the room now acts as an installation, and is always officially pronounced as “intact.” The not so hidden innuendo of untampered and unviolated purity echoes not only the suspected virginity (innocence) of Darger but also the predatorial nature of the viewer, critic or pedophile.
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