Alone, adj. in bad company.
-- Ambrose Bierce,
"The Devil's Dictionary"
AMONG the many charms of the American Visionary Art Museum -- and they are legion -- one chief delight for many is that despite the postmodern cachet currently enjoyed by outsider art, the young Baltimore institution's guiding aesthetic is really a throwback to an earlier, increasingly unfashionable era when artists actually made stuff.
Stuff you can touch and nail to the wall. Stuff cobbled together from pie tins and house paint that reveals rather than conceals the hand of the maker. Stuff that doesn't need electricity or a remote control, a computer mouse or a semiotician to enjoy.
Unsurprisingly then, the museum's fifth themed exhibition, which takes up AVAM's first two floors and runs for the next 11 months, is no exception to this humanistic rule.
Taking its inspiration from the worlds of UFOlogy, religion, science fiction, myth and fantasy, the art of "We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens" is often rough-hewn and sometimes obsessively overwrought, but in the end it is all about what it means to be human, to be connected to other people despite physical and psychological barriers. This message resonates in every gallery, despite the fact that the show's subject matter consists primarily of men of the little green variety, not to mention poltergeists, guardian angels, demons, imps, legendary beasties and superheroes -- in short, entities curator Susan Subtle Dintenfass calls "our imaginary companions" (never mind the fact that some of the credulous artists included would dispute the "imaginary" label).
The inhabitants of this alternate universe are the invisible offspring of our tortured and lonely psyches made flesh. They include a purple King Kong imagined by William Hawkins; a Big Foot-ish man-beast captured by Albert Hoffman on the Atlantic City boardwalk with a box of saltwater taffy in his hand; an array of creepy, brown-skinned critters born of Salvatore Bonura's fevered nightmares; glowing intergalactic visitors from Andrew J. Epstein's childhood crib in Chicago; and the celestial protectors who comforted asylum inmate August Walla in his madness.
A word of warning: You'll find the art here disturbs as often as it soothes, but that's good in my book. If you're honest, some of you will admit that being scared witless can be more thrilling than being consoled. For every benign rabbit named Harvey that springs from our imaginations, there's often a drooling fiend from Hellmouth close behind.
There's abundant humor in "We Are Not Alone," too, but not the kind that mocks people for their unorthodox beliefs in, say, extraterrestrial visitation. That would be anathema in a museum whose P.C. aim, according to founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger, is not to "preach, but to present other points of view."
Hence, DeVon Smith's family of motorized robots greets you when you walk inside (the closest thing to performance art you'll find here). They're like junkyard versions of the robot from "Lost in Space," but with bad Raggedy Ann and Andy wigs.
Hence the baker's dozen of alien bunny sculptures made from thousands of soda bottle caps saved by Clarence Woolsey and his wife Grace. They're on display in the second-floor gallery devoted to space creatures.
Hence, psychic Uri Geller's 1976 black Cadillac Fleetwood, covered with 5,000 bent spoons and forks (the flattened, serpentine tines are surprisingly beautiful). Or Lyle Estill's giant scrap-metal chess set where haloed angels face off against Tom Servo-style aliens. Both pieces are in the museum's Tall Sculpture Barn.
As you might expect, such user-friendly, folk-art whimsy coexists uneasily with the more sobering nature of some of the work. For instance, a suite of paintings by Betty Ann Luca -- 27 pictures out of a total output of more than 120 -- document her numerous (and ongoing) encounters with what she believes to be aliens, beginning with a meeting that occurred when she was only 7.
One panel calls to mind a Renaissance Annunciation scene, but with a silver-suited visitor from another planet in place of the angel Gabriel and a Virginia housewife in place of the Virgin Mary. Another shows an operation in which Luca's right eye was removed and a BB-like tracking device inserted into her nostril. Another red-tinged image portrays a race of stalk-eyed ET's that look like Happy Meal action figures.
"I know it sounds very strange," shrugs Luca with vast understatement, "but it happened." And who are we to doubt this nice little lady who looks like she'd rather be painting flowers than getting probed in various body parts?
Another artist offers a similar disclaimer when he talks about his work, a dense, busy canvas exploring counterfeit images of God.
"I am not a schizophrenic," says Norbert Kox, standing in front of a mixed-media piece that incorporates a numerological formula in which the letters of "Jesus Christ" and "Lucifer" add up to 666 and whose windy title begins, "Made in America: U.S. Upperman, the Man of Steal, Prince and Power of the Air, Usurperman, Usurper of the Role . . . ."
It's a helpful distinction, Kox believes, if only because many of the artists hanging nearby have been institutionalized for mental illness -- particularly those on the first floor where much of the work comes from AVAM's sister institution, the Museum of Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, (specializing in the art of the insane) and the famed art therapy program of the mental hospital in Gugging, Austria.
Despite Kox's protest, though, the dichotomy of who's rational and who's unbalanced is, as always, mostly moot in this museum. It's easy to lose yourself -- and your sense of what's real and what's not -- among the 250 to 300 chimerical creatures here (even curator Dintenfass is unsure of the exact headcount). Of particular note: the haunting soot-and-spit drawings by James Castle (but of what? friendly ghosts, robots, countrymen?); scientist-turned-mental patient Eugene Gabritshevshy's eerie "Alignment of Small Yellow Beings"; and the hallucinatory demons of Sultan Rogers's carved wooden "Haint House."
It's that intentional blurring of the line between crackpottery and genius, between European and American, between the avant-garde and the old-fashioned, between skill and accident and ultimately between artist and audience that is AVAM's true strength.
It's also the truest measure of the success of this or any of the museum's often spooky and always spectacular exhibitions: i.e., that gentle but persistent whisper in your head that reminds you at every step of the way that, as John Donne wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself."
WE ARE NOT ALONE: ANGELS AND OTHER ALIENS -- Through Sept. 3, 2000 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 410/244-1900. Web site: www.avam.org. Open 10 to 6 Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission $6; children, seniors and students $4; groups of 10 or more $3 per person.