As Houston civic institutions such as the Orange Show and Beer Can House demonstrate, “outsider art” was hardly regarded as art at all until the mid-20th century. But in 1947, the French visual artist and critic Jean Dubuffet opened a space in Paris devoted to what he called art brut. Literally, the term translates as “raw art.”
As proprietor of Intuitive Eye—a sort of all-purpose art-consulting shop based out of his curio-stuffed Heights-area home—Jay Wehnert is perhaps the city’s leading authority on this funky, oft-misunderstood field. His new book, Outsider Art in Texas (Texas A&M University Press), highlights the work of 11 Lone Star artists who both struggled against and were inspired by a deep sense of isolation, whether self- or state-imposed.
Given its sheer size and highly idiosyncratic nature, Texas might be expected to produce an abundance of outsider artists. Still, “it’s hard to account for the quality of it,” admits Wehnert. “To have such a number of artists who have created such exceptionally wonderful work is hard to explain.”
Houstonia asked Wehnert to shed a little more light on three especially striking pieces from his book.
Charles Dellschau, Plate 4400, Aero Nix (1919)
Forty-five years after the reclusive Houston artist’s 1923 death, Wehnert says, “the contents of his room get pitched out onto the sidewalk and make their way to the dump, where they’re rescued by a local antiques dealer: 14 or more hand-bound volumes, both text and illustrations, that chronicle his participation in a secret society of men creating lighter-than-air flying machines.”
Frank Jones, Untitled Devil House (undated)
“Frank ended up spending most of his adult life in Huntsville state prison…He began creating art that both was symbolic of the prison world that he found himself in—these structures with cells, inhabited by evil beings, often including a clock tower—but also symbolic of his inner life of trying to keep himself safe from the devils that haunted him throughout his life.”
Consuelo “Chelo” González Amézcua, The Smile of a Texan Girl (undated)
Born in Mexico, the artist immigrated to the U.S. with her family, says Wehnert. In Texas they “found themselves in a place that wasn’t quite the United States; it was this border region in Del Rio. Chelo’s life and her art I think reflect a lot of that isolation, both geographic but also cultural: You’re in this limbo-like place. In many ways, her works were her attempts to reconcile the two.”
Reading and book-signing, Dec 12 at 7. Free. Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross St. 713-525-9400. menil.org