Just stop lying to me. What I expect from the people in my life, I want from my art. So I want to believe the artists working at Creativity Explored, a gallery and workshop for artists with developmental disabilities, are being honest. That they make work straight from their souls and are guileless in a way artists without developmental disabilities are not. Yes, this is a condescending generality, a fetishization of a vulnerable population, and a false dichotomy between the purified realm of "outsider art" and the duplicitous cunning of the art world. Yeah, yeah.
I just know I liked the work in Legend: Myth and Memory, on display through February 25, 2009. The show, curated by Gilles Combet, includes art that mixes words with images. The curatorial statement reads, "In the case of Creativity Explored's many studio artists...some of whom do not speak, making art that brings images and text together can become a powerful way to communicate stories that often remain untold." The suggestion of a long-suppressed narrative coming to light pulled me in, but it isn't the reason I stayed. I stuck around for the juxtapositions -- disturbing, pleasing, absurd -- between text and pictures.
James Miles's transportation-themed images use geometric compositions to portray stories of travel. A simple tableau of his mother and father in a brown sedan with red wheels comes with this text: "Mom and dad go driving in the car to shop. Food drinks milk...cheese carrot celery." With the addition of an explanation and brief grocery list¸ a quotidian act becomes intimate. Miles's night sky, created by indigo pastel on black paper, buoys and envelops the entire scene.
A lot of artists without developmental disabilities make work that looks like this. Some even have MFAs from fancy art schools. They employ a faux-naïve approach, as though there is something inherently authentic in that style. I like some of that work, some of those cryptic shapes and taxonomies, but am also wary of it. It feels a little too self aware. Can you really be naïve if you know you're being naïve? Just because you dress in kid's clothes doesn't mean you're suddenly 8 years old again.
I spent the most time with artist Camille Holvoet's work. Holvoet paints images of sugary sweet confection -- cupcakes and layer cakes and bowls of candy -- using the pastries as a template to experiment with color and form. Onto these images, she writes stories about living in an institution, about being left out, and in one, asks why losing weight feels so much like loss. Amazingly, the narratives don't subvert the images. Somehow they coexist, and a duality emerges: Life is both sugary sweet and a nightmare at the same time.
And maybe, unlike a lot of the heartfelt messages I both dodge and absorb each day, I let myself believe she was sincere. That she really had these questions and that these stories lived in her head every day. And that's when I cried. I'm not saying it was necessarily the form or appearance of the work that was affecting, as much as my belief in its authenticity. Because I don't care what you say, I just want you to mean it.
Legend, Myth, and Memory includes work by nearly fifteen artists. It is on display at Creativity Explored, 3245 16th St., San Francisco, through February 25, 2009. For more information, call 415-863-2108.