STRANGE AND ORIGINAL The stick tree and friends. [Photo by Greg Cook]
“The Fantasy Worlds of Doug Nichols” at AS220’s Project Space (93 Mathewson St, Providence, through January 25) is an amazing installation of cardboard and bright green and yellow and blue tape sculptures that feels like a tropical jungle. Or somewhere prehistoric. Inhabited by flying alligators and robots wearing binoculars and arrow quivers.
The sculptures are big, adult-person-sized, but feel like you’ve walked into a child’s drawing, 3D sketches of the essence of the flora and fauna. Which makes it feel both delightful and uncanny.
The heart of the thing is a yellow and green stick tree, like a kid’s sketch of a mangrove grown eight feet tall. A giant dragonfly-like creature, with an alligator head, lumpy body, long flat wings, and wiry arms and legs, seems to hover high on the wall behind it. The flying thing turns its head to keep an eye on a green four-legged creature that could be a stick-figure lion-dog, with cans for eyes and fringe for a mane. It lifts its nose toward the tree branches. A tall staff, wrapped in green tape, leans in the corner, adding a note of magic. And a bundle of clear plastic tape — or something like that — dangles from the ceiling like some giant, alien chrysalis that will soon hatch some things that will probably swarm everywhere and eat everything.
Nichols’s art “is driven by the fantasy world of dragons and warriors, Power Rangers, and Pokemon,” according to a description by Top Drawer Art at the Brass, an art program in Warren for local adults with developmental disabilities that Nichols participates in and which organized this exhibition. Officially Nichols’s sculptures fall into the nebulous category of “outsider” art or folk art or perhaps self-taught art, basically all terms the “fine” art world has mustered to politely explain that this great stuff apparently operates in a separate category from what regular artists do.
But these hierarchies are bending. Top Drawer Art and the Pawtucket-based Resources for Human Development-RI’s arts-based therapy programs for adults with developmental disabilities are often led by artists and musicians who embrace and foster the art of their participants — including public exhibitions of their work. This reflects longstanding efforts to mainstream those with disabilities while also recognizing that this sort of art is not really “outsider” any more, but one of the hottest things going in the fine art world.
UNTAMED AND EMOTIONAL Nichols's robot.
On the one hand, Nichols’s claw-hands; cardboard and tape helmet-masks; full-sized robots; and shield-like thing with two protruding horns wrapped in “fragile handle with care” tape recall century-old bark-cloth and bamboo sculptures of the Baining people of New Guinea or festival masks still being crafted in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and other parts of Africa. They also bring to mind folk art, fantasy environments made from concrete, mosaic, and recycled junk like Three Sisters Sanctuary in Goshen, Massachusetts.
It’s art that often gives a jolt as it leapfrogs the ironic detachment and hands-off craftsmanship that pervades much work at the top of the art world. It feels more in touch with our desires to run our fingers over things, for ornament, for something untamed and emotional. Which is why more and more “fine” artists have been adopting its means too — from Nick Cave’s tribal-style costumes to, locally, some of the Dirt Palace gang or the magnificent shrine-installation that Meredith Younger and William Schaff have at 186 Carpenter (through January 30).
At AS220, Nichols achieves a lot with only a few sculptures — tree, dragon, lion, staff, cocoon-thing. There’s no background but the bare white walls. But each object radiates focus and specificity, feeling strange and original and confidently itself. It’s a great show, a masterpiece. The RISD Museum should buy the heart of it for its permanent collection.