Vital visions

The Ricco/Maresca Gallery, a prestigious Outsider Art gallery in New York City, has mounted ”Autistic/Aspergers/Art,” an exhibit by mostly professional artists who have autism or the higher-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome.
In the waning years of the 18th century, an intellectual movement swept across the European continent that would forever change the public’s perception of the artist.

”Romanticism” rebelled against the notion that people everywhere were the same, that there should be uniform standards in art, that it took years of academic study to be a great artist, and that art was the idealized output of a civilized society.

Instead, the Romantics saw the ”true” artist as a social outsider and truly sublime art as the idiosyncratic expression of a unique vision arising from the artist’s instinctive response to personal experience.

Two centuries later, Romanticism continues to rock the world, as two events this week demonstrate. Both events celebrate Outsider Art — the work of self-taught, outside-the-mainstream artists — in particular, the highly individualistic perceptions of artists with neurological disorders that affect their ability to communicate through speech and interact with others.

The Ricco/Maresca Gallery, a prestigious Outsider Art gallery in New York City, has mounted ”Autistic/Aspergers/Art,” an exhibit by mostly professional artists who have autism or the higher-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome.

Also, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City is hosting ”Outsider Art Week.” Among the events is a panel discussion on ”Autism/Asperger’s Art,” featuring leading autism researchers and family members of people with autism, including Valerie Paradiz, author of ”Elijah’s Cup: A Family’s Journey into the Community and Culture of High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome,” and director of ASPIE (The School for Autistic Strength, Purpose, and Independence in Education) in Boiceville, N.Y.

Organizer of both events was Dr. Larry Dumont, an expert in autism who is also director of child and pre-adolescent psychology at KidsPeace in Orefield, Lehigh County, an organization that serves the behavioral and mental-health needs of children and teens in crisis.

Gallery owners Roger Ricco and Frank Maresca had been reading about autism and asked Dumont, a longtime collector of Outsider Art, and one of their patrons, to curate the exhibit and organize the panel discussion.”In a sense, all artists are autistic to a certain degree, expressing a personal vision that is theirs alone,” says Dumont. ”But autistic individuals approach the world from a different perspective than individuals not so challenged. What is truly illuminating about the autistic artist is how the art gives us inroads, not just into what preoccupies the artist’s mind, it is also a detour into the operative mode of the mind.

”The exhibit is not about pathology — not to say, ‘Gee, look at how these people who are so challenged can paint!’ but to say, ‘These people have a different perspective on the world, let’s see what they can reveal to us.’

”Or, to put it another way, it’s not about what the autistic individual lacks, but about what the autistic artist’s unique perception — the alternative world that his art reveals — can offer to those of us who are so-called ‘normal.”’

Thinking in pictures

According to the Autism Society of America, autism is a neurobiological disorder that affects cognitive, social and communication skills. Its cause is unknown. More than 1.5 million Americans have autism. What distinguishes Asperger’s from autism is the absence of language delays and evidence of normal, sometimes even high, intelligence.

Despite the obvious problems resulting from autism, the disorder seems to create an artistic mindset. Dr. Temple Grandin, a high-achieving autistic and world-famous designer of humane slaughterhouse equipment, writes in her book ”Thinking in Pictures” that autistic adults often think in visual images.

”One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly at verbal skills,” she writes.

About her own abilities, she notes: ”Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies … but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.”

The universe as it should be

Many artists struggle with finding a voice; that is, a point of view that is unique to them. In contrast, autistic individuals naturally operate in their own world.

The autistic person’s focus on a single channel of expression, which frequently manifests itself in rigid thinking and an obsessive interest in a particular subject or artistic technique, arises from the person’s need to manage sensory overload.

Says Dumont: ”They’ll repeat themselves endlessly; there is regulation, structure and ordering of objects, and a remarkable detailing and precision.”

Repetition. An ordering of objects. Precision. Does this sound like anyone famous in the art world?

”I do wonder if Andy Warhol were to be evaluated today, if he would be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or something like it,” muses Dumont. ”You look at his Brillo box. Was he really an entrepreneur tapping into the veins of American Culture, or was he, with his own idiosyncratic vision and perseverative detail, translating the object which obsessed him — and which the rest of us saw daily and didn’t think twice about — into something that is indeed beautiful?”

Dumont says that a diagnosis of autism does not automatically make an artist interesting. ”What distinguishes the great autistic artists is that unique passion they bring to their subject,” he says.

Each of the artists in the Ricco/Maresca Gallery exhibit has a characteristic perseveration: Xyler Jane’s repeating lines and pinpoint colors, Jack Thomas’ detailed maps, young Justin Canha’s vibrant cartoon grid, Ken Grimes’ compulsive words of warning.

Susan Brown of New York, born in 1957 and drawing since she was 5 years old, before she had language other than made up words, paints grid-like drawings on cardboard, which became readily available at Friendly’s Restaurant, where she worked. Her works are included in numerous private and corporate collections.

The earliest works of Donald Mitchell of San Francisco consisted primarily of obsessively crosshatched fields of lines or brush strokes that hid the underlying image. In recent years, he has uncovered the buried faces and forms and his works are now filled with figures marching across the illuminated field of his vision.

For Laura Craig McNellis, art is the one and only means by which she can communicate. She is known worldwide for her depictions of simple subject matter, but her work has become brighter and more whimsical over the years.

The autistic artist strives for perfection, and in doing so, seeks to communicate what he or she is unable to express verbally. ”Through the obsessive quality of the artwork, they are sharing their world view with us, and we are privileged to tap into it. It’s a voyage of discovery,” says Dumont.

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