QuARTined: Dispatches From a Land of Forced Reacquaintance

Ricco/Maresca Gallery
Oct 22, 2020 8:21PM

People say we got it made / Don't they know we're so afraid / Isolation / We're afraid to be alone / Everybody got to have a home / Isolation

- John Lennon

EPISODE THREE: Solitude Rescues Solitude


The theory of these reflections, if you will forgive the over-reach, is that the current extended period of domestic intensity can be a grand reintroduction to one's walls, to art that you’ve lived with – but likely not lived through. If those walls, as in our case, are graced with works that were created by artists who themselves spent much of their lives in some form of isolation and lock-down, physical or emotional, then there is an additional camaraderie of shared interiority.

Access to the emotional turmoil and self-expressive velocity of artists who were inherently isolated, for a variety of reasons – including mental illness, physical disability, or imprisonment – enables us to better cope with and understand our own pandemically-wrought feelings. Or at least, it has enabled me.

Solitude has become universal, and its psychological consequences are being relentlessly studied and covered by the media It’s a more complex subject than you might think; in his book “Solitude: A Return to the Self” – the very title suggests some unexpectedly hidden benefits of isolation – the psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes rangily about a subject that he believes has not yet been a sufficient beneficiary of sustained attention.

One chapter, titled “Forced Solitude,” has specific connective resonance to a small drawing by James Castle, which has newly captured me. Storr believes that the isolation mandated by deafness – and dealt with by Beethoven, Goya and others – triggered art that “owed a good part of its originality to deafness.” Those artists lost their hearing; James Castle, who is recognized as master of outsider art, was born deaf, it was the only world he ever knew, he never experienced the sound of his own sobbing or his mother’s footsteps in the dark.

James Castle. Untitled (Interior), nd. Found paper, soot, and ink. 7” x 11”.

One of seven children, Castle was born in Boise, Idaho in 1899. When you look at a 1940s photo of the small house he grew up in, and apply the calculus of seven kids and no hearing, you can imagine how that density and cacophony built a nearly impenetrable wall of social isolation. Castle turned that separate existence into small, deeply-felt drawings that are defined by an emotional precision that is in stark contrast to the mediumistic impression of the soot – from a wood stove – saliva, and found materials that he used to create his oeuvre.

Call his palette “soot noir,” a pervasive and joyless grimness that’s a tonal manifestation of the silence that surrounded him (it never occurred to me before writing this sentence that “tone” can describe sensorial experiences that are both visual and audible).

I’ve looked at this drawing – which is made of pieced-together cardboard, assemblage-edged by what looks like wallpaper strips – dozens of times. But what never broke through to me was that in this small bedroom there are two unmatched beds (one metal, one wood) exhibiting a reckless disregard for privacy. I imagine this as a claustrophobic representation of the bedroom James Castle shared with a sibling. Today, when we lack the full freedom of movement through space and time that we took for granted before March, this tiny drawing, and its profound definition of limits, speaks deeply. Interestingly, Storr’s chapter on “Forced Solitude” goes beyond deafness and explores the impact of the actual slammer on mind and body, noting that “separation from the stimuli of ordinary, day-to-day existence can be therapeutic or disruptive according to circumstances.” I would replace Storr’s “or” with an “and.”

In fact, three of the pieces that have commandeered my attention, within COVID-19s confining grip, have a prison provenance – and I would describe them as “disruptively therapeutic.” Two were completed inside, and one is an intense and revelatory look-back. While comparing quarantine to prison is obviously a gross exaggeration – Ellen DeGeneres ignited a backlash when she equated being self-quarantined in her mansion to jail – lurching from full-freedom to world of limits, within days, is a shock. And a nuanced shock at that. Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst who contributes to the U.K. blog “Solitudes – Past and Present,” writes that “Of course, the solitudes of COVID-19 are not strictly voluntary. But we may nonetheless have felt some blurring during these months, of the line separating voluntary from involuntary solitude.” That border-smudging is why I find something especially moving about the work of the prison trio of Ray Materson, Gil Batle and Rudolph Bauer.

Ray Materson. Public School Girls, ca. 1994. Unraveled socks. 12" x 14".

Materson, known for his stunning embroidery art, served 15 years in a state penitentiary for a string of robberies committed with a shoplifted toy gun. Steven Powers, a sensitive and sharp-eyed gallerist who deals with the artist, writes that “To keep himself sane Ray taught himself to embroider, using unraveled socks for thread and a sewing needle secured from a prison guard. He stitched miniature tapestries depicting life outside prison walls and sold his works to other inmates for cigarettes. Most of Materson's miniature embroideries include approximately 1,200 stitches per square inch and measure less than 2.5 x 3 inches.”

Unlike some incarcerated artists who draw directly from their immediate experience, Materson’s works are tiny odes to the past, and a hopefully reclaimable future. There’s a deadpan irreverence to “Public School Girls,” the piece I’ve been spending time with. Powers tells us that it is a representation of an experience a young teenaged Materson had when he “skipped school and played poker with a couple of older girls. The event was exciting, but not in the way he imagined. His figure lay in the scene like Christ with outstretched arms and a loincloth.”

This tiny collision of religious iconography and irreverence helped prevent Materson from going nuts. He displays a subtle humor we can all use right now; note the predatory look on the girls’ faces, and Materson’s shocked dismay. I think it’s fair to say that most untrained art doesn’t have this kind of layered wink, there’s too much rawness pouring forth, which suppresses any trafficking in the irony that distancing demands.

No such visceral punch or narrative clarity can be found in the imprisonment work of Rudolph Bauer; unlike Materson he was a recognized figure, a member of the Der Sturm gallery scene in Germany, who was arrested by the Nazis as a degenerate artist. Held in solitary confinement, Bauer created a number of non-objective drawings on salvaged paper, and we are fortunate to have one of them.

Rudolf Bauer. Non-Objective Composition, ca. 1938. Graphite and ink on paper. 19" x 24.5".

The controlled geometry and self-discipline of this work, and its stark contrast to the anxiety of prison, are explicative of a mind working through stress in a visual language in which it is fluent, if not glib. Despite everything we are enduring, the drawing seems to be saying that we have to believe that the world is still measurable and predictable, that a Euclidian logic is somewhere at work – that it might even rescue us.

Take a close look at the circle, suspended on the slanted line. Is it Bauer proceeding downhill, or struggling to go uphill? Is it Europe faced with a similar decision? I could be over-reading, but Bauer was a disciplined artist who never confused non-objective with non-communicative.

Last stop in our forced confinement tour is Gil Batle, who served over 20 years in and out of California jails for fraud and forgery. Batle is the only self-taught artist I know of whose talent resulted in self-survival; Ricco/Maresca Gallery’s press release for Batle’s first one-person exhibiton says that his ability “evolved behind bars into sophisticated and clandestine tattooing skills that protected him from murderous gang violence.”

Gil Batle. Missed Out, 2016. Carved ostrich eggshell. 6.5" x 6" x 6".

After his release, Batle began to carve narratives of violent prison life onto fragile ostrich eggshells. His visual language is classical and frieze-like, astoundingly complex and mathematically calibrated for an artist with no formal training. His juxtaposition of delicate material and thematic viciousness creates a kind of thrilling and paradoxically optimistic interrogation. Batle has to revisit the past to trigger the neural networks of his experience, likely because it also plays a therapeutic role. He has written “I have to go back (mentally) to prison to capture that feel of being inside that place. It’s relief of gratitude when I look up from the egg and I’m reminded that I’m not there anymore.” When I look at Batle’s egg, I imagine that one day we will actually force ourselves to look back on this moment, a perspective-bestowing return, and remind ourselves of how we endured. Unlikely, though, in a “move-on,” memory-deprived society.

On the other hand, Dwight Mackintosh’s explosiveness could not be more different than Gil Batle’s structural discipline, although both speak to the theft of free will, and a loss of control over one’s destiny.

Dwight Mackintosh. Untitled, 1980s. Ink on paper. Representative work.

I’ve lived cheek-by-obsessive jowl with this Mackintosh drawing for years, but until lockdown, and its re-shaping impact on how I think about and process the limits of limits, I had never fully recognized its impassioned cry for release. Unlike Castle, whose locus was the home and whose small drawings are methodical distillations of his life in around that tight geography, Mackintosh was institutionalized for 55 years and only started drawing late in life, through the auspices of the Creative Growth Center. His work is instantly recognizable for his obsessive, looping, recursive squiggles that sit atop imagery – ranging from portraits to fantastical portrays of trains, buses and even angels.

Creative Growth describes his work as “loosely drawn, yet tightly composed,” which neatly packages the dialectic between energy and immobility that is behind Mackintosh’s expressivity. When I absorb this drawing, I simultaneously see a mind attempting to escape its own perimeter, and a body similarly rebelling against its lockdown. I don’t know if he ever spent time being restrained by the indignity of a straitjacket, but Mackintosh’s work suggests a fierce and unrelenting struggle against containment. If there is a single artist who could be the canonical representative of the psychological reality of the pandemic – whose work could be plastered on t-shirts and hats, proclaiming “I survived the pandemic of 2020” – Mackintosh would get my vote.

I’m also spending a lot of time with three Gugging artists – one deceased, two still at it – whose work is both profoundly individualistic yet connected by a common force of the solitary made palpable, through an exploration of ambiguous shapes and forms. These are, needless to say, the chromosomal building blocks of all art, but when in the hands of psychiatric patients, they take on a blunt force that reifies the distinction between outsider and the evolved consciousness of shape-shifting artists from the cubists to the non-objectivists (“instinctual abstraction” is how Frank Maresca described it in an email to me.)

The shapes that animate Johann Fischer, Günther Schützenhöfer and Leopold Strobl, my Gugging trifecta, spring from the liminal state between sleeping and waking; they feel like dream projections, proxy iconographies of Freudian bounces between fear, comfort and control. Our dreams today are particularly vivid and intense – I know mine are – and there has been a great deal of psychiatric commentary on how the pandemic has colonized our nocturnal peregrinations. The shapelessness of our fears brings me closer to these expressions of uncertainty.

Johann Fischer. Untitled, ca. 1985. Graphite and colored pencil on paper. 11.65" x 8.2".

Johann Fischer, who died in 2008, created a restrained – but expansively visionary – universe of people, objects and unclassifiable animals, of which this drawing is an example. He was captured by the Americans during World War II, returned to his family farm, but began suffering hallucinations in 1957. He was then committed to a clinic, and decades later – in 1981 – joined the “House of Artists” at Gugging, where his creative life began.

Fischer’s work grew more colorful and complex as he matured; it was often asprawl with ornamental handwriting, not unlike Mackintosh and other obsessive artists. His early work, which includes the piece I have been hanging out with, was drawn with back and grey pencil. This haunting drawing of a mammal, which defies Linnaean categorization, treats the beast with a kind of reverence – a product of a fevered imagination, perhaps reaching back to a child’s picture book or an early trip to a zoo. It’s also friendly and a bit whimsical. The unknown is frightening; perhaps Fischer is comforting himself with this drawing. And also, by inevitable extension, ourselves.

Storr notes that many authors – Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear, cope with isolation by “partially substituting love of animals for love of people.” That surely could be operating with Fischer, and also accounts in part for the Great Pandemic Puppy Shortage.

Günther Schützenhöfer arrived at the house of artists nearly two decades after Fischer, in 1999, having spent many years institutionalized prior to that. Ricco/Maresca, who represents Schützenhöfer’s work in the United States, observes in their website that “his talent for developing his own language of shapes is evident in all of his work.” That language speaks with particular clarity during a period when the shape of an uncertain present, and future, creates a three-way communication between artist, subject and observer.

Günther Schützenhöfer. Untitled, 2008. Graphite on paper. 8.3" x 11.7".

We are all, after all, trying to sort and categorize the chaos of shapelessness. This pencil sketch either looks to me like an abstracted centipede, or a comb – my wife Flora sees it as a comb, I’m less convinced, perhaps because I have little familiarity with the object. This drawing may look like it was created effortlessly, but Schützenhöfer labors over his work; Frank Maresca and Alejandra Russi visited him , and observed that “he will often press the pencil down with such force that his strength deserts him and he has to take a break in the middle of a drawing” and watching him at work “almost appears to the spectator that he is giving birth to a new idea, a new motive.”

The centipede/comb belies this intensity, while quietly harboring it. First glance does not do justice to its depth and quiet reverberations.

Leopold Strobl, the last of the Gugging artists in this nest of psychic isolates, has been drawing for more than 35 years. For more than a decade he has attended Gugging’s Open Studio program, where he obsessively starts and completes a new work every session.

Untitled, 2014. 3.1" x 3.8".

Untitled, 2014. 3.7" x 3.1".

Untitled, 2015. 2.7" x 2.6."

Pictured above: Three works by Leopold Strobl (Austrian, b. 1960). Graphite and colored pencils on newsprint clip mounted on paper.

In her essay for Strobl’s exhibition Smallscapes (2016), Alejandra Russi captures Strobl’s unexpected ability to address pandemic anxiety by drawing our attention to the existential void: “Perhaps the signature formal feature of Strobl’s work is his incorporation of bold dark masses that create overpowering negative spaces of sorts ... We only see what we are allowed of these landscapes … This negation of omniscience, which expresses a very postmodern sense of relativity, constantly reminds us of the partial nature of every story.”

Those negative spaces and the incomplete visual narratives capture how I feel right now, and suspect others do, as we are staring down our own “bold dark masses” and a surrendered lack of agency and personal “omniscience,” which shatter our expectations of being in control of our destiny. We have returned to a pre-Enlightenment era when human beings are no longer at the center of the universe; we have been replaced by a viral god.

I’ll come to closure with Man at Desk, a piece of other-worldly power by Martín Ramírez, who is widely and rightly considered one of the masters of outsider art, and who recently was featured in a major exhibition at the ICA LA. Ramírez labored on the California railroads, ended up unemployed and homeless, and was institutionalized at the DeWitt State Hospital where he lived the last 15 years of his life. I believe Man at Desk to be a self-portrait, and Frank Maresca, who represents the estate and has written a definitive book on Ramírez, agrees.

Martín Ramírez. Untitled (Man at Desk), ca. 1960-63. Gouache and graphite on pieced paper. 24.5" x 14.25".

This work is the ultimate act of defiance. The artist – diagnosed as schizophrenic and potentially catatonic – imagines himself in a formal setting, in a position of authority, holding a pen and paper, as if ready to interview someone or take notes. Perhaps he is subverting the dozens of psychological interviews he must have endured. There is no writing on the paper yet; he hasn’t made his mark, but will.

Surrounding and below the artist are repeating tunnel and vortex forms, which appear regularly in Ramírez’s work. But here, the repetitive vortexes resemble a pair of drapes that frame the artist, adding an extra dimension of dignity and almost making the floor, on which the artist and the desk sit, a kind of proscenium.

There exists a calm sense of dignity and presentation of self in this masterpiece, a stubborn refusal to yield to circumstance that reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s often-noted description of the accountant in Heart of Darkness as an archetype of the ultimate refusal to yield. The narrator writes “… I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair…but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character.”

The work of artists who endured the many forms of solitude has been a comfort and crystallization, their search for memory collaborating with the construction of fresh ones. In his book Searching for Memory: The Brain, The Mind and The Past, Harvard psychiatrist Daniel L. Schacter explains his theory of art’s unique role in resurrecting memory:

“All art relies on memory in a general sense … but some artists have made the exploration of memory a major subject of their work. I have come to appreciate that artists can convey with considerable potency some of the personal, experiential aspects of memory that are difficult to communicate as effectively in words. Scientific research is the most powerful way to find out how memory works, but artists can best illuminate the impact of memory in our day-to-day lives.”

All the artists visited here are self-taught, are outsiders, and lack the conscious mediation of training that can blunt memory’s incandescent fury and chronic persistence. This makes them unusual but welcome companions, seven months in, as our brains struggle to reconcile memories of how we lived with how we’re living, and struggle to turn circumstance into our own personal versions of art.


Ricco/Maresca Gallery