The weekend before Valentine’s Day found us in Baltimore, Maryland, my wife Therese’s native city, celebrating the holiday a little early and spending time with our friend Faith, who lives just outside of Baltimore. It all began with a visit to the American Visionary Art Museum, a haven for so-called “outsider art,” art created by artists either untrained or trained outside of academia.
Upon entering the round main museum building, you encounter a ramp, whose inner wall is covered with some art related to one of the museum’s current special exhibits, Yummm! The History, Fantasy and Future of Food. On this rounded wall where collections of two different groupings of art, metal lunch boxes held by plastic hands, and displays of some of Frank Warren‘s PostSecret collection. The latter are postcards that are anonymously sent to Mr. Warren that contain very personal information, which are first posted on the PostSecret website and then periodically published in book form. Here, the postcards selected all have food-related messages, like the postcard of Vincent Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters painting to which the sender has attached the message “I wish I had appreciated our family dinners.” These postcards evoke a number of emotional responses, expressing humor, irony and sarcasm – and occasionally, they cut very deep.
OK, a little tmi. As in, before we moved on to the rest of the museum’s collection, I needed to pay a visit to the rest room. But even this became an opportunity to encounter an unexpected part of the museum’s offerings, as I saw, directly opposite the downstairs rest rooms, Robert Benson’s Flatulence Post. Visitors are encouraged to press the button on the post, releasing a nice juicy disgusting fart noise. There is also copious amounts of pieces surrounding the post, riffing on the theme. I found it a lot of fun, but what can I say, I am a boy!
Before exploring the first floor of the museum, my eyes were pulled upward. Hanging from the ceiling in the museum’s central atrium is Andrew Logan’s Black Icarus, ever spinning.
Once we entered the first gallery of art on the first floor, probably the initial selection to catch my attention was a bunch of paintings by Turkish-American artist Sermet Aslan. I was excited to learn that Mr. Aslan is also a restaurateur with restaurants in the Charleston, South Carolina area – next time we are in Charleston, we will have to check out one of his eateries.
On the second floor, one side of the floor (one half of a large circle, perhaps) is devoted to the museum’s permanent collection (or at least slightly less temporary?), including the works of Ted Gordon. His faces covered with swirling lines remind me of the Spirograph game that we enjoyed when we were kids.
On the other side of the floor was a lot more of the museum’s special exhibit Yummm! There was a series of short films being shown in a loop, one of which was about Gil Batle, an artist who discovered his talents while serving a prison sentence for drug possession. His main material, ostrich eggs which he carves, is quite incredible, and the scenes on his eggs, evoking the horrors of prison existence, are at the same time quite beautiful and rather disturbing.
On the third floor, in a corner near the windows, I encountered a piece that I really found fascinating. Leo Sewell’s Stegosaurus is made out of found objects, including license plates, typewriter cases and many other things which have all been stitched together. The delight for me was in seeing the dinosaur that Sewell has created, but also looking closer to see the individual things that the artist has used.
In the main gallery on the third floor is another of the museum’s special exhibits, the art of Matt Sesow entitled Shock and Awe. Mr. Sesow had a devastating accident as a child, where part of his arm was severed when he unsuspectingly ran onto a runway and a small airplane ran into him and dragged him for a great distance. His art (he humorously began painting to impress a young lady) confronts that early transformative experience and uses many symbols to make sense of history – his own history and that of the greater world.
The style Mr. Sesow has adopted in his art – rough, colorful, with perhaps primitive child-like images – has been described as “art brut,” the term that artist Jean Dubuffet coined to describe the kind of “low art” or outsider art that the museum champions. As with all the artists whose works fill the museum, Mr. Sesow displays a commitment to finding his own particular way of expressing himself, in a cohesive style and using images that are repeated and adapted to meet the subjects of his various paintings.
The other side of the third floor contains the museum’s restaurant, Encantada. As usual, as I looked at the menu, contemplating what to eat for lunch, I pondered the dairy free options. Seeing that there were several vegan options, I decided to go that way. I started with poached turnips that have been arranged to imitate deviled eggs, and then for my main course I had a sandwich using seitan to imitate chicken. Both were enjoyable, although the sandwich was a bit dry.
As we finished our main courses and entertained the idea of dessert, our server mentioned that they had a vegan chocolate cake, so of course I had to try that. Dense, rich, chocolatey goodness – a wonderful way to finish off the meal.
We had used most of the day at the AVAM, but we thought we would finish up the afternoon with a short visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art (which I had never visited). Since we literally only had an hour to spare there (a website I had consulted said it was open until 6pm on Saturdays, when in reality it closes at 5pm), we focused on a couple of areas of the museum. First, I wanted to see the exhibit of Guerrilla Girl art, pieces that are political statements on the sorry state of inclusion of women artists in the art marketplace and museums.
After checking that out, we explored the museum’s contemporary wing, which included some Matisse paintings I had never seen before. The rich colors in, for example, his painting “the Purple Robe and Anemones” are quite fascinating.
We had a wonderful day with Faith. I was so thrilled to introduce her, as a Baltimore area resident, to the AVAM, which she had never been to before, and in turn to visit a new museum for me, furthering my experience of the city where my darling Therese grew up.