There is a difference between art that documents a journey through visionary waters and art that is a by-product of the visionary process itself. When one begins to re-examine so-called visionary and art brut by these terms it becomes obvious that the majority of art in our field falls into the first category. This is not a value judgment--quality is quality. It is either present or it isn’t.
A narrative does not require the participation of the artist in the story he or she is telling. A quick example of this would be in Haiti where many paintings show Vodou iconography and Vodou ceremonies but the painters themselves are not necessarily Vodou participants. In essence they are documenting Vodou more akin to memory paintings of spiritual history. Look at the difference between a Clementine Hunter painting of workers in a cotton field and a construction by Lonnie Holley or Kevin Sampson, both making extensions of the spirit yards of the South. Sampson and Holley are actively adding to and participating in a process which can never be repeated or reproduced. We see so much work on the ’outsider’ platform which may derive from the actual life or state of the artist but do not depict an active living moment of spiritual participation or process. Within this there is still the chance for brilliance and masterpieces on the plus side, but on the down side it can become a generic cliché; horror vacuii, geometric mingling of faces and cross hatching that cover a page completely and ultimately, in visionary terms, result in a static statement with a low rate of innovation and development.
We see more and more of this downside as the field of self-taught artists grows exponentially. As curators, scholars, dealers and collectors we are constantly confronted with establishing criteria of authenticity based on ‘eye’ and suspension of disbelief, all of this mostly subjective. At this time in the field it would be quite simple to fill a room wall to wall, ceiling to floor with these generic drawings and run into some definite confusion differentiating between the artists.
This seeming uniformity of look is mostly a contemporary Western phenomenon. Non-western artists have greater isolation from each other and so their styles seem that much less influenced by materials other than those directly in the caches of their own cultures. If you look at the work of African American artists from the black belt of the Southern United States, for example , you can see the huge variations and personal stylizations in each artists’ work. They may be influenced by the same cultural forces, but each has taken it somewhere completely individual. The language is in common; the songs sung within it are individual. In the earlier pre-workshop days of art brut one can see this as well in the artworks collected by Hans Prinzhorn, for example, and other early, seminal collections.
The great number of workshops and faux-brut art of today creates a huge contemporary problem. But it is a specialized problem. Under the greater canopy of Contemporary Art, which pays little attention to intentionality and context, it is either liked or not liked, good or not good, indeed the intentionality of an artist is very often seen as a hindrance to its ultimate appreciation by the canon.
But if you are in the field of non-mainstream artists, if you do have criteria of quality, which include intentionality, authenticity, originality of concept and uniqueness of vision it can be a completely different story. One sees immediately how strong individual visions can get lost in the sea of horror vacuii wiki, the glut of outsider-like art on the market by both mainstream and non-mainstream artists. Those real visionary voices can be obscured and appreciated for all the wrong reasons, or worse, not appreciated at all for their unique voices. If you add to this the propensity for privileged mainstream artists to utilize, cannibalize and outrightly plagiarize the works or the 'look' of non-mainstream artists you have a new not yet branded form of primitivism, where the source material is often of deeper intensity and of higher quality than the work it has been appropriated for.
Solange Knopf was born in Brussels in 1957. Like many others of her generation she dipped in and out of the world counterculture of the 60's and 70's and travelled the globe. Circumstances led to some personal tragedies and drawing became a way of assuaging pain, depression and confusion, confronting her own and other's demons to give her life a focus.
We were very fortunate with the glowing work of Solange Knopf because we came to it, or it to us, at a point of amazing transition, in evolution from smaller and more autobiographically self-conscious works to a larger more open format and a more unique but universal content. She, like so many others, had been largely ignored because the Gatekeepers felt the work was too sophisticated to be 'pure' art brut and too brut or singulier and out of touch with the canon to be counted as Contemporary Art. That the work itself was brilliant and technically and spiritually rich never seemed to enter the equation.
What attracted us first to the work was that it never had that ultimate blank stare that generic horror vacuii work had. There was space in it. Her marks breathed. These marks on paper, the fill-ins of pattern were never mathematical. They reflected a passion in the artist that immediately differentiated her. At the time we saw the first work we had just been looking at work by surrealist artist, Unica Zurn and saw certain affinities, but it was the vast differences that roped us in even though both women were describing the landscapes of ravaged female psyches.
If Zurn was the dark maiden of Thanatos and submission, Knopf is light, sensuality and Eros, mystical and mythical. Knopf isn’t locked into tragedy, her world is huge and she is expanding and adding to it as if paper were her own cave walls, an arena for female imagery that owes nothing to New Age or modernism. It is as if her earlier works were preliminary incantations calling up the later entities.
Some of these earlier drawings we saw were made on pages of poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire and Charles Baudelaire. It draws to mind that state we go into when we read incredible poetry and putting the book down, pass into a hypnogogic state that dances between the imagery we have just been reading and our own permutation of it into waking dream. These drawings sing their intelligence and cultural depth at the same time they strive to get free of any kind of mental bondage. They acknowledge darkness and light and never loose sight of the mark of the hand and the power of self-redemption.
Even today in the series, Behind the Darkness and Spirit Codex, Knopf has not erased the presence of the hand, which is connected directly to the heart. From a distance the drawings are seamless and seemingly symmetrical, tight and deceptively balanced. Up close the heart wins out and one sees the precision is really an illusion. The artist told me in a conversation that the change between the earlier drawings and the scrolls was her willingness to erase the vestiges of narrative and begin to work intuitively and improvisationally. More musically.
But there is something more. Something that is also missing in those generic drawings of others in the field. These drawings may depict feminine spirit and allude to mythic beings but there is a very human presence behind them, a conductor in this visual orchestra and that is a presence, the feminine manifestation of Solange Knopf herself, her dreams, her fears, her joys that invest these drawings with a living power that is not classic, that moves on the savage edges of our own dreams and mythos.
She may have depicted a world but she is the guide to that world. If it is a narrative it is created by the one who lives it as it unscrolls, the result of mature vision to express the nearly intangible, the nearly ineffable. She will guide you through its canals in a gondola of smooth movement and grace but she will not explain all of it to you. She is happy to keep it as a Mystery to herself as well. She will not protect you from the darkness, but she will unveil some of its secrets and its terrible beauty and allow you to form your own conclusions. There is horror, there is pain, there is ecstasy and there is the timeless miasma of numinous history. She is still in the center, absorbing it. This is a different kind of narrative. More of a chant than a story. The disconnects cause the tensions that draw us in.
The baseline of my own narrative here is that it doesn't matter to me at all whether the work of Solange Knopf is called Outsider, Art Brut, Art Singulier, Contemporary Art or Visionary art. None of these labels can or will change a thing. I stand before the scrolls of Spirit Codex and realize that I am looking at monumental drawings of aspects of the female psyche that I have not seen sung this way anywhere before. That while the canons of the art world were imploding on themselves Solange Knopf was in her studio home channeling her own dreams of universal portents, visualizing icons of female beings from her own rich interior life, breaking free of the chains of art world branding to offer us exquisitely colored and drawn, dangerous, personal images that are simultaneously strong and fragile, images along the path of an extraordinary visionary process.
© Copyright 2013