QuARTined: Dispatches From a Land of Forced Reacquaintance

Ricco/Maresca Gallery
Jul 22, 2020 3:54PM

You learn a lot about living with a schizophrenic during a pandemic. In this case, the schizophrenic’s presence is vibrantly present through his artwork, specifically a disturbingly precise, psychologically dense, and intermittently revealing pencil drawing.

By: Adam Hanft

Aaron Holliday. “Baby Fish,” ca. 1995. Graphite on paper. 21” x 18”

Episode Two: The Beautiful and the Sublime

The troubled artist is Aaron Holliday, and the drawing, titled “Baby Fish” is one that I recklessly classify as a “portrait,” given that its subject — two intense but cherubic child mermaids of indeterminate sex — are engaging us with grave expressions, as if posing. Their ears are constructed of fish-like cartilage. The tightly rendered background is dense with self-imagined flowers (dogwood? gardenias?) and succulent-esque plants, both above and below the water line. Beneath it, the mythic transformation from flesh to fish is wrought; there are also small fish schooling about, their gills represented — through an evolutionary hop — in exactly the same pattern as those of the “baby fish.” There’s also a lone butterfly in the water, a lepidopteral gesture of surrealism, which, as you will see, Holliday acknowledges is operating in his work.

We bought this drawing in the mid-1990s from Ricco/Maresca, who is hosting this series wherein I share how more time at home lifts the veil on individual pieces that I had been living with, not yet living through. At the time of the purchase, Frank Maresca told us that he obtained the “Baby Fish” through NARSAD — the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression Artworks, who works with individual artists and often their families, to connect artists with commercial opportunities.

The only written statement from Aaron Holliday I’ve been able to locate comes from the NARSAD catalog, in which he describes himself has having “been diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression, I know it’s called bipolar now, but this is year ago, back when I was in [Los Angeles] Country hospital when I was a child.”

While the accommodative but simultaneously contentious geography of Outsider Art provokes much taxonomic debate, there should be no argument that someone with this diagnosis cannot be nudged out of the category, even though Holliday’s work has a formalistic and conceptually symmetrical structure.

This is unlike the work of some other Outsider artists, whose struggle with psychosis yields art that is visibly wrestling with demons, and in fact uses the medium as a grappling process.

Indeed it can be posited that the obsessiveness which characterizes so many of the indisputably self-taught artists can be expressed as either an attempt to control their demons through a relentless focus on building a new world that is “owned and operated” by the artist, or through individual pieces that are a direct line of communication from brain to paper, without reference to any narrative roofing.

Those who are clearly world-builders include Henry Darger, Achilles Rizzoli, Charles Dellscahu, Morton Bartlett, and Martín Ramírez. Holliday resides in the category of those who have a commanding stylistic aesthetic that is carried from piece-to-piece, but who are less thematically focused and more non-linear in the subject-matter decisions they make. I think that Dwight Macintosh fits here, as do Judith Scott, Felipe Consalvos, and James Castle. The same can be said about artists who work from found objects, with the creative apparatus as a combination between material and imagination. While there are recurring themes, there is no connected storyline, or at least that we can discern.

In the catalog essay I mentioned, Holliday reinforces his lack of thematicism, writing “There's no inspiration behind my work. A picture comes to mind, and there it is.”

He also describes the relationship between shifts in his state of mind, and the work he creates as his mental condition flutters. I quote it at some length because it is revealing and demonstrates a self-awareness that to me makes his work more intriguing, but to others may de-romanticize it, make it less singularly primal.

“My problem is schizophrenia. I hear voices and things like that. Sometimes good voices; sometimes very nice voices; sometimes very angry voices. But I'm not dangerous. I've never hurt anybody; never wished to hurt anybody. I hear the voices every day. Sometimes medication takes the voices away. But I don't want to be on medication.

When I have a clear mind, my work is beautiful, but when my mind is not clear, it's slightly schizophrenic. It's not terrible or ugly, but it's surrealism style. ‘Babyfish’ is slightly surreal … 'cause babies don't have fish tales, but if you go to an aquarium and you see young fish, you think baby fish.”

So, Holliday is channeling what must have been a childhood experience of visiting an aquarium, or, I can imagine, him being read a book as an impressionable child about such a visit. There is a dimension of his work that is reminiscent of a certain kind of naïve and fanciful children’s book illustration. He is not an Outsider who will scare the kids.

Of course, the mythology of the mermaid is ancient, and crosses cultures and oceans. Wired has a nifty piece, “Fantastically Wrong: The Murderous, Sometimes Sexy History of the Mermaid.” There are pagan, Freudian and Lacanian implications, and an entire interrogative body of work that has grown up around Disney’s “Little Mermaid” and women’s studies; here’s a bibliography from Wellesley.

I point that out because when Holliday writes that “a picture comes to mind,” there is a great and humming unconscious factory at work, a summoning which propels the metaphorical arrival. This is true, of course, for art and music and fiction as well; the sudden neural appearance of something new is a jolting experience that creative people often describe, and that we have no doubt experienced ourselves, as the epiphenomenon of something “popping into our heads.” Later in his essay, in describing a piece he was completing at the time, Holliday reveals an insight into his creative process, and a least his nodding familiarity with art history.

“I'm working on ‘Garden Path’ now. It's of a woman in a garden, set in the 15th century, Dutch style … the woman is holding flowers, and she's in an old country garden. It's beautiful. It's coming in real good. It's a pencil drawing. I've been working on it for a year, more or less.”

An Outsider fundamentalist might be vexed by that reference to the Dutch school, which encapsulates a distinction between “self-taught,” which is a reasonably empirical judgement, and “outsider,” which is a continuum and inevitably involves a subjective determination of apperceptive awareness. Dubuffet, as The Atlantic wrote, demanded hermeticism; he “cast the self-taught Gaston Chaissac out of the outsiders group for being too culture-savvy.”

With that background I want to return to that which I have, not atypically, wandered away from, which is the promised pandemically-inspired analysis of an intensification of engagement with individual works of art.

I wouldn’t say that I ignored “Baby Fish” prior to being locked down with it, but I do confess that its overwhelming decorativeness, and its irenic ethos—a peaceful schizophrenia as opposed to the aggressive psychological valences of more aggressive pieces — did not draw me closer. I was in no danger of getting mugged by Holliday, at least on the surface. Other Outsiders were to be avoided on a dark street.

But looking at it afresh, framed by both the insights I’ve gained into Holliday’s life and thinking, and the current context where the stress and anxiety of the virus are creating unprecedented mental health problems — including what some psychiatrists are calling “corona psychosis”—“Baby Fish” became far less benign than it seems. There is a lot going on, literally, under the surface.

To draw that out, my reaction has now been enlarged, in this COVID-stressed moment, from appreciation of the textural sophistication of “Baby Fish,” its inherent surfacebeauty, to include a deeper, subterranean resonance.

It’s too easy to say that Holliday was working through his auditory hallucinations by transforming them into an idyllic underwater community. Nonetheless, when he describes himself as a peaceful man who sometimes hears angry voices, but who never hurt anyone, it is not unreasonable to contemplate that he is trying to keep his demons submerged. There is violence trapped in the painting and unleashed in our world.

This dichotomy, between my initial aesthetic conversation with the painting, and a more profound if not frightening one, winds back to the 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke and his philosophical work on the distinction between the sublime and the beautiful. Rousing some chutzpah to challenge Burke, however, I think it is an overly narrow intellectual structure to argue that the sublime and the beautiful cannot exist in the same object, when it is viewed differently.

Essentially, Burke defined that which is beautiful as aesthetically satisfying and having certain attributes, casual structures in a Aristotelean sense, which have the effect of calming our nerves. As “Baby Fish” did for all the years it hung on our hall. Beauty and the sublime are “emotional opposites” as Yale Professor David Bromwich puts it in his essay How Moral Is Taste?” which appears in his book “Skeptical Music.

Bromwich writes that while their “similarity derives from their power to capture attention,” which Holliday has succeeded in lassoing with mine. “The beautiful draws us fondly in, as to some irresistible attachment; the sublime makes us stand back, and stand still in an attitude of awe.”

This awe is I feel when contemplating “Baby Fish” in a framework beyond its aesthetics. Bromwich continues: “The beautiful for Burke is the more definite and customary idea…but the sublime interests him more because it is associated with the heights and with the sufferings of actual life.”

Written in 2001, the aptness of Bromwich’s description of the sublime could not be more prescient, but he is wrong to continue the centuries old Burkean dichotomy when a more unified theory — where a single object can, dependent on the circumstances, invoke one or the other, or both — more fully captures the complexity of the human mind. Especially the human mind under pressure.

“Any thinker who supposes as Burke did that an intimate relation exists between art and life, will be drawn to speculate on the sublime by the character of the disasters which this descriptive category brings into focus — the sudden dissolution of a psychological habit, and the dissolution of a social order. Why do we want to look at catastrophes? – look so long at them and so far into them?”

We all know the answer. It’s why we all are, in the term of the moment, “doomscrolling.” Fear of death is inherent in Burke’s view of the sublime, and Holliday heard those voices, and fought them, at the same time he was listening to “very nice voices.”

This previously innocent work of Outsider now speaks with the complexity of the beautiful and the sublime coexisting in the same moment, were death meets sacrifice, where violence — biological and otherwise — can erupt just like that, from a superficially calm underwater.

There is something surreal about “Baby Fish” and about the world we’re in. Which is why this forced reacquaintance is so stunning and surprising. I won’t be able to look at the drawing in the same way, again.

*ADAM HANFT IS A WIDELY PUBLISHED CULTURAL CRITIC; CO-AUTHOR OF “DICTIONARY OF THE FUTURE” AND A PASSIONATE FOLLOWER OF OUTSIDER ART.


Ricco/Maresca Gallery