“She is a great hugger, perhaps the greatest hugger that Texas has ever known!” This bit of affectionate hyperbole from Texas sculptor James Magee holds the essence of many truths about Stephanie Smither, and it’s Smither’s extraordinary collection of outsider, self taught, visionary and folk art that she and her late husband John have recently gifted to the Menil Collection. It all takes shape in the Menil’s current exhibition As Essential as Dreams. Indeed, the Smither’s collection represents a lifetime of embracing a range of art and artists that have long existed on the fringes of the art establishment and canon. The show derives its title from the theorist Jean Baudrillard’s notion that accumulating objects is a human behavior “as essential as dreams” and that through collecting “the everyday prose of objects is transformed into poetry.” The exhibition gives the viewer a wonderful array of art and artists.
The exhibition, according to its curator Michelle White, tells the story of Houston’s Stephanie and John Smither as enthusiasts, collectors, patrons and benefactors, whose interests and tastes evolved as the field of self taught and outsider art has developed over the last forty years. It is a tangible recognition of how they enveloped and elevated these artists—whose lives and art are experienced on the “outside” of the dominant culture—while always keeping true to their core desire to collect what they loved.
The show is thoughtfully and concisely curated by White. The Smithers amassed a collection of remarkable breadth and depth, so rather than present a compendium of the whole collection, the exhibition wisely focuses on twelve artists whose work is represented with multiple examples, thus allowing the viewer to take in various aspects of an artist’s work and providing the space for making connections and seeing relationships among the works and artists.
Though concise, the range on view spans the continuum of the Smithers’ collecting experience. It includes art from the “golden age” of southern self taught art including Thornton Dial and Sister Gertrude Morgan. Other giants of the outsider art world such as Martin Ramírez and Carlo Zinelli share space with Texan Johnnie Swearingen. The international and contemporary scope of the collection is represented in the work of Domenico Zidato, Solange Knopf and Hiroyuki Doi. Michelle White says that her rationale for presenting a limited number of artists was to inspire new investigation and critical appraisal of each artist’s work. This effort is accomplished in the exhibition’s excellent catalogue, which includes essays by scholars and curators that deepen our appreciation of the work, beyond just the artists’ biographies. It is a significant contribution to the show and the scholarship around these artists.
The exhibition itself is a revelation. As someone familiar with the Smithers’ collection, I found opportunity in this museum presentation to see it in a new light, and it is extraordinary. I was struck by the concentrated creativity on display. Of course the artists here share the common experience of being self-taught, and their lack of formal training and study of art technique and history often results in their use of non-traditional, make-do materials. Their solutions to the challenges of perspective, light and composition are of their own idiosyncratic making. They are not breaking the rules since they’ve never really known them.
As a result, the exhibition has the palpable feel of great invention. Highlights of this inventiveness include Johnnie Swearingen’s paintings of rural and biblical scenes in which his storytelling is matched by his visual creativity. And the design of the show allowed me to see connections to Swearingen in the polymorphic rhythmic paintings of another southern self-taught master, Thornton Dial. The Smithers’ curiosity as collectors yielded a scope that ranged almost from their own back yard to the far corners of the world. This pan-cultural quality of the collection and exhibition is truly one of its strengths and highlights the phenomenon that self-taught artists can be found everywhere.
A personal high point of the show was the opportunity to see an extraordinary group of drawings by Martin Ramírez, a Mexican immigrant who created a deeply personal and cultural body of work while institutionalized in California, mostly in the 1950s. The Smithers’ broad world view also led to a personal discovery for me in the work of Hiroyuki Doi, from Tokyo. His dense drawings based on the elemental form of the circle are powerful and engrossing. They’ll lead to repeat visits for me.
These self-taught artists have much to teach us about creativity and the universal desire to communicate through art. Their work often arises from highly personal and inwardly directed sources. This essential humanity in their work can result in a strength that projects far beyond them. This show focuses on this common quality of the artists, one that writer and collector Sydney Janis highlighted in his seminal 1942 book They Taught Themselves. After all, “self taught” as a descriptive label is a direct and positive affirmation of the artists’ lives and work. It celebrates them. This celebration is what Stephanie and John Smither and this fine exhibition invite us to join.
Opens June 10 at the Menil Collection, Houston.
Jay Wehnert is Director of Intuitive Eye. He is currently writing a book on Outsider Art in Texas.