In the spring of I997, artist and teacher Doug Ashford was invited to teach an undergraduate class at Antioch College in Ohio. What resulted was a brilliant excursion into the socio-logical effects of museums within cultures. In the resulting essay entitled, The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium, Doug Ashford states in his class syllabus, “The function and habits of the contemporary museum are today under great critical and social pressure. No longer accepted as pristine containers, their galleries and catalogs are increasingly understood as repositories for ideological and emotional directives.” 1
Ballpoint pen on paper
In The American Folk Art Museum’s current show, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Freelance Artist / Poet and Sculptor / Innovator / Plant man / bone artifacts constructor / Photographer and Architect / Philosopher, one can see evidence of the emotional underpinnings that curator Brett Littman was striving for. Littman serves as Executive Director for The Drawing Center and I recall viewing the Gerhard Richter exhibit there this past November, Lines Which Do Not Exist. Holland Cotter, in reviewing the show states, “One reality seems fairly clear. At present, the fashion for work that is ideologically overdetermined in meaning, political or otherwise, has passed.” 2
The passage of overtly ideological work is due in part to the advent of technology. It serves as catalyst, ushering in an era of global connections to a diversity of worlds, cultures, and socio-political thought. It has made us smaller – in a sense – and more granular in our observation of society, art, and intent. At this level, we can discern more intimate and revealing constructs that open up different ways of seeing and understanding. It is this granular level that is in evidence at the Eugene Von Bruenchenhein exhibit. One sees the curator’s attempt to bypass the idea of the museum as simply a repository and present artifacts that represent an individual’s collective experience.
The Alternate Worlds of EVB
It is significant to note that The Drawing Center’s mandate, “to provide opportunities for emerging and under-recognized artists”, is aligned with The American Folk Art Museum’s position as, “… a vibrant cultural community and the world’s leading center for the study and enjoyment of American folk art, as well as the work of international self-taught artists.” 3 Von Bruenchenhein is certainly under-recognized and on the final point, he meets the criteria for inclusion at the American Folk Art Museum – Von Bruenchenhein had no formal training. Littman takes advantage of this fact to place Von Bruenchenhein’s work in the realm of a “culturally specific” 4 exhibit – albeit one that is specific to an individual.
Littman presents multiple artworks culled from Von Bruenchenhein’s disciplines – they are all contained in the title of the show – to order to guide the viewer through the artist’s evolution. The text panel at the beginning of the exhibit, explains, that “…leitmotifs of leaves and floral patterns [are] organizing principles in Von Bruenchenhein’s multidisciplinary oeuvre.” 5 The curator equates the artist’s body of work with a musical term that denotes a recurring theme. In this way, the viewer is prepared to look for clues in the work itself and not refer to predetermined cultural markers.
We are to understand that Eugene Von Bruenchenhein never studied art, never finished high school, and lived his entire life in a small run-down house in Milwaukee. He worked as a baker and then a florist until health problems forced him to retire. For 24 years – until his death at age 73 – he existed on monthly social security checks in the amount of $220. What possessed a poor, uneducated, man to create the ethereal landscapes, bone chairs, pottery, and meticulous and beautiful ballpoint drawings? Von Bruenchenhein would fall squarely into Doug Ashford’s depiction of the “politically disenfranchised, and historically isolated” 6 – those who are not represented by traditional, dominant, museum practices. Von Bruenchenhein lacked entitlement and access to connections, so to present his work within the confines of an academia that embraced this paradigm, would be counterintuitive.
Littman wisely takes the first step by choosing not to contextualize Von Bruenchenhein’s work within the tumult of the era. Several paintings appear in the exhibit with most being produced between 1954 and 1963, a time in the art world when Abstract Expressionism was giving way to pop art. The lush and vibrant works are expressionistic renderings, reminiscent of science fiction landscapes – both futuristic and bordering on horror. As America entered an era of extreme social unrest in the 1960s, agendas of feminism, racism, and war, would dominate public discourse – but none of this dialogue appears in text panels. Instead, we learn that Von Bruenchenhein painted on discarded bakery boxes, was deeply influenced by his stepmother Elizabeth Mosey, and that he used tufts of his wife’s hair as paintbrushes. He also believed he was a royal descendent from an ancient Pre-Columbian tribe.
Elizabeth Mosey also served as Von Bruenchenhein’s mentor and fostered an acute reverence for the natural world, including botany and horticulture. Mosey painted floral still lifes and wrote booklets on reincarnation. In general, she was possessed of a free-thinking, spiritual temperament that impacted Eugene for the remainder of his life. Her influence is prevalent throughout. Littman has chosen to present a thematic framework as opposed to arranging the exhibit within a historical timeline. We are able access each genre of the artist’s work within the gallery in any order, without sacrificing the relationship of artist to object.
Upon entering the exhibit, we are greeted by a small cactus garden accompanied by a text panel that reveals that during the 1930s, Von Bruenchenhein built a greenhouse and grew cactus. He even studied botany and maintained that he was a horticulturalist. His entire oeuvre was dominated by floral patterns and cursive, leaf-like motifs and the unifying theme of a primordial nature underscores the exhibit.
Across the room, we are presented with an entire wall of the artist’s black and white photographs of his wife, Marie. The photos are reminiscent of a bygone era; now all have faded into sepia and all feature Marie in front of a floral background – whether wallpaper or a tablecloth. Littman chose to install floor to ceiling panels of large floral wallpaper in muted pastel tones – evocative of the 1950s – behind over 100 photos. He repeats this floral wallpaper motif behind other objects. The effect is twofold. The floral paper speaks to the artist’s obsession with plant life, the natural universe, and the otherworldly. Secondly, it ties him to a specific time and place in a social background that may have isolated him from the mainstream. Littman was purposeful in his depiction of the artist as a very singular personality. We have a sense that this world is solely orchestrated by Von Bruenchenhein and not dependent on outside influences. There is a disconnect between the austerity of the architectural space of the museum and the interpretation of the artist’s oeuvre. Again, the curator circumvents this obstacle with the repetition of the floral motif, thus reinforcing the idea that Von Bruenchenhein was possessed of a fierce individuality and a mind that did not stray from its purpose. These are clues that the viewer finds within the exhibit. In Robert Storr’s essay, Show and Tell he says, “Showing is telling. Space is the medium in which ideas are visually phrased. Installation is both presentation and commentary, documentation and interpretation.” 7
In The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium, Doug Ashford points to interpretation as something that should be fluid and not predetermined by a museum paradigm. He insists, “… we see [ourselves] as authors of identities already consolidated through consumerism.” 8 He believes that we produce a conscious notion of what we are via our relationships with objects. In his classroom at Antioch, Ashford’s intent was to create multiple realities in the museum by juxtaposing disparate artifacts that would, hopefully, challenge the viewer’s idea of meaning.
In another section of the gallery, Littman juxtaposes seemingly disparate objects in very close proximity, which gives the viewer the impression that they may have entered a different exhibit. It is a calculated effect that doesn’t fully resonate until after one has left the building. Delicate architectural thrones fashioned from bleached turkey and chicken bones – culled from countless poultry dinners – are displayed in pristine glass cases. The clear cubes with stark white bases are incongruent considering the contents. But it is clear that the painstaking attention to detail and the energy it required to make these sculptures is deserving of an ornate display case – and reverence for the artist. Directly beside these sculptures, are two walls of exquisitely rendered ballpoint ink drawings – 34 to be exact – first discovered in a wallpaper sample book. Littman continues the floral wallpaper motif behind these drawings. They are biomorphic, art deco, and cursive renderings that reveal Von Bruenchenhein’s dogged attention to detail and an ability to access an endless well of creativity. There is also an electronic version of the ballpoint drawings that the viewer can watch on a monitor. It is an interesting choice to present the drawings as digital references alongside their paper counterparts. The viewer is forced to consider the delicacy and rigor required to render such images in an age where a computer would now be used to complete such detailed work. One can also see the character of Von Bruenchenhein emerging – that of a whimsical yet determined man who harnessed his creativity despite few resources and no recognition during his lifetime. Littman leads us through a conceptual journey where we intuit the artist’s deep passion for nature and his acceptance of a metaphysical universe that could become muse or tormentor in an instant. By the time we leave the exhibit, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein has emerged as the seminal Outsider, whose creativity both alienated him and fueled his existence.
1. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, Art Journal, Vol 57. No. 2 , (Summer, 1998) p 28-37, accessed February 10, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778006.
2. Holland Cotter, “Building an Art of Virtuoso Ambiguity”, The New York Times, (September 9, 2010), accessed November 18, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/arts/design/10richter.html.
3. American Folk Art Museum’s mission statement, http://www.folkartmuseum.org/.
4. Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon, “With our faces to the rising sun”, in What Makes a Great Exhibition? ed. Paula Marincola, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia 62.
5. Brett Littman, Exhibit text panel for Eugene Von Bruenchenhein.
6. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, 28.
7. Robert Storr, “Show and Tell”, in What Makes a Great Exhibition? Ed. Paula Marincola (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006), 17.
8. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, 29.