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Carl Hammer Gallery
The imaginative legacy of Henry Darger continues to delight and enthrall. Solitary, self-taught, he was both author and artist: composing and typing his 15,000-page work of fantastic civil war, In the Realms of the Unreal, and illustrating it superabundantly with detailed scenes, portraits, and character sketches. In Henry Darger: Connecting the Realms of Beauty and Horror, at Carl Hammer Gallery through May 31, 2003, fourteen works offer a glimpse into the bright color and narrative fantasy of Darger's private world. This showing also includes several works never before exhibited in public.
There is beauty in Henry Darger: Connecting the Realms of Beauty and Horror -- somewhat less of the horror of which Darger is capable -- and the overall feel of the exhibited works is that of adventure and narration, appropriate to a man whose art derived from and intertwined with his elaborate fictional work. In the introduction to In the Realms of the Unreal, Darger promises
His artwork bears this out. Darger's depictions alternate: at times, a serenely peaceful Eden, a paradise of colorful flowers, blue skies, and little girls at play; at other times, a place of suspense, narrow escapes, fantastic winged creatures and bounding action portrayed full tilt across panels up to nine feet long. With their crisp draftsmanship and jewel-toned watercolor washes Darger's works reduce well to dimensions suitable for print, and are now well-represented in several books; but there is a certain drama to seeing the panoramic panels in their full, impressive size.
The naive, coloring-book quality of much of his art belies the sophisticated skill in composition developed by this self-taught artist. He worked entirely alone in his cramped apartment, eventually filling it to the brim with his visual and textual works, the product of forty years' private devotion to his art. Not trusting his own drawing abilities, Darger pulled his figures from books, newspapers and magazines: tracing, altering the size, and composing the images into scenes of his own devising. These 'swiped' figures are successfully melded into a coherence of action and emotion. In At Jennie Richee, with Blengigl Omeneans absent for a short time, for take advantage and press them hard. One soldier helps them to no avail when they're out of bullets (watercolor, carbon transfer on paper: 24"x109"), the cowboy-like soldier covers the forest with revolver tensely in hand. Rifles scatter the ground like so many matchsticks, from their abandoned state apparently spent; and the Vivian girls (one or two still clutching a rifle with evident familiarity) flee off to the right. The enemy is not visible, but the tension is high in this scene set against uncannily realistic botanic and atmospheric detail: spears of colorful hollyhocks in the left foreground and skyborne clouds billowing upward in a cumulus mass.
The fourteen works on display are actually sixteen, with two double-sided pieces sandwiched between clear Lucite panels and supported perpendicular to the wall to allow appreciation of each side as an individual work. Other double-sided works, hung flat against the wall, have their reverse sides represented by small color photocopies. (One wishes these reproductions were larger, as well as captioned separately. It is not immediately apparent what they are.) The impression is that of a frugal Darger, carefully using both sides of the paper. The actuality is that he intended the works to be turned as the leaves of a book. When discovered after the artist's death in 1973 by Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, many of the works had in fact been bound by Darger. Remnants of his binding can still be seen on several works, particularly the needle holes and stitching on At Julio Callo via Norma - but after a desperate contest with the Glandelinia kidnappers the Vivian girls are retaken by the Angelinian soldiers who go to their rescue in time (watercolor, carbon transfer on paper: 19"x48").
And this is, in fact, one of the paradoxes of Darger's art: although generally treated as standalone works, Darger's artworks are most often illustrations of events in his narrative. Rainbow washes of watercolor, a certain boy's-own-adventure feel to the scenes, a simplicity of draftsmanship, and of course the abundance of girl-heroines, pinafored or not, call to mind the art of children's book illustration. (To explore Darger's illustrative style as compared to storybooks of the time would make an interesting study. It should, however, be stressed that due to various graphic content, Darger's art is not for children.) Expository titles such as They fool enemy officers into seeing Evans while two notice approach of severe thunder storm and At Battle of Phelantonberg, Vivian girls are fired on by Glandelinian sharpshooters, but prove themselves better at gunplay than their military foes support the artwork's impression of action, that glimpse of narrative movement from one point to another. What is paradox is also part of the pleasure: once familiar with the story behind it, seeing Darger's art is like checking in on a further episode of one's favorite fictional work. What new hot water have the Vivian Girls gotten into now... and how has the artist portrayed it?
Representing Darger's estate, Carl Hammer Gallery generally has works by the artist on view in their upstairs gallery; but a chance to see a multiple-work exhibition such as this comes around only every few years, and there is the added enticement of several works newly released for exhibition by the estate. Henry Darger: Connecting the Realms of Beauty and Horror will be showing through May 31, 2003, and shows the artist's skill at composing scenes filled with action and narrative. Notwithstanding a few idiosyncrasies -- his young nude females often have tiny, vaguely-sketched penises; his more bloody scenes (none of which are featured in this exhibition) can be realistically gruesome -- Darger's artistic skill and his curiously appealing blend of fantasy in a tale of innocence against dark and destructive forces makes him one of the more accessible Outsider Artists. Solitary, isolated, he created for his own pleasure, an audience of one; and his work complements the enthusiasms of his textual work with surprising skill:
Darger's inner world was both garden of earthly delights, and place of adventure and peril. These fourteen works provide a taste of his epic fantasy realm -- a world he never intended to be seen.
Selected works by Henry Darger are also being shown at the exhibition ABCD: Art Brut, appearing at the Chicago Cultural Center April 26 - June 29, 2003. Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (http://outsider.art.org/) is also hosting Studies and Sketches from the Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum and Visions Realized: The Paintings and Process of Henry Darger from March 14 - June 1, 2003. ArtScope.net reviewed Michael Bonesteel's book Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings in April 2001 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/DargerArt0401.html). An earlier exhibition, also at Carl Hammer Gallery, of Henry Darger: Realms of the Unreal was reviewed by ArtScope.net in October 2000 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/Darger1000.html).
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself. Excerpts from Henry Darger's In the Realms of the Unreal are quoted from Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings by Michael Bonesteel. Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal by John MacGregor, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings by Michael Bonesteel, and other related books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased from Amazon.com by clicking on the links above or through this site's Amazon.com link.
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