There is a certain liberation that comes with painting for painting’s sake—without aspirations for gallery representation, for remuneration, for one’s name in the trades. None of the several dozen outsider artists selected in the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s new exhibition “An Irresistible Urge to Create” worked with these lofty goals in mind. They painted—and drew, and sculpted, and collaged—to spelunk their souls, to express their faith, to escape their suffering, and their contributions are all the more striking for it.
The work, compiled from the extensive outsider-art collection of Gary Monroe, shatters so many art-school dogmas regarding taste and decorum and perspective as to render them unnecessary to its emotional, gut-punched effectiveness. Van Gogh, perhaps the first outsider artist, knew this well, his hallucinatory, exaggerated landscapes reflecting a personal and exhilarating vision untethered from the real world. I picked up a bit of Van Gogh’s bold, rule-breaking use of color in Kathy d’Adesky’s painting of dark-blue crows against a bold, messy, blood-red sky, its thick brush strokes a harbinger of some curdled apocalypse. A painting on cardboard by Brian Dowdall (most of the works do not have titles) of a crazed canine bearing its teeth at a buxom woman, reminded me of the trendy primitivism of the COBRA art movement of the mid-20th century, and even of Ralph Bakshi’s lurid representations of women.
I thought of the late, great outsider artist and musician Daniel Johnston when I stood transfixed in front of the feverish hell-scapes of Robert Roberg, a street evangelist painting what he preached: a seven-headed hydra emerging from the sea, a train driven by Satan, a den of iniquity leaving corpses in its wake. Complex and filigreed and uncompromising, this is work that deserves a solo show.
That so many of these creators have more-established antecedents or contemporaries is a testament to their ability to tap universal veins of artistic thought and connection. The difference is usually, for these outsider artists, one of excess. A collage of found objects—mostly shells and wood collected from beaches—by Arthur Desillier comes across like an unfiltered Joseph Cornell box. Morgan Steele’s painting, with its various piscine life, antelope skulls, crucifixes and all-seeing eye, favors an explosive kind of maximalism with its roots in Dada.
If the majority of these artists have a common thread, it’s their desire to flood the canvas with as much information as possible. It’s an approach that is at odds with the retreat toward minimalism that defined contemporary art for much of the 20th century, and still has a powerful hold on this one. The results can be a bit gauche, as in the glow-in-the-dark sheen of Jack Beverland’s childlike painting of Noah’s Ark and its wide expanse of paired animals exiting the vessel under a glorious rainbow.
But then you read Beverland’s backstory on the wall text, and learn that he embraced art at 52 after losing his job in middle management; he painted to escape thoughts of suicide. Hard-luck stories of perseverance through art abound in “An Irresistible Urge to Create.” Susanne Blankemeier’s drawings are her way to confront memories of an abusive stepfather. Robyn Beverland used art as a salve against Wolfram syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that ended his life too soon. Eddie Mumma lived part of his life as a hobo, and lost the use of his legs to diabetes; his paintings have a directness that bores into the soul.
This is part of what makes “An Irresistible Urge to Create” so special. In most exhibitions, artist bios are helpful in ascertaining the creator’s objectives, but they are not essential to appreciating the work. This one is as much about the origin stories as the art, ultimately painting a collective picture of art overcoming adversity.
While most of these artists never saw compensation for their work—one artist’s entire oeuvre was donated to a thrift store after he died—they achieved something superior to market appreciation: genuine healing. And despite a wellness industry suggesting otherwise, you can’t put a price on that.
“An Irresistible Urge to Create” runs through Sept. 5 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors and free for children and students with valid ID. For more information, call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.