In the Realms of the Unreal
I accidentally caught the Henry Darger documentary on PBS last night that Ron Silliman writes about in great detail on his blog post of Monday, June 27, 2005. Having previously seen his work in galleries and museums with a sketchy sense of him as an eccentric who contrived an elaborate alternative universe, etc. I have to say that my impression had been one of unease-at the violence, the supposed pedaphelia- coupled with admiration for the obsessive focus such a voluminous project necessitates. But this biopic leaves me with a different impression of his work, a more complex picture of the artist and his intentions, and more questions. While none of the people (mostly neighbors with whom he had very little contact) interviewed in the film seemed particularly authoritative on the subject of Darger the person, it is quickly realized that they are the only link to this hermetic and askew man. But by hearing his autobiography paralleled with the adventures of the Vivian Girls it seems clear that the Vivian Girls are a thinly veiled allegory for how mistreated he had been and how emotionally stunted he remained as an adult as a result. Therefore the viscerality of his paintings are perhaps tempered by an understanding that this was an inward person's way of interpreting and claiming agency over perceived societal injustice with dreamlike extensions/exaggerations. It's a matter of proportions. I'm not going to fume and plot imaginary revenge against the woman who yelled at me in traffic today (looking up in my rear view mirror, her head was shaking like a bobble), but someone a little more sensitive on the psychological map may register it as a tremendous personal abuse (which is, I have to admit, how I felt at the time). And while the film didn't insinuate that he ever acted out any malevolent behaviors, is it so taboo for one such as him to have such a porous boundary between what is felt and what is candidly expressed in fantasy? His neighbors said that while he carried on all night conversations with himself upon entering his apartment (in different voices even), he seemed profoundly aware of the boundary that distinguished the private world of his apartment from the outside, and he knew, or at least behaved as if he knew, that such behavior was not socially acceptable once outside his private domain. That doesn't represent a total break with reality to me. (Will have to remember to get Katie the psychologist's impression of this when she and Paul come over to dinner next weekend.) On the sexual side, which I had found the most problematic in his work initially, an interesting speculation one of his neighbors made was that his girls were depicted with penises simply out of his own innocence, having never seen a nude female and assuming they possessed an anatomy like his. I still look at the work a little unease, and I look at the cache of "outsider" art with altogether more unease, not unease with outsider artists' work in general, but with the patronizing stance toward it- the assumptions of a mainstream art world in creating the category and criteria for that category- by educated, privileged, theory-hugging, market-spotting "experts."