Henry Darger at Intuit: The Centre for Intuitive and Outsider Art

 Henry Darger, At Wickey Sansinia They fight their pursuers still nude, 19” x 37”, Collection of Angela and Dale Taylor,
 © Kiyoko Lerner, courtesy Intuit: The Centre for Intuitive and Outsider Art

In the Realms of the Unreal with Henry Darger
Intuit: The Centre for Intuitive and Outsider Art
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Through June 28, 2008

Chicago is an American city of rare beauty: kept awake by the rattling of its elevated train system and framed by the elegance of its skyscrapers; it is a vibrant artistic centre, distinguished by the originality of its productions. It is not a coincidence then that it is in Chicago we find a very unconventional art centre called Intuit: The Centre for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Not far from the pulsing heart of the "windy city", Intuit promotes public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of work by artists who demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world and who seem instead motivated by their unique personal visions.

 Installation view, Darger's Room, 2008, Photo Credit: John Faier, courtesy Intuit: The Centre for Intuitive and Outsider Art

Loyal to its mission, Intuit is currently showing the work of Henry Darger, a complete outsider whose work, a colossal obsessive effort, is quickly developing a cult following after being overlooked until recently. Born in 1892, Henry Darger lived a shadowy and reclusive existence for many years in a small north-side Chicago apartment until his death in 1973. Posthumously, Darger’s extraordinary ‘secret life,’ which he never meant to be shared, was discovered in the form of 15 massive volumes comprised of some 15,145 pages entitled The Realms of the Unreal. In this epic fiction, recounting the wars between the nations on an enormous and unnamed planet of which Earth is a moon, Darger depicts the archetypal struggle between good and evil. The angelic Vivian Girls (7 blond little sisters who look exactly the same and at times appear naked revealing minute penises and testicles) represent the good, whilst the horrific violence inflicted by men known as Glandelinians, who subject the children to strangulation, crucifixion, evisceration and more unmentionable horrors represent evil. It is undeniable, and that is part of the charm involved, that Darger’s imagery is seductively disturbing. His watercolours employ the use of bright and pastel tones combined with the surreal and frequently violent content presented by his narrative. The scale of Darger’s drawings is also unconventional, ranging from standard drawing pads to mural-sized works made of joined sheets, three or four feet high and as much as ten to twelve feet long.

 Henry Darger, Angel with American Flag Wings (detail), 107” x 24”,
 courtesy of Intuit: The Centre for Intuitive and Outsider Art

Although Darger is considered an outsider in the sense that his artistic creativity was not directly informed by mainstream art, it is fair to argue that the epic format he employed, along with the phantasy-genre element involved in the creation of an alternate world, are strongly reminiscent of Tolkien’s work. From a stylistic point of view his characters were not freely drawn but instead traced from three principal sources: coloring books, comics and advertisements for children's fashions from the 40’s and 50’s. This approach, which Darger ‘invented’ to best suit his representational purpose, is reminiscent of ‘image/modernism’: a late 19th century tendency to recycle already exhibiting visual material to create paintings or photographic collage. More uncannily, Darger’s girls bring to mind the child-mannequin-type dolls brought to life by Jake and Dinos Chapman in the mid 1990’s; although the sexual element contained in Darger is not threatening because of the minute size of the girls’ masculine genitalia. Speculation over this curious anatomical anomaly was initially read as a sign of Darger’s presumed repressed pedophilia; yet it is argued that Darger's bizarre and isolated existence precluded him from ever grasping that the genders differ greatly in their private parts.

 Darger’s Apartment, Photo Credit: Michael Boruch, courtesy Intuit: The Centre of Intuitive and Outsider Art

This unmissable show is at Intuit until the 28th of June and, along with a selection of Darger’s epic, it also houses a meticulously accurate reconstruction of the room he worked in.

Giovanni Aloi

 Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.

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