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Earl Cunningham and the Wild Pomegranate Yonder

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

Outsider art is truly peculiar stuff. In some ways, it breaks the rules: It looks coarse and eccentric and up to its own thing. On the other hand, it often knows that's precisely how it's supposed to look -- as though there are certain fixed conventions to outsiderdom, which it intends to follow to the letter.

"Earl Cunningham's America," an exhibition of 50 folk art paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, leaves me faced with just that tension between the wild and the staid.

Mostly, I can appreciate this work's wildness: crudely painted images of absurd purple skies and orange coastal waters, plied by Viking ships afloat in the Americas. The best of them can make official psychedelia seem tame.

Cunningham, an itinerant painter who settled in Florida in 1949 and ended up owning a curio shop, was determined to unsettle normalcy. He managed pretty well. In life, he was a shopkeeper known for refusing to sell certain people certain things he had for sale -- including, most often, his own paintings -- and for embroidering his early life in the most fanciful ways. When he committed suicide in 1977 at age 84, it wasn't clear how much truth there had been in all his stories about saving a storm-tossed yacht, sailing schooners down the East Coast and being a hardscrabble farmer in his native Maine. Some of the details must have been as fantastical as the scarlet flamingos that drift through his Maine scenes, not to mention the Seminole Indians he shows all dressed in stripes. Cunningham's pictures have the same get-a-load-of-this bravado that his stories must have had, as though the artist dares you to object to anything he puts in front of you.

But as you look at them, you realize Cunningham's pictures have something else in common with a storyteller's tales: Each one may be full of novel fancies, but they're all built around one single way of showing off. In their own way, on their own terms, they have a deeply conservative take on how surprise should work.

Of course, when faced with a grand old raconteur, there's nothing worse, or more pointless, than mentioning the flaws in a story or that it reminds you of some other tales he's told. So with Cunningham's paintings: You have to revel in their skies' perfect purpletude, in black-faced Norsemen cruising through the Everglades, and not complain you'd sometimes like to see a different take on uniqueness.

Earl Cunningham's America is on through Nov. 4 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at Eighth and F streets NW. Call 202-633-1000 or visithttp://americanart.si.edu.

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