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Vision things

The Colorful Apocalypse Journeys in Outsider Art Greg Bottoms The University of Chicago Press: 182 pp., $20

Gronk Max Benavidez UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press: 120 pp., $24.95

March 18, 2007|Susan Kandel | Susan Kandel is the author of the Cece Caruso mysteries, including "Shamus in the Green Room" and the forthcoming "Christietown."

IF you've seen "Radio Free Europe," REM's classic music video, then you've caught a glimpse of Paradise Gardens, the late Rev. Howard Finster's 4-acre Christian visionary environment, reclaimed from Georgia swampland and painstakingly constructed out of trash, including sparkly jewelry, rusted bicycles, TV parts and diseased tonsils.

If you haven't seen the video, you can Google "Paradise Gardens," but you'll have to wade through Paradise Gardens, the family nudist resort off Cincinnati's I-275; Paradise Gardens, a horticultural website, and Paradise Garden, the San Diego wedding venue. It's a textual meander that suggests the multiplicity of the term "outsider art."

The term derives from Jean Dubuffet's notion of Art Brut, or Raw Art, by which he referred to art created by individuals working outside mainstream culture. Dubuffet was particularly attracted to the art of insane-asylum patients. But post-Dubuffet, the term has come to encompass a panoply of self-taught, evangelical, visionary, folk and intuitive artists, more than a few of whom have been successful within the art world. Finster, for example, was a fixture at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. His work was shown at galleries across the country; he collaborated with David Byrne and the Talking Heads and even appeared on the Johnny Carson show. Any self-respecting MFA grad would sell his soul for less.

Of course, the truth is that there is not one but many art worlds, which overlap and interpenetrate in all sorts of morphologically inconvenient ways. Instead of circles within circles (forget inside versus outside), think of a set of constantly shifting but mutually tethered entities all consecrated -- knowingly or not -- to the common goal of creating value for buyers and sellers.

Economics, semantics and sociology percolate through Greg Bottoms' engaging and intermittently unnerving narrative, "The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art." Early in the book, he proffers the insight that in an age of biochemical psychiatry, hallucinations are treated as symptoms in all but the poor: "Thus you won't find a lot of middle-class, insurance-card-carrying 'visionary' artists." Later, he notes that madness is the true currency of outsider art (the more eccentric the vision, the greater its value), a state of affairs that leads inexorably to the cafe at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, which is available for rent for "visionary" weddings, its menu looking like it has been "cobbled together out of sticks and string and cardboard by a savant in the back office."

But this kind of analysis is pretty much incidental. Despite the author's academic bona fides (he's an assistant professor of English at the University of Vermont) and his frequent nods to the likes of social anthropologist Clifford Geertz and writer Susan Sontag, his subject is personal. His "visionary" schizophrenic brother was imprisoned after trying to murder their family in a failed attempt at arson, leaving Bottoms caught in the long, twisting tentacles of mental illness. Less a scholar than a seeker and a witness, he finds unexpected kinship with the evangelical artists he encounters in a mind-bending road trip down South: the keepers of Finster's flame eking out a living at Paradise Gardens; William Thomas Thompson, a disabled ex-millionaire from South Carolina who painted a 300-foot mural of "The Book of Revelation," and Norbert Kox, a former member of the Outlaws biker gang living in rural Wisconsin and painting apocalyptic parables. Like them, Bottoms is impassioned, curious, relentless and angry, but never cynical, least of all about the power of creative expression to salve one's longings.

The author sets us up to believe that what is at stake is art. But instead of sinking his teeth into the works themselves -- into Kox's human-sized wooden crucifixes studded with bloody baby-doll parts or Kox and Thompson's painting of the Virgin Mary holding paper dolls that are eaten by dragon heads emerging from beneath her dress -- he tries to explore the fiery Christian psychology that engendered them. Letting his subjects talk -- spew, in fact, page after page, Masonic conspiracy theory after papal conspiracy theory -- is a strategic error. Much of what they say is offensive, when it's not boring. And in the absence of any visuals (inexplicably, there are no reproductions in the book), we get little more than the white noise of madness -- precisely the no-place where this journey began.

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