AVAM's latest big show explores the creative wizardry of turning trash into treasures

What Makes Us Smile?

Through Sept. 4, 2011 at the American Visionary Art Museum

Michael Baldwin, a tall, slouching man with a thick, graying mustache, is a professional comedian and self-professed dumpster diver. He started rifling through the curbside trash and junk stores to find props for his act, but soon it became an end in itself as he kept finding plastic toys, metal lunch boxes, and board games that delighted him as much visually as nostalgically. Thus he found himself in the lobby of the American Visionary Art Museum in early October, chattering about the children’s lunch boxes that form a rectangular frame around the title of the museum’s new year-long show What Makes Us Smile? Hanging from the ceiling just beyond that sign are Baldwin’s strange assemblages of toy parts—a black rubber shark with silver jet wings, a plane fuselage with cellophane angel wings, a hawk’s head, and a black helicopter with orange feathers.

“This is all about turning trash into treasure,” Baldwin says, as he gestures overhead. “But isn’t that what every museum does—turning trash into treasure? Wasn’t there a time when no one wanted old Greek statues or Van Gogh paintings before someone recognized their value? Isn’t it all a form of dumpster diving or, as they say, urban archeology? Isn’t it all about recognizing the value of something someone else threw away?”

I don’t know if that’s what every museum does—I doubt Rembrandt’s portrait of Aristotle or the Hope Diamond went through a trash phase—but it’s certainly what AVAM does. And though the museum’s founder, Rebecca Hoffberger, was standing next to Baldwin and trying to make the case that the exhibit was a penetrating look at the nature of humor—a topic so broad it’s almost meaningless—Baldwin had touched on a far more interesting aspect of the new show: the alchemy of trash to treasure.

Whether they are the bottle caps that Mr. Imagination transformed into a towering royal throne, the fabric scraps that Chris Roberts-Antieau used for a textile collage about “Koko the Talking Gorilla,” the 1,500 translucent toothbrushes that Nadya Volicer assembled into a mosaic welcome mat, the orange and green inner-telephone wires that Wayne “Mad Max” McCaffery wove into cookie jars topped by helmeted human figures, or the ragged-edged, discarded plywood boards that Chuckie Williams filled with paint and glitter for his portraits of Bo Diddley and Madonna, the unlikeliest of materials have become the most striking of objets d’art at AVAM.

This alchemy has two consequences. First, it changes how we think about museums. If Williams’ house paint on plywood scraps can be as personal and memorable as the most expensive oils on the most expensive canvas, what does that say about our notions of beauty and our assumptions about the ante one must pay to get into the beauty poker game? Second, it changes how we think about the world outside museums. As we walk the sidewalks of Baltimore, the bottle caps, abandoned clothing, forgotten toys, snips of wiring, and fallen auto parts lying by the curb no longer look like bothersome garbage but rather potential works of art. This is the rare show that not only creates a zone of beauty within the museum’s walls but suggests a hidden beauty outside those walls.

Gloria Garrett, a local artist who often sells her work at the weekly farmers market under the Jones Falls Expressway, was also on hand for the new exhibit’s press preview. An outspoken woman with pink cloth flowers attached to her white canvas hat and blue wool jacket, she revealed the secret of the striking colors and blurry edges of her seven small dream-like paintings. “I had a death in my family, and I prayed to the Lord to bring the color back into my life,” she said. “A short while later, my mother gave me her old makeup, and a light bulb went off in my head. What do women paint their eyes with? Eye shadow. What do women paint their lips with? Lipstick. So why can’t I paint pictures with the same things?”

Nearby, on the museum’s second floor, stood one of the show’s strongest pieces, “Sweet Face,” a driftwood sculpture by Brian Pardini. A single piece of brown-barked wood contained the two long, thin, Giacometti-like legs that leaned forward from a gray stone, supporting a compact torso and two upraised arms. The head was a separate piece of gray, wave-polished wood with the triangular, horned look of a sheep’s head. The combination of the human torso and the ewe’s head suggested a kind of tribal ritual. Pardini, a short man whose salt-and-pepper hair was combed straight back, explained that he doesn’t alter the driftwood and stones he finds except to truncate them so the central image can be isolated and/or combined with other pieces. In this case, all he did was cut back the large branch so four extensions could become even lengths for the legs and arms and the fifth short enough to create a neck.

“Every day I walk on the shore of Lake Erie and collect driftwood,” he says. “I try to be open when I walk, not looking for anything in particular but alert to any images in the wood. Sometimes when I find something, I start laughing out loud, right there on the beach. I remember finding the torso for this sculpture and being so excited by the form that I took it home immediately and looked for a head. On the porch of my garage, I always have about 20 heads hanging on the wall, and right away I saw the right one.

“When my partner Patty and I were at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, she said, ‘There’s something in the next room that will change your life,’” he continues. “It was the art of New Guinea, and right away I could see how my art was similar to theirs. There must be a long tradition in human culture of people finding objects in the natural world that remind us of something. If it resonates, we will pick it up and take it with us.”

As with most AVAM shows, What Makes Us Smile? contains as many misses as hits. Too often an artist’s biography on the wall is more interesting than the nearby art. Nothing about the realistic sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and actress Elsa Lancaster as the Bride of Frankenstein are particularly “visionary,” nor do the original panels by professional cartoonists John Callahan and Lonnie Millsap qualify as “outsider art.”

On the other hand, it’s a pleasure to see Pedro Bell’s original painting that was reduced by two-thirds when it became the cover for George Clinton’s album Some of My Best Jokes are Friends. Bell, who did most of the artwork for Parliament-Funkadelic, is an outsider artist with a bawdy, iconoclastic sense of humor that matches perfectly with Clinton’s bawdy, iconoclastic music. Other highlights include Sultan Rogers’ “Haint House,” a green doll’s house filled with human figures whose heads have turned into birds and lizards; C.T. McLusky’s circus-themed and colored-pencil-enhanced collages; and Shannon Warren’s four-foot-high gingerbread house into which Alfred E. Neuman has crashed his airplane.

Neuman, the MAD Magazine mascot, also appears nearby on Patty Kuzbida’s decorated bed. A key element in the mosaics on the headboard and footboard is another unlikely artistic material: the iridescent wings shed by Thai beetles. Kuzbida, a former Baltimore resident and AVAM volunteer, got some technical help on the project from mosaic expert Nancy Josephson, who was impressed by Kuzbida’s eye for color and imagery. Josephson has two of her own pieces in the show: a giant bead-and-sequin bear wearing a red fez and a pink tutu and a dog that uses the body of an acoustic guitar for its body and dozens of pastel guitar picks for its wings.

“You’ll notice that the bear has a DVD player in his chest and a bowl of jelly beans in one hand,” Josephson said. “He’s the ultimate domesticated animal, a home entertainment center. You’ll also notice that his bling, the medallion hanging from his neck, is a cardboard Snapple cap that says, ‘Beavers were once as big as bears.’ I’ve been collecting Snapple caps for years—at home I have a whole wall of Snapple facts. I think they’re great materials for art.” ■

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