Baltimore's own Loring Cornish created
Baltimore's own Loring Cornish created "Mercy," a mixed-media work that is now on view at the American Visionary Art Museum.
American Visionary Art Museum

In God's Image, Mysterious Ways and All

By Hanna Rosin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 28, 2007

BALTIMORE -- In the '50s, Edith Valentine Tenbrink decamped from Iowa to Los Angeles to find a more lively spiritual scene. There, she and her husband established the "Ancient Order of the Golden Precept," a kind of Ten Commandments religion with a New Age spin that fell just short of a cult.

Her husband, John, did the preaching and Tenbrink provided the visuals. With the guidance of a spirit named Obadiah, Tenbrink wrote in her diaries, she painted a series of pictures called "Dawn of a New Day." The images are populated by robed figures who look like Midwesterners dressed up as Hindu priests. One recurring female deity looks suspiciously like Tenbrink herself -- not the frumpy housewife in photos of her at the time, but a lithe, exotic angel dressed in sunset orange or purple, with serpents coiling from her arms and head and a face like Mary Pickford's.

Half of Tenbrink's 80 paintings and writings were discovered in an old suitcase in the attic of a vacant house in downtown Los Angeles. The other half were found in a dumpster in Venice and sold to a collector at a swap meet in 2003. Now some are hanging at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, in a group show called "All Faiths Beautiful." Close to half a century after her death in 1963, the paintings feel less like a historical document than a visual diary, a window into Tenbrink's peculiar vision and maybe even her fantasy life (with some paint and little imagination, even an Iowa housewife could become a smoldering goddess).

Tenbrink is what's known as an outsider artist, which means, like everyone featured at the museum, she had no formal art training. Outsider artists are presumed to create out of some pure inner vision and not in response to any trends in the art world. Their creations tend to be idiosyncratic and sometimes inscrutable, and have a long-night-of-hallucination feel.

Loring Cornish, a local Baltimore artist, overlapped hundreds of spoons and nickels into an arresting, giant sign that reads simply, PRAY, although you can make out the word only from certain angles. Howard Finster of Summerville, Ga., created an enamel-on-wood perversion of a Christmas tree that includes rantings with a vague resemblance to Revelation: "The unknown meanings beyond the light of the sun. The unknown is a sign of the end of time."

The creations seem driven by an instinct that lies somewhere between compulsion and belief. They express less a coherent faith than a desperate attempt to be seen and understood, even if the outreach ultimately fails. (Tenbrink painted idyllic communities filled with people, although in reality she and her husband never had much of a following.)

The show is at its best when it showcases the more peculiar "faiths," and then challenges you to connect. A piece of cheerful acrylic-on-wood folk art by Sister Mary Proctor of Tallahassee conveys a quirky, personal ritual anyone could relate to: "Every morning I read my Bible," says the text painted on a plaque that a cut-wood woman holds up. "Then drink a Coke. Alway's God. Alway's Coke."

"500 Nuns Donate Their Brains to Science" by Thomas Duncan, a native of Scotland who lives in Greenwich Village, is the most off-putting work. The colored pencil work is inspired by the Sisters of Notre Dame, who submitted themselves to a landmark study on aging. The nuns are presented as a repetitive, nearly identical motif, most of them topless or wearing what look like suspenders. In the center, a doctor is slicing off the top of one of their heads.

This theme of innocence defiled is a staple of visionary art. In the automatic psychobiography that accompanies such paintings, the artist is assumed to be compulsively replaying childhood abuse or neglect.

But if you think about it, it's not all that weird or foreign. The nun unzipped is the staple of lots of other, more familiar things -- porn, '60s TV, those campy boxing nuns you find in the gag aisles of gift shops, the fantasies of many a bored altar boy. Duncan's nun figures are all identical in size and position, but the effect is not at all programmatic in a proto-Warhol way. By replacing those forbidding habits with half-nude vulnerability he manages to make them more approachable.

The exhibit is ringed by dozens of anonymous postcards mailed into "Post Secret," the giant confessional art project started by Frank Warren, an artist from Germantown in Montgomery County. Warren asked people to mail him their secret heartaches and longings in anonymous, homespun form. Some samples concerning belief are displayed at the exhibit. These, too, echo the theme of taking comfort in someone else's inner demons: "I'm a committed Christian but I want to have sex with almost every woman I see," one says, or "I sit near him in church so that when the Pastor says turn and shake hands with each other I have an excuse to touch him." As Warren writes, every secret is unique but through them you may recognize your own secrets and "feel less alone."

The show is less compelling when it makes it too easy to connect. Press materials call it a celebration of the 800th birthday of the "love-filled" Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi, and one room is dedicated to illustrations of his writing from a book by Michael Green. (A piece of Rumi's poem "Only Breath" is highlighted: "Not Christian or Jew or Muslim. Not Hindu Buddhist, Sufi or Zen . . . Only That Breath Breathing. Human Being.") Rumi is supposedly the best-selling poet in the Western world. His notion of a universal faith is simple and powerful, but also a little too trendy for the surroundings. Coupled with quotations from Mahatma Gandhi and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it feels almost like a college manifesto.

One room includes a tribute to atheists, and a description of the Founding Fathers that skews too secular (they were all deists, not Christians, and never went to church -- which is largely true but only tells half the story. Lincoln endlessly quoted the Bible, and Thomas Jefferson, author of "separation of church and state," was comforted on his deathbed by a passage from the Gospel of Luke).

In the corner of this room is the show's most controversial piece -- a wooden infant-size mummy known as the "Stillborn Jesus," by the Rev. Richard Emmanuel, of Gloucester, Mass. "Better Jesus were stillborn than the hypocrisy of war, the hypocrisy of faith, the hypocrisy of caring for this planet that has been practiced in his Holy NAME!" reads a makeshift tombstone. Students of both the art world and the culture wars will recall Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" from 1989.

With this piece we are solidly in trendy art world territory and no longer off the beaten path. Visionary artists are less dissenters than misfits, and by nature they resist being lumped into a mass ideology, even a countercultural one.

In any case, this take is unfair to American fundamentalists. Edith Valentine Tenbrink is more spiritual kin to Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker than she is to Rumi: She is a product of a distinct American messianic fervor, not an Eastern mysticism that blots out all religious distinction.

Thankfully, even in the Rumi room, the museum, now over a decade old, remembers its roots. Across from the illustrations is a set of haunting acrylic paintings by Sermet Aslan of Charleston, S.C. They are done in a soothing spring green and cream, but they are not at all soothing. In one, the main figure has a hook through his mouth like a caught fish and his turban over his eyes. In another, he looks to be struggling out of a straitjacket. The series begins, mysteriously, with a small painting of a car that looks like an old Chevy with a birdcage on the roof.

After the room of atheists and the "Stillborn Jesus," I assumed this was a homespun protest against torture. But this isn't true. Aslan is a Sufi master. The car belonged to his neighbors. For some reason they kept a birdcage on the roof, which moved him to think about beautiful things being caged. The painting, true to the visionary spirit, is called "Struggle With Self."

All Faiths Beautiful, at the American Visionary Art Museum. Through August 2008. Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. Call 410-244-1900 or visit http://www.avam.org.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company