Across the Ocean and Down the Street: “Envelope” at Visionaries + Voices

October 31st, 2014  |  Published in October 2014  |  1 Comment

“Envelope,” the show currently up at the Visionaries + Voices (V+V) Gallery in Northside (through November 14, 2014), is a beautiful display of twittering, delicate art from all over the world created solely for the purpose of being mailed back and forth. That simple “back and forth” premise somehow allows the drawings and doodles and collages in the show to expand out from their origins, and to escape the twee formulations of “whimsy” and “charity” often associated with “outsider art,” and/or “art by people with developmental disabilities,” the main pigeonhole(s) artists who use V+V studio facilities and services are often consigned to. “Envelope” re-brands V+V’s status in an effortlessly keen way, disconnecting philanthropy and biography (which often blur what the art in a V+V exhibit is, does, and even looks like) from the conversation.

By jettisoning the usual not-for-profit precautions and postures and propaganda, “Envelope” focuses our eyes and heads on a process and the results of a process that escape the confines of program/institution/studio. It’s a show about art being made and shipped and reconstituted and shipped back by a variety of practitioners who are not coded as anything other than universal art-makers and art-thinkers. That streamlining enlivens the viewing experience by just getting on with the business at hand: displaying vital, weird, fresh art in a vitally weird and fresh manner. Period.

The walls are drawn-on, expansive and scattered lines that follow each other like roadmaps losing their sense of cartography and gaining a sense of hunger. The space itself is completely ordered, fashioned into a backroom postal zone that seems both dream-like disheveled and resourcefully efficient. You see shelves of letters and envelopes, white-shadow-boxed works from across the ocean and down the street, pedestals displaying secret little notions jotted down, erased, reconfigured, with multiple portraits of Dr. Phil thrown in for good measure. There’s a fanzine punk aspect to it all, merged with a Joseph Cornell spookiness and precision. The space and the show could be a church storeroom or a geeky teenager’s bedroom, and all of those associations come out clear and true as you wonder through the volumes of mailed and fretted-over postcards, envelopes, letters, and other assorted postal ephemera. It’s kind of intoxicating in its own little way, like walking through someone’s thoughts, a subliminal slide through mental fogs and epiphanies. It’s literary and artistic and ambitious without trying very hard. And that’s probably the biggest compliment I can pay just about any art show in town.

Coordinated and skillfully installed by Krista Gregory, the in-house curator at V+V, “Envelope” feels like a new moment in V+V’s exhibit history; it seems to herald a blissfully unpretentious yet wonderfully astute era in which art and artists of all kinds can interrelate and connect and merge in a variety of ways outside of the usual reasons.

And that’s the reason I love this show, because Krista, and the whole V+V crew, seem to be trying to negotiate all the issues surrounding “this kind of art” without being a slave to those negotiations. Mea culpa here: I helped cofound V+V a little over eleven years ago with a bunch of other artists and social workers. Throughout the course of my V+V journey (which sort of ended in 2009, but never really came to an ending, just a parting of ways), the only thing that has truly kept me inspired/interested/connected with “outsider art” (big emphasis on those quotation marks) is grappling with how to escape sympathy and altruism, and embrace aesthetics: how do we keep the art from being consumed by all the noise about other circumstances? How do we pay tribute to unique styles and insights and techniques and talents without making it all a “charitable act”? I mean, charity is great of course; compassion and empathy enrich the universe. But showcasing the art and the artists who call V+V home without that gaze is truly the major cultural work I think.

“Envelope” does this in a number of strategic, clever ways: “internationalizing” the scope of V+V’s intentions, uniting artists who use the studio and programming with artists who don’t, and most importantly figuring out how to install/exhibit the art in completely serious ways without losing a sort of institutional insouciance, merging a keen eye and intent with a sense of joyous plurality.

Go see it.

–Keith Banner


  1. Kurt W. Storch says:

    November 1st, 2014at 10:38 am(#)

    Great writing Keith. And long overdue. These are people, not geeks. And we should not be gawkers, which we are as long as we continue to label them. These are artists who happen to be disabled. Not disabled who happen to be artists. With this amazing exhibit it looks like maybe V&V has moved on from playing the idiot/savant card.And yet, they face a very difficult task.