Brut strengths

Dec 7, 2005 at 12:00 am

Art Brut is about something else. Translated literally from French as “raw art,” it is a style — like the type of wine it may be named after — that is unbridled, filled with emotive power flowing from the unconscious and the irrepressible desire to create.

We can thank French painter Jean Dubuffet for the growing interest in the field over the past 50 years. The collection he founded in 1945 was originally inspired by the creative work of the mentally ill, and expanded slightly to include untrained artists as well.

University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities has put together an exhibition of untrained artists from the 1940s, paired with contemporary artists, some who are untrained and others who are schooled but have been influenced by Art Brut. Though the quality of work is uneven and the definition of Art Brut is flawed, it’s a show well worth seeing before it closes.

Some of the most charming pieces here are by women who began producing art in midlife. Yvonne Robert, working today into her 80s, has a sincere, naïve style of drawing that is light, joyful and expressive. Robert’s works showcase traditional narrative scenes, and also include sloping lines of block text written across the bottom, continuing the story of the image. In “Le marron dinde a bien cent ans ...” (which translates as “The horse chestnut is at least a hundred years old ...”) she draws stars like little yellow daisies in a night sky. Robert’s scenes often present endearing stylistic details; one of three owls in a tree has a stitched line all the way down his front that looks like a railroad track or a scar.

Minnie Evans, another featured self-taught artist from North Carolina, began painting her dreams in 1935, at age 43. She made abstract, symmetrical designs with pencil and crayon and has a decorative style, curling her lines into colorful patterns of faces or flowers. In an untitled work from 1948, black-and-white eyeballs look out everywhere from within pink and purple reflected blocks. This image reveals there may be a fine line between paranoia and the dream-like visions Evans experienced.

Hitting a little closer to home, Stef Kopka is a contemporary artist who coils wire into frenetic sculptures large and small, many of which can be seen around his native Ann Arbor. There is a whimsical, almost life-size mermaid reclining in a chair, but he has wrought more expression from the tangled colored wire in a small work titled “American Worker Promenade.” In this piece, four workers — and Toto too — all hold hands as they travel along their Yellow Brick Road. The 4-inch figures with black bead eyes are wired to the small brass base that is mounted on the wall at eye level.

Detroit artist DMC, aka Zeitgeist Gallery’s James Puntigam, is another one to notice. His cast aluminum sculptures of contorted animal and human forms make the material looks like a specimen from the lab of Dr. Moreau. Charles Keeling Lassiter’s painting on rice paper is also a standout. Lassiter draws delicate lines with Magic Marker, creating haunting nudes that are buried in a miasma of red and orange patterns of paint.

Art Brut and Affiliated Works is located in the basement of the Rackham Building. It is a disorienting space, unlike a pristine gallery, and more like a classroom crowded with tables and chairs and art packed tightly on the walls and propped on windowsills. But Art Brut was always about disrupting traditional conventions. In fact, Dubuffet’s museum was originally located in a cavernous lower level, so he probably would have liked that the work in this exhibit is let loose from the white cube. It needs to happen a lot more often.


Runs through Dec. 16 at the Institute for the Humanities in the Rackham Building on the U-M campus (915 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor). Call 734-763-5019 for more info.

Gerry Craig writes about art locally and nationally. Send comments to [email protected]