One Man’s Treasure…
by Tom Wachunas
“Determining the difference between lowbrow art and highbrow art is very often a matter of appreciating the difference between what people want and what people need.” – June Godwit –
Folk Art. Naïve Art. Outsider Art. Kitsch. At its best, “The Creative Spirit” exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art is, in all of its distinctly quirky content, highly entertaining, serving up a spicy hot stew of delectable collectibles. At worst, it’s a gooey gumbo of regrettable forgettables.
Specifically, the show points up the wild range of tastes displayed in the sprawling personal collection of Mark Chepp, an artist ( a remarkable painter reviewed here in my post dated Sept. 12, 2010) and retired director of the Springfield Museum of Art. Beyond that, and in as much as the show is surely a celebration of flea market/ antique emporium/ yard sale finds, it also celebrates the uniquely, intrinsically human activity of responding to life by making all manner of pictures and objects. More than simply wanting to make things, we are genetically wired, indeed compelled to do so.
So here is a vast accumulation of stuff, made by passionate artisans with varying degrees of skill, as well as less refined hobbyists, known and unknown. Something for and from everyone, it would seem. The show is marvelously eclectic evidence of a wanderlust for things whimsical and primitive, simple and mystical. Speaking of mystical, most of you faithful readers won’t be surprised to know that the pieces most resonant for me are those that are spiritual or religious in character. There are enough of them to warrant their own niche in one of the smaller side galleries. Along with a strong showing of Christian iconography, there are other fascinating and strange visions of a more totemic or ritualistic nature.
Back to the regrettable forgettables for a moment - all those sock monkeys, bottle cap figures, goofy face jugs (to be fair, some of those are genuinely exciting), and garish Elvis busts (making me wonder if they’re more posthumous punishment than praise)… OK, so the operative intent here is probably something close to “let’s just get off our high horse for a bit and celebrate ‘low’ culture,” which makes for some innocent fun and can even be quite enchanting as far as it goes. And where is that, exactly? Many of these artifacts do remind me of the chintzy shelf-stuffers I recently saw at a local Cracker Barrel Restaurant gift shop.
Museum goers predisposed to expect classically spectacular or conventionally elevated aesthetics will find this exhibition decidedly raw and down to earth if not somewhat undignified. Keep in mind that thanks to the radical shifts in 20th century Western thinking about what constitutes a work of fine art, and who determines such things, we’ve come to accept (for better or worse) ideologies far less stringent and exclusive than those that ruled our minds and hearts for so many previous centuries. Our populist democracy of ideas when it comes to defining and embracing art has soared to new heights and sunk to ludicrous lows, all in the name of righteous inclusivity. And it’s probably fair to say that many of the objects here were made by folks who couldn’t care less about intelligentsia philosophizing anyway.
So, junk or jewels? You decide.
Photos: “The Good Samaritan” carved, painted wood by R. Smith / “Man” welded steel by Kurt Fisher/
“Monkey and Snakes in a Chair” painted wood and found objects by Edd Lambdin (next to anonymous sock monkey) ON VIEW THROUGH July 22 at the Canton Museum of Art www.cantonart.org