Playing your own game

“Off the Grid” explores the fringes of the art world
By IAN PAIGE  |  November 7, 2007
WITH HIS PET DINOSAUR: Jerry Cardone, in a photo collage by Tonee Harbert.

"Off The Grid: Maine Vernacular Environments" | at USM, Gorham | Through Nov 11 | 207.780.5008
I had to feel a little bad for John Beardsley during the symposium for “Off the Grid: Maine Vernacular Environments” that took place this last week at the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus. After carefully consolidating his voluminous knowledge into a 15-minute presentation, the eminent Harvard professor relinquished the podium to infamous Maine novelist Carolyn Chute, who stole the show by wearing two antennae fashioned from aluminum foil while reciting some insights from the people of the planet Pluto, taking about five minutes and offering the rest of her time to “someone who needs it.”

I felt bad only because if the game was one of economy, the prize went to Chute. By applying the lessons of her Plutonian friends she succinctly summarized the pesky question of how to handle what is sometimes called “Outsider Art,” “Art Brut,” or most recently, “Vernacular Art.” She compared humans to our similarly socialized cohabitants, bees, with our systems, our hives, and our royalty. For Chute, the line between "Insider" and "Outsider" art is drawn with the pen of class consciousness and the distinction of “man-made;” nature is nothing more than bees making honey and humans making refined sugar. From the perspective of the outer reaches of the solar system, all art no matter its class origins is a relatively homogeneous animal byproduct.

The gallery show “Off the Grid” approaches with curiosity and reverence an artistic practice inherently opposed to (or unaware of) the categorization of academics and the temporal fashions of the market-based art world. Curator Carolyn Eyler avoids the trappings of exploitation and smugness because of her earnest engagement with these art worlds-unto-their-own. During her ten years as USM's director of exhibitions and programs, she has privately researched the field, following tangents of collaboration and exploration to the far corners of the state.

The exhibit reflects the ongoing nature of the research project. We are invited to post other undiscovered artists on a map of Maine. There is little gallery pomp — introductory materials are simply presented, like an elementary-school bulletin board. Eyler has paid close attention to recreating a sense of the five featured artists’ own worlds. Four “rooms” subdivide the space so that you first enter Joe and Bea Bryant’s museum and antique-stove business. Some stove selections (the artists say it’s “the real art”) along with an animated merry-go-round and a giant wall of buttons sewn to a series of cards are merely a fraction of what they have amassed in their space.

You work your way clockwise around the space and find yourself in a replica of Michael Chute’s North Parsonsfield studio. There’s a multiplicity of his “dogmen” portraits on standalone greeting cards, open matchbooks, and colored paper. Ritz cracker boxes scatter the floor after being used for target practice. Chute has left notes on the walls to communicate a more accurate picture of the studio: “My guns would be stacked here if guns were allowed in college.” Another sign reads “Treat us like DOGS and we will become WOLVES.” There is a table from which we are invited to take a free copy of the political zine he creates with his wife, Carolyn.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Nature and the Environment, Wildlife, Harvard University,  More more >
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