The Other Art 

Outsider, visionary and folk artists converge in a group show at the Polkadot.

Originally, Roth says, the term referred to art made by incarcerated criminals and mental patients. Anti-establishment or underground art is a sticky subject, with many definitions and just as many exceptions. According to Richmonder Ann Oppenhimer, president of the Folk Art Society of America and publisher of The Folk Art Messenger, contemporary folk art comes exclusively from untrained artists. Visionary art, on the other hand, can come from anyone, trained or not.

“What I consider a visionary artist,” Oppenheimer says, “is someone who has visions and makes artwork depicting those visions.” The Web site for the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore defines it as “art produced by self-taught individuals ... whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.”

The problem these days is walking into a show like the Underground Arts Festival and telling what comes from the academy and what comes from “innate personal vision.”

Take, for example, the paintings of Wes Freed, a reclusive though well-known Richmond painter and folk musician. His work is considered “underground,” “visionary” or “lowbrow” enough to be in the festival, but Freed graduated from VCU’s undergraduate painting and printmaking program. His paintings, cartoonlike scenes often done on scrap wood, usually depict the spooky abodes of skeletal moonshiners; you could call it pastoral Halloween kitsch. And if you’ve ever seen the scraggly, idiosyncratic Freed, you know that his work looks like him. But is it visionary art, or does it just look that way? Tim Harriss, a punk-rocker turned painter, doesn’t hold a degree, yet his work — distorted takes on paintings by the European masters, portraits and religious scenes held up to a fun-house mirror — looks more trained than Freed’s.

It’s all very confusing, admits Roth, who says the “terms are just general categories that help us talk about certain things.” As for folk and visionary artists, the traditional view that separates them from contemporary artists, he says, is that they lack the perspective of art history. “They feel like they’ve just invented this thing, and they just do it out of context. That’s the old-fashioned way of thinking about them anyway. I think that many of them are actually very savvy.”

Festival curator Green says that many of his artists are more savvy than some artists in the Richmond establishment. He thinks Richmond is stuck in the era of “pretty little flowers, landscapes and bowls of fruit,” and that when underground art is shown in Richmond, it’s been limited to alternative venues like coffee shops, restaurants and tattoo parlors. “The West Coast is big on underground lowbrow art,” he says. “Those guys are making $50,000 a painting and we’re still starving.”

Green’s art is kaleidoscopic, the canvases crammed with repeating shapes and patterns, background for figures that display his preoccupation with eyeballs, tongues and distorted images of his family. The work is reminiscent of Buddhist sand painting, or mandalas, but it would not look out of place on the side of a van headed to a Black Sabbath concert during the ’70s. Admirers would call it “trippy.” If he did try to draw a still life, he says, “I’d have skulls in the fruit or something.”

“My art has something to do with every element of my life,” Green says. “There’s rock aspects in there, stuff about my childhood. There’s fantasy stuff in there. Just stuff I pull out of my head. My art is really fragmented. I could explain a painting to you and it probably wouldn’t make any sense.”

Green began dabbling with painting in the early ’90s. The dam broke in 1997 when he painted 33 pieces in a year. He was 33 years old. “I thought that was something symbolic,” he says. He didn’t show any of it until he submitted a piece to a Shockoe Bottom Art Center exhibit in 2000. It won a juror’s choice award. He then began showing around town, at places like Alive Gallery, the Devil’s Kitchen restaurant, River City Tattoo and The Hermitage Grill in the North Side, where, he says, “some of the old ladies complained about my work.” At a Shockoe Bottom Art Show in 2001, an elderly visitor was so disturbed by one of his paintings she called the police.

While showing his work over the past few years, Green began meeting other artists who inspired similar reactions. Friends suggested he put together a show, and he decided to do it. Being underground, anti-establishment or whatever you want to call it, Green says it’s no surprise that it took nearly half a year to get the 11 plus artists together for the show. “Everybody knows we’re all a little flaky.” S

The Underground Arts Festival takes place at the Polkadot Gallery, 817 W. Broad St., on Saturday, Nov. 15, from 4 p.m.-10 p.m. with live music. Must be 18 or older. A second show will take place at the gallery during the Dec. 5 First Friday Art Walk from 7:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

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