29 September 2014

A Room With a View: Peering Into the Universe of Henry Darger

Taking a note of inspiration from Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence and subsequent written work The Small Museum published in the New York Times magazine earlier this year, I visited the Henry Darger Room Collection at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago. Below is the piece that I composed in response to the experience.


The red brick exterior of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art is unassuming – but contained within its walls is a peek into the universe of the artist Henry Darger. Stepping into the front of the museum is like stepping into someone’s home, there were no ticket-taking kiosks or guards. This welcome is a fitting introduction for a museum that holds the only evocation of Darger’s home, a one-room apartment of creative intrigue.


As I made my way to The Henry Darger Room Collection, I acclimated myself to the style and aesthetic of outsider art. On view were naïve paintings of celebrities like Elvis, Steve Buschemi, and James Van Der Beek – which showed how spectacular the art of an untrained hand could be. Subject matter and artistic materials varied, but it was clear that the work in this museum celebrates the creative potential all people possess. Toward the back corner of the rear gallery laid Darger’s Room. Entering the room is an experiential feast for the eyes. Though the space was cluttered, it felt sacred – a sanctuary tucked away from the hustle of the city streets.
 
There were piles of National Geographic magazines and stacks of mismatched boxes each hand labeled to reveal the contents within. To my right was a tattered wicker laundry basket full to the brim with rolled balls of twine. Magazine cutouts, religious ephemera, images of little girls, and photographs of plumes of smoke were framed and hung in a rhythmic pattern on the chocolate brown walls. I felt inspired while immersed in this space, the walls a collage of imagery and a large assortment of art supplies well within my grasp.

The ground that wasn’t covered in art supplies revealed hardwood floors. There was a wrought iron fireplace and oak mantel peppered with religious figurines and flanked by framed drawings of the Vivian Girls – images Darger used as source material throughout his sixty-year career. To my left was a table covered in coloring books, crayons, tubes of acrylic paint, and neat piles of magazines and newspaper tied with twine.

But what grabbed me was the desk where he worked. Beneath a dimly lit chandelier sat a circular wooden table. It was covered with faded magazines, repurposed cigar boxes filled with crayons, acrylics, and watercolors, and a single cartoon of a little girl. Above the table hung an array of framed images, my favorite written in Darger’s familiar scrawl NO SMOKING UNDER NO CONDITIONS??! – a humorous message made for and seen only by Darger. It was at this desk that he put pen to paper, painstakingly transferring images of little girls and men on horseback into his fanciful landscapes of a fantasy world that made sense to him alone. The chair mirrored the desk in its clutter, there was nowhere to sit, there was nowhere to rest.

It wasn’t until I read the single didactic panel that it hit me – there wasn’t a bed in the room. Darger’s work, a combination of drawings and writings some of which were twelve feet in length, were so large he couldn’t fully open them in his one room apartment. So devoted to his work, he ultimately chose to store his art supplies on his bed sleeping at the table and chair in which he worked, hence the omission of a bed in this display.

The limited didactic material in the room led me to examine in detail the desk, the framed images, and the various containers. I mentally reached out to open the boxes and thumbed through stacks of magazines. I imagined what it would be like to live in solitude existing in a creative fortress carefully built for one. For what was left untold by the curators was also left untold by Darger himself. What little is known of him has left space for questions and mystery. By experiencing Darger through his collection, we can only begin to form a picture of him using one of his greatest tools: the imagination.

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