“I Taught Myself” at the Greg Kucera Gallery

“Outsider art,” “folk art,” “naïve art”—call it what you will. I have a hard time making clear distinctions among the terms, and so, evidently, does Greg Kucera whose gallery is featuring a show called “I Taught Myself.” It includes work by the most esteemed contemporary and deceased artists of these traditions. Their work has whimsy, beauty, humor, and surprise

Among my favorites is Henry Darger. Born in 1892, Darger had a life history that moves one to tears. His early years were spent in a Catholic boys home before he was institutionalized in a home for the “feeble-minded.” He escaped in 1908 and became a menial hospital worker, a job that supported him for most of his life. By 1930, he moved to a one-room apartment on Chicago’s near north side where he lived in solitude until he died in 1973.

His own experiences gave him great empathy for abused and neglected children; a concern that manifested itself in the 15,145-page book he wrote and illustrated that was discovered only after his death. The heroines of this tome are the Vivian Girls. Their adventures unfurl in “In the Realms of the Unreal” that consists of watercolors, drawings, tracings and collages, many of the images taken from comic strips of the time.

Often depicted nude, the Vivian Girls all have penises. Some suggest that is related to homosexual instincts in Darger. Others suggest that he may never have seen a female nude body and just didn’t know it was different from his own. There are two large Dargers in the show.

Another treat are some images by Grandma Moses. It’s the landscape done in wool embroidery that is particularly interesting to me. It depicts the bucolic rolling countryside and stunning skies typical of her paintings of the upstate New York farmlands she knew so well.

Then there’s Gregory Blackstock, Seattle’s own self-taught artist. The Kucera Gallery represents Blackstock so has many of his pieces. Mr. Blackstock, an autistic savant, worked most of his life at Seattle’s athletic club as a dishwasher. In his spare time he created visual lists using graphite, markers, and crayons on large sheets of paper. From birds to balls, from trucks to shoes, his “picture lists” consist of exact depictions of all varieties of his chosen subject. You like dogs? He’s got a large depiction of various kinds, so too windmills, knots, and so much more. The breadth of subjects is astounding.

The exhibition also includes works by Bill Trayler, the emancipated slave who became an artist as a street person in latter life. Charles Shannon, an artist himself, noticed his talent and provided art supplies for him. Trayler’s first show was in 1942, and his work, typified by an elegant simplicity of line and form, is in a number of major museums today.

Included also are works by noted woodworkers, quilters, and bead artists.

This is a gem of a show.

Through Aug. 29, Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave. South, Seattle, Tues.-Sat., (206 624-0770 or www.gregkucera.com).

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