An excerpt from
The Colorful Apocalypse
Journeys in Outsider Art
[With William Thomas Thompson at the American Visionary Art Museum]
The mind as a prison. Living inside narrative. Living inside metaphor.
In 2001, after my memoir about my brother’s mental illness came out in England, I was a guest on a talk show on BBC radio. The show, if I remember correctly, was about how life-altering it was to grow up around acute mental illness. The other guest was a psychiatrist from India whose sister, a schizophrenic, believed spirits communicated to her directly. She, like my brother, after years of odd and sometimes dangerous behavior, had helped to darken the big, black bags under the eyes of her family members. Our talk was a mix of reality-radio confessional and intellectualizing (the BBC, after all) about how we go mad within the language and cultural symbols provided us by our lives, present and past.
After the taping of that show, which had happened across continents, between London, a National Public Radio affiliate in Virginia, and India, I remember feeling a jittery uneasiness, like an itch below the skin, about having been portrayed as some hero-survivor, a success story. I felt, in fact, after a couple of interviews about the book, that I had done nothing more than sell my tragedy in an au courant literary form, the trauma memoir, which courts, in this cultural moment, self-aggrandizement, even if that self-aggrandizement is half-buried under irony or self-deprecation. What had I done for my brother, or for schizophrenics? Made a few bucks for myself, become a “writer,” and received some praise for my “bravery”—bravery?—and crisp prose style.
After that, I spent a lot of time in the dark Virginia farmhouse where I lived then, and looked out the window at the cows shitting and pissing and eating in the drought-thatchy fields. I reread Emerson and De Quincey and Walter Benjamin, read Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, which had me doubting everything about my own autobiographical effort, read Paul Bowles’s bleak tales about Westerners punished for their arrogance, and Beckett’s existential monologues (“I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know”), read a slew of crime novels because of their clunky, ordered plots, and then—somewhere in all this reading, I can’t remember where (maybe volume 1 of Tristram Shandy)—I stumbled upon mention of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his radical materialist suggestion, especially for 1690 when this sort of thing could have you swinging chicken-necked and pop-eyed in the drizzly European courtyard, that organized religion itself was a kind of “folly” or madness. Folly is as much the commodity as art at the AVAM, but the particulars—the idiosyncratic essence of folly—don’t seem to matter. There is, as far as I can tell today, no attempt to get below the surface of things, to understand the making or the makers of this art. Folly, madness, or just extreme eccentricity is the frame around the picture, what draws your eye to it. And Thompson, in the context of the secular outsider-art world of dealers and collectors, looks pretty whacked out, frankly. But if you ever find yourself, as I sometimes do, buying coffee and a Power Bar at a 7-Eleven in the Bible belt, where the clerk is maybe telling the guy by the coffee machine that the Lord saved her baby from that fever, or the Lord helped her get her credit straight, or the Lord is holding her poor mama in His palm right now, Thompson doesn’t seem so much crazy as slightly unhinged and a product of a few grim tragedies, a cultural place, and a state of mind. So far today I’m swimming in garden-variety Southern, white, right-wing, tribal paranoia—which I’ve been in the vicinity of for most of my life—albeit turned up about ten notches. And Thompson seems to be a solid participant in what I recently heard someone—a Jewish female professor, in fact—refer to as the current “Christian fundamentalist revolution” in the United States.
That’s what I’m thinking, and keep thinking as Thompson and I walk through the downstairs gallery.
Bright floors, red walls, high ceilings; separate, connecting rooms housing thematically linked works. AVAM is an architectural marvel; it isn’t the new MoMA or the Getty, but it’s curvaceous and sleek and posh, with its wall of glass half-filled with the harbor.
I look at the paintings, sculptures, assemblages. Thompson moves jerkily on his crutches.
Here is a matchstick bust made by Gerald Hawkes, an African-American heroin addict who recently died of AIDS. It is intricate, genuinely beautiful, I think, “underwritten,” as George Steiner wrote in Real Presences, “by the assumption of God’s presence.” Thousands of matchsticks in the perfect shape of a head wilt me for a second. I feel the wind of my old sorrows tickling up my back. I think of the hours, the concentration. An image: my brother’s Bible, the whole text obsessively annotated, drawn in, written on, responded to. What the thousands of words said in paraphrase: Save me. The comfort of a mission. It’s how Thompson lives. It’s how I live, too, in my way, working on an essay, a book, putting words on pages, moving them around, most engaged and at ease while working, least engaged and at ease while not working, while standing stock-still on the periphery, the whole world drifting by like pictures on a movie screen, the story not making sense. In this way Thompson and I have some things in common.
I linger over the bust until he says something I miss. We move on.
I peruse works by the fundamentally religious, but also by mental patients, addicts and alcoholics, people who committed suicide, prisoners, the poor and homeless. Like a warehouse of good old marginalization. Colors and despair. Flowers in a graveyard.
I notice some barely known artworks—acrylic paint, spray paint, and collage on wooden doors—by William S. Burroughs, with the titles Drug Hysteria and Rx-Morphine at Dawn. And over there, on the left wall, are works by Linda St. John, owner of the trendy New York clothing boutique D. L. Cerney, whose memoir Even Dogs Go Home to Die was reviewed jointly with a collection of stories I wrote in the Chicago Tribune, the two of us lumped together, in the mind of this reviewer, as exponents of some sort of neobeat aesthetic. And maybe there is some truth to this. At nineteen, at twenty, as I bounced from job to job, from fishing dock to pouring concrete to house painting, before I had even mastered grammar, to be honest, I read Burroughs’s Junkie and Queer and was floored; and then there was Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Knut Hamsun, Nathaniel West, Jean Genet, Alexander Trocchi, John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion—all “beat” in their way. But these writers are far from being outsiders; they are, rather, intimately familiar with the inside workings of culture, each of them writing to subvert, to revolt. I read them, I’m sure, for some of the same reasons I listened to the Sex Pistols and X as a kid and jumped over fences to skateboard illegally in empty winter pools. The parameters of Roger Cardinal’s “outsider art” are clearly up for debate. As Colin Rhodes writes, “There is a danger of the term [outsider art] becoming all-inclusive and therefore meaningless.”
This critical discomfort and these questions are mine alone. Thompson pays almost no attention to any of the art except his own, would not bother to ponder distinctions between Gerald Hawkes, a poor heroin addict from the ghettos of Baltimore, and William Burroughs, a heroin addict who shot his wife and shot up in Warhol’s Factory, who was presciently aware of how the joke of American celebrity culture and product-consumption-as-identity would soon become our religion, who was a hero of the American underground, and who recorded the spoken-word “Star Me Kitten” with R.E.M. on the album Automatic for the People (the web of connections!). Thompson is either so obsessed with what he sees as his “art ministry,” or so encased in his own churning ego, or some combination of the two, that he rarely notices other things—people, life.
As we walk, I ask him if he has read anything about outsider art. He is, in his demeanor and social skills, a polite and often reasonable man who might have been troubled by this. Does he wonder about how he is categorized and viewed by places like this or by journals like Raw Vision, which mentioned and then never explored his “road-to-Damascus” vision, barely touched on his extreme fundamentalist thinking—a hard sell to secular art browsers and buyers—then praised, with clichés too common to outsider-art writing, his “remarkable Revelation murals” and “unmistakable style which owes much to the lack of normal control of his arms and legs caused by his illness.”
“No. Not really,” he says. “It doesn’t interest me. I did once start to read a book about it and all the people were deranged. They were schizophrenics and retarded people. Patients in hospitals. People living in shacks or on the streets. It bothered me. I’m not like that. If a person goes into an asylum and paints art while they’re in there then their work seems to be worth more. When I looked at that book, I didn’t want to be included. I don’t feel that’s my case. People automatically assume you’re crazy if you talk to God.”
“You mentioned the Holy Spirit,” I say, “that you feel it when you paint the same way you felt it during the vision. I imagine that’s the kind of thing a writer might seize upon.”
“Right. I do feel a supernatural power, feel that I can do anything. The way they did on the day of Pentecost. I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not ashamed of my belief. I don’t think that makes me crazy.”
Thompson, not long ago, told me about how Rebecca Hoffberger encouraged him after his first show here to study Buddhism, a religion he refers to as “heathern.” I can’t get over the obvious incongruities and oppositions, his beliefs and the beliefs of the people showing and viewing and buying his work. And the fact that Hoffberger mentioned Buddhism to him perhaps shows how it is in her best interest not to try to intimately understand the rationale, “the private theatre,” behind some of the art she is showing. Thompson told me she refused to show his paintings that depicted the Holocaust and Jews, and that they had “a blow up” over it, though he didn’t want to go into details. What might Thompson say about Buddhists? That they are all going to hell, for starters.
There is a great moment in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing when he shows the reader Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows and then shows it again with the caption written beneath it: “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.” This information changes perception. The way we see and interpret is suddenly charged by tragedy. Outsider art, once collected, often makes the caption more important than the painting for the sake of display. But rarely are the particulars beneath the caption, the actual thinking and mission of the artist, explored. Maybe this is what Beverly Finster intuited when she said her father was “exploited.” But it’s complicated—because the “exploitation,” if that’s what it is, comes almost accidentally, naively, through the gestalt of therapy culture, the unavoidable social economy (the business) in which all art exists, and from those who believe they are being enlightened and liberal and humanistic in celebrating the work of the marginalized and the lost. It’s the cult of sensibilité all over again, we enlightened folks feeling sympathy for the pathetic and damaged—poor them! Glad it ain’t me! Obviously I am interested in the lives of the “marginalized,” but I feel turning them into John Dryden’s “noble savages” is one of the worst things we can do. And continuing to equate madness to freedom demeans, further disenfranchises. Here’s a thought—how about treating these artists, these addicts and preachers and inmates, like people, letting them talk and listening. Show the work, yes, because much stands up as beautiful and strange work regardless of the biography, but what about solemnity, thoughtfulness? “Visionary” weddings? I’m waiting for a carnival barker to scream in my ear. I feel like I’m going to run into the bearded lady around any corner.
“It’s over here,” Thompson says.
We come to Idolatry, the first of four collaborations between Thompson and Norbert Kox that will later come to be known as Elohim: The Apocalyptic Time Machine and be described by the two (though most of this thinking, I feel certain, comes from Kox, the more cerebral of them) in this way: “æElohim’ is the Hebrew word we translate as æGod,’ and æapocalypse’ is the New Testament word for revelation. The concept of Elohim: The Apocalyptic Time Machine is very simple and at the same time quite complex. Elohim, God, exists in a limitless eternity, outside of our realm of measured time. According to Scripture he knows and sees the end from the beginning. This is what makes prophecy possible. He sees what has happened before we experience it. To him it has already taken place. All past, present and future are recorded in the eternal archives of the omniscient Elohim. At times he chooses to allow certain people to glimpse the future. This is a prophetic revelation, an apocalypse of things to come, an actual view of God’s memory. Since he holds all knowledge of past, present, and future, Elohim is a virtual time capsule, a time machine: Elohim: The Apocalyptic Time Machine.”
Idolatry is a nine-and-a-half-by-seven-foot canvas that reminds me, at first glance, of a heavy metal black-light poster from the late seventies. The Catholic representation of the Virgin Mary with her arms outstretched is at its center. Mary’s head, however, is a skull in profile. Between her skeletal hands are stretched paper dolls being eaten at either side of the painting by dragon heads coming out from under her dress; these paper dolls, painted by Thompson, represent the “abortion mills.” “Noitroba” is written on the crown—“abortion” backwards. The crown on Mary’s head also holds up seven churches, which represent the ecumenical or “one-world” church, a big discussion topic among the Christian far right. There is small, white writing all over the black background, mostly verses from Revelation. At the top of the painting it says vicarius, which Thompson explains is the word written on the pope’s crown. Vertically down one side vicarius is written again, but this time the letters are read by the artists as Roman numerals: V = 5; I = 1; C = 100. Thompson and Kox have this somehow adding up to 666 (Thompson did something similar, with the Latin word viciviliid, in Revelation Revealed), though I keep getting 106, which deflates some of the conspiracy punch of the painting. Even after talking about it for several minutes, I’m still not, numerically speaking, getting it.
“It adds up to 666,” Thompson says impatiently, “the mark of the beast. In Revelation it says to know the number and know the man. Social security numbers may be connected to the number of the beast.”
On Mary’s chest is the burning, severed head of Christ, painted by Norbert Kox, who is best known for his series of mawkish Christ heads. Jesus—“Yesu” to Thompson and Kox—looks like a screen print on Mary’s T-shirt. He has a sword through his eye (this image upset Thompson’s devoutly Pentecostal family so badly that they refuse to allow the painting back into their home).
The image of Christ’s head, Thompson explains, leaning on one crutch and pointing up at the painting, is the “false image” of Christ painted by Warner Sallman in 1940, the gauzy, earth-tone one we have all seen if we’ve ever been inside a church; the Sallman Christ, Norbert Kox’s métier, is part of a conspiracy to lead Christians away from the true Yesu. This is not Christ, Thompson says, but the trickery of the devil.
I get lost in the explanation when Thompson starts telling me about the “important books of Ian Paisley,” a fundamentalist Irish Protestant separatist who actually wants war with the Catholics. He says he has come to understand the true nature of the papacy and the mark of the beast by reading Paisley’s books. I write Paisley’s name in my notebook with books?
“So this collaboration between you and Kox is primarily a critique of organized religion?”
“Yes,” says Thompson. “We both have Pentecostal backgrounds. I have Pentecostal Holiness. I believe he’s United Pentecostal. I think that’s what it is. You’ll have to ask him. Anyway, we really agree on things.”
Just as I am about to ask a question, a small, thirty-something woman with a mohawk and multiple piercings comes toward us, smiling. She’s wearing faded cargo pants, a Hawaiian shirt, and combat boots. Around her left wrist are about fifty or so different colored rubber bands. A rainbow triangle button is on her collar.
“William,” she says, happy to see him.
“Hi,” Thompson says, smiling back.
They hug tightly for a moment in front of his painting.
Thompson introduces me to her. She asks if I’m an art writer and, after a second’s thought, I tell her no, just a person who reports things. She’s an art writer, “totally focusing on outsider stuff.”
“William, I totally love your painting, man,” she says, sticking her hands down in her pockets and rocking slightly on her scuffed combat boots—the gesture of a nervous teen. “I came and looked at it this morning. I mean, I really get it, you know. I get what you’re doing. It’s very powerful. Because I’m like totally down with spirituality, you know—I’m a very spiritual person—but not with all of the hypocrisy of religion. I go to this church in New York and we have a lesbian minister, you know, and it’s all about love and joyful worship.” She looks at me. She’s seems to be talking more to me than Thompson now. I smile: love and joyful worship. “I had kind of a weird time in college, you know, when I was coming to terms with … stuff. And I went to a church and like everyone was totally waving their hands and it was like a weird cult telling you do this and not that and be this and not that, everyone all like conforming to this certain way of being and stuff.” She plinks some of her rubber bands.
Thompson listens, smiling. I expect him to correct her, talk about Revelation and the pope and the real and false Jews and the Masons and how this is a pro-life painting—Noitroba, 666—tell her about Jesus being a white guy, about Kox’s Warner Sallman paintings and the Y/J conspiracy theory, but he doesn’t. He smiles.
I’m baffled. I wait for a stream of fire to shoot out of his mouth.
Finally, the art writer says she’ll see him tonight at the opening and they hug again before she leaves. Just before she walks away, a photographer—a guy with shaggy hair and Doc Martens and tattoos—who has been over in another corner looking at a painting, asks the art writer and Thompson if either of them have seen Tom, meaning Tom Patterson, and suddenly I feel like I’m at a party to which I wasn’t invited.
“That seemed an odd exchange,” I say as we walk away from the painting, back through the galleries.
“Oh,” says Thompson. “How so?”
“Well, she just came over here—and she is an art writer, right—and completely misread your intentions in this painting, at least as you’ve just explained them to me.”
“It’s about the hypocrisy of religion. It’s about how people become addicted to religion in a way that does away with God. That’s the core.”
“But she sees it as kind of the standard secular critique of religion. You know, what Marx said: religion as the opiate of the people. She looks at that”—I point back in the direction of the large painting—“and sees you as a secular person. A person who left the church for some of the same reasons she left that church during college. Do you worry about this? Or do you wonder who your audience is?”
“I do worry about my audience,” he says, the rubber tips of his crutches squeaking on the clean floor as we move again, the overhead lighting caught in the lenses of his glasses. “But I want my work, my message, to get out there. That’s the most important thing. I’m an outsider to the church. I know that. The church won’t have my paintings. The outsider art world has opened its arms. This place.” He pauses, looks around—at mayhem, abuse, addiction, suicide, insanity, and obsession. “You have to understand: I’ve never been more welcomed.”