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Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Outsider And Me

"This image has enough to go off like (a) 100 sticks of dynamite" - Henry Darger 1892-1973

Henry Darger, an elderly recluse, spent his childhood in Illinois's asylum for feeble-minded children and his adulthood working as a janitor. He lived a quiet, nearly solitary existence, but his imaginary life was exciting, colorful and sexually provocative. When he died in Chicago in 1973, his landlady discovered in his room 300 paintings, some over 10 feet long, and a 15,000-page illustrated novel (The Realms of the Unreal), which told the epic story of the virtuous Vivian Girls leading a child slave revolt against the evil Glandelinians.

I just returned from seeing the Henry Darger exhibition at The Frye Art Museum. I am still attempting to process what I saw and the feelings that arose from viewing the work of this outsider artist who was diagnosed at the age of six as "having his heart in the wrong place" and was then sent to live in an asylum until he engineered his own escape at the age of 16. I saw the documentary on Darger, 'In the Realms of the Unreal' about a month ago, somewhat apprehensively because I have a very strong, visceral reaction to anything having to do with asylums and institutions for the 'not-quite-right' among us, owing to some personal experience involving a family member who died in such a place. Believe me when I say an experience like that never, ever leaves you. As difficult as it was to watch, I know I will see the film again when its creator, Jessica Yu screens it in October, because the world of Henry Darger now resides in my head and it's not leaving, either.

After finally succeeding in making his escape from the asylum after a series of failed attempts beginning when he was six, Henry spent the rest of his life under the radar, working as a janitor and sometimes attending as many as 5 masses a day at the neighboring Catholic church. All the while, he was orchestrating and documenting the battle that quietly raged on in his mind. From the age of 19 until his death at 81, in his tiny one room apartment in Chicago, Darger created the epic known to us as 'The Story of the Vivian Girls, In what Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion'. 15,000 pages. Whew.

I haven't read any criticism or analysis of Darger's work. I would rather react and respond in ways that are meaningful to me and unfiltered by the impressions of others. It is my belief that to define and delineate it in a scholarly manner only plays into the hands of those whom Darger was trying to elude; the established hierarchy of the entire world as we know it. His experience told him it was simply not to be trusted. Faced with what I see around me these days, how can I not concur? He created the war of the Glandelinians and the Vivian Girls in order to right the wrong that had been done to him as a child and to illustrate the inherent cruelty that he felt the world held in store for children and that they must be protected from, no matter how great the cost.

Punctuated with riotous bursts of colorful flowers, birds and incredible weatherscapes, the land inhabited by the Vivian Girls is at once both frightening and fantastic. Mention must be made of Darger's adeptness at synthesizing imagery from the popular culture of the day into his work. One can see the stride of the Morton Salt girl as well as the posture of the Coppertone Suntan Lotion baby in his drawings. The other-worldly insects and oversized foliage directly reference the cartoon 'Buck Rogers in the 25th Century', as well as the thousands of other archived newspaper and magazine clippings found after his death. The message that I take away after seeing just a small sampling of his work is that art does flourish best and most authentically in these naive expressions created by 'Outsiders' who feel to their very core what it means to be on the inside and have rejected that existence in favor of living in a world of their own making.


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