ONE WORK: Art Moura’s Dancer with Headdress
The Good Luck Gallery, Chinatown, Los Angeles
“It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill. It’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in my work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.” ~Vincent van Gogh
“Art is an outsider, a gypsy on the face of the earth.” ~Robert Henri
“I think all good art is outsider art.” ~Scott McClanahan
By Betty Ann Brown
French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut (usually translated into English as “Outsider Art”) to refer to work “created by people outside the professional art world… from their own depths and not from the stereotypes of Classical or fashionable art.”
Although Dubuffet was particularly interested in the art of the insane (he was inspired by Dr. Walter Morgenthaler’s 1921 book Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler [A Psychiatric Patient as Artist], which presented the art of “lunatic” Adolf Wölfli). The Surrealists were immediately intrigued by Wolfli as well; Andre Breton joined Dubuffet in founding the Compagnie de l’Art Brut to care for their collection of over 1000 pieces by children and the insane.
Art Moura is a contemporary Outsider Artist. He works alone, almost hermit-like, in his home in Northern California, creating work in a process that French theorist Claude Levi-Strauss would call bricolage, that is, work constructed from a wide range of materials that happen to be available. Moura’s art supplies range from cast-off clothing to distressed wood. Most involve extensive stitching and all function as accumulations of cultural detritus.
For his current exhibition at Paige Wery’s Good Luck Gallery in Chinatown, Moura presents a garden-based installation (in front of the gallery space), textile wall works, standing totemic figures, and hanging heads that recall Oceanic precedents. (I am reminded of Fiona Hall’s work in the Australian Pavilion of the 2015 Venice Biennale. Hall’s heads were composed of shredded US currency and scraps of US military uniforms, in biting anti-imperialist commentary–which is not at all Moura’s goal.)
One of Moura’s new works, entitled Dancer with Headdress Most Likely a Bison, is what the artist terms a tapestry, although it is composed, quilt-like, of found fabrics rather than woven as a unified field. A standing male (?) figure stares out of a pale blue background, his head, torso, and arms created by a flayed hoodie sweatshirt that happens to be one of the artist’s son’s cast-offs. Two asymmetrical horns rise above the fur-lined head–the fur imitating the curve of human hair–and are formally echoed by asymmetrical legs in mis-matched socks. The background is pale blue (perhaps a flannel bed sheet?) that is, in turn, outlined by thin strips of brown cloth imitating a picture frame. The entire tapestry is crossed by Moura’s obsessive yet crude stitching. (It is all done by hand: the artist does not own a sewing machine.) The same off-white stitching surrounds a simple, almost crude mask of a face that totters above a patchwork neck.
Therapist Eileen Miller, author of The Girl Who Spoke with Pictures: Autism Through Art, writes, “Art can permeate the very deepest part of us, where no words exist.” Moura’s art goes right there for me. I intuit its strength and sincerity and am irresistibly drawn to the images, even as I realize I can do little more with words than describe it. How do I verbalize the uncanny appeal of Moura’s art? Am I drawn to Dancer with Headdress simply because I too have a son and happen to be wearing one of his cast-off sweatshirts as I write this? Am I drawn to the naive, almost child-like nature of Moura’s depictions? (As I write that, I remember that Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”) Or am I mostly drawn to the fact that Moura collects and recycles what everyone else would consider trash and transforms it into objects and images that insist on their surreal artistic presence? (And now I am thinking of Rauschenberg’s Monogram–the stuffed goat ringed by a truck tire–and the whole Neo-Dada direction of avant-garde practices.)
Sometimes we do art a disservice by trying to contain it in language. Perhaps Moura’s work is great precisely because it touches that place where no words exist. It hovers, sometimes with menace, sometimes with delight, in the echoing sounds of silence. And in this era of far too many words and tweets, that is welcome solace indeed.