Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum Captures the Passion of the Peculiar
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006; Page C02
Have you ever thought, while pounding the marble halls of the National Gallery of Art behind your out-of-town guests, that what the place really needs is a few gigantic toothpick sculptures? Do you find the East Wing notable for its complete lack of tinfoil altars? Would you prefer the Hirshhorn with a couple of fur-covered station wagons in its collection, and a Smithsonian gift shop that carried a line of Lone Ranger flashlights and some windup tin nuns?
Then you might be one of the many local art lovers disposed to think that Washington's best museum is in Baltimore, specifically the stockpile of offbeat genius and piercing obsessions known as the American Visionary Art Museum, or AVAM. Where else but our neighbor one Amtrak stop to the north, a city famously devoted to the kooky and the campy, would you expect to find: a giant reproduction of the Lusitania wrought from 193,000 toothpicks; a Chicago crime victim's bottle-cap throne; a Georgia preacher's aphorism-covered American flags; a compulsive doodler's hypnotizing spiral portraits (think of Spirographs on acid); a robot family born of dryer parts and light bulbs by a man who once held the Guinness World Record for hitchhiking?
An acre-plus compound along the southern edge of the Inner Harbor, the Visionary Art Museum itself is a unique statement on the Baltimore waterfront, a geometric brick-and-concrete edifice covered with fragments of mirror and tile and adorned with a looming Masonic eye. A three-ton windblown whirligig by North Carolinian Vollis Simpson spins and twirls beside the old warehouse that serves as a tall-sculpture gallery. Next door is the museum's newest space, a converted whiskey storehouse that now contains hands-on mechanical toys, jaw-dropping "art cars" and a re-created block of Baltimore's famous painted window screens. At the rear of the building, a massive sculpted hand supports a rolled movie screen, which in summer is lowered to show outdoor films to crowds seated on Federal Hill.
Inside the 36,000-square-foot main building, a curving ramp leads to a twisting stairway within a towering atrium. A life-size winged figure, "Black Icarus" by Andrew Logan, slowly dips and soars on a cable strung from a ceiling winch. There are galleries on three levels, permanent and floating, each filled with the works of artists who may never have applied that word to themselves, the self-taught painters and midnight tinkerers compelled to have their unique say in the world.
"When it can't come out with words, it comes out in objects," is how founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger, 53, sums up the fierce drive so evident behind the works she has amassed by untutored "outsiders."
"The Lady of Paper Cutting," a wall-size work by Chinese artist Ku Shu-Lan, is among the many pieces by self-taught creative compulsives at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum.A room of massive, painfully elaborate "tapestries" could be the work of a team of seamstresses, but they're actually cut and pasted from millions of pieces of paper by Ku Shu-Lan, a peasant from China. She has spent most of her life re-creating, time after time, a childhood vision of a celestial goddess approaching her in a garden. Adrian Kellard's huge ecclesiastical woodcuts, carved with an X-acto knife, were inspired by his feeling of rejection from his church after he contracted HIV.
Some works are poignant, such as the chilling depictions of prison life by a Japanese American interred during World War II. Others are hilarious. (Overheard between two elderly visitors in front of the 10-foot-tall statue of the B'more camp icon Divine: "It's Mae West." "It's Dolly Parton, I tell you.") The museum sponsors such hooty events as the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race in which home inventors race giant floating poodles, cows and birthday cakes on the harbor. But it also centers its headline exhibit each year on the most profound of human themes. The current show explores race; past ones have included old age, war and addiction.
Somehow, in the city that produced both John Waters and Edgar Allan Poe, the pairing of whimsy and weighty works as neatly as Old Bay on crabs. The total effect is one of cheerful humanity; you leave happier than you came.
Especially if you leave by way of the expansive gift shop, Sideshow, a novelty and kitsch-filled emporium that is like a walk-in Archie McPhee catalogue. The creation of Ted Frankel, owner of Chicago's beloved Uncle Fun store, this is the place to lay in those tin clocks and Sigmund Freud bobbleheads, chewing gum for all sects (Gay Gum, Shalom Gum) and Marie Antoinette action figures, along with books on pop culture and original works of art.
"We've really been successful beyond our wildest dreams, frankly," says Hoffberger, who regularly prowls the halls dispensing hugs and welcomes to startled visitors. She and husband Roy Hoffberger raised more than $7 million to build the place in 1995. Since then she's had exhibit notes written by biologist Stephen Jay Gould and the Dalai Lama. Robin Williams is one of her collectors and Rosie O'Donnell is a frequent collaborator. In January, the museum celebrated its 10th anniversary with a visit from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Hoffberger is in the midst of hard-core fundraising to open a West Coast branch of the museum in Los Angeles.
"The art world was not welcoming at first," she says. "Now I'm amazed at how much respect we get."