Friday, February 11, 2011

California exhibit highlights work of disabled artists

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Willie Harris (pictured) has yellow on his mind at the moment. He's brushing layer upon layer of blazing yellow paint on the acoustic tile that serves as his canvas, building up a thick, textured surface brimming with gestural streaks and swirls.

Harris, who's deaf and intellectually disabled, is deep into his work at Richmond's National Institute for Art and Disabilities (NIAD), creating the vital monochromatic paintings that art mavens might relate to the abstractions of Robert Ryman and Brice Marden.

Wearing a paint-splattered batting helmet and apron, Harris works obsessively on the sculptured squares set out on the table in front of him. He pulls away from the yellow panel and begins painting circular patterns on a light-blue one. Then the yellow one beckons him again. The green and strawberry-swirl tiles he painted earlier await his renewed attention.

"I don't know what he's thinking about. Maybe something deep," says artist Andrés Cisneros, the longtime studio manager at NIAD, where Harris, 55, has worked since 1988. "He's painting something that he's feeling."

Harris, who communicates with bits of sign language, gestures and grunts, is one of the gifted artists featured in the NIAD exhibition "Twist and Crawl." The work of disabled artists is integrated with pieces by "mainstream" artists such as Bay Area abstract painter John Zurier and the late photographer Edmund Shea. Organized by artist and curator Timothy Buckwalter, the show is the first of three NIAD exhibitions aimed at blurring the boundary between disabled artists - often segregated into shows and festivals of "outsider" art - and those in the culture at large.

"The work made by artists here is just as much a part of contemporary art as anything else," says Buckwalter, whose ransom-note collages are included in the exhibition. "If we put everyone together, you just look at the art and take it on its own terms."

Because of the setting, visitors may wonder who the disabled artists are, adds NIAD gallery director Brian Stechschulte, but that's anybody's guess. "The art should be judged on its merit."

A pink-striped Zurier canvas from the mid-'90s, painted from several feet away with a brush attached to a bamboo pole, hangs next to a vibrant gestural abstraction by Mia Brown made with daubs and smears of orange, burgundy and yellow on a blue field. A Novato artist with cerebral palsy, Brown paints with her head; she strokes the canvas with a brush inserted in a brass rod affixed to a bike helmet. She lets her caregiver know when she wants to change colors.

"I like it," says Brown, perusing the picture in the NIAD gallery. She's pleased that people like her work, but can't verbalize much. Her caregiver, Jacqueline Quintanilla, says: "She doesn't talk about the art. She just loves to do it."

Buckwalter juxtaposed pieces that play off each formally or color-wise, creating a visual rhythm inspired by "Twist and Crawl," a song by the British ska band English Beat.

A tan rectangle by Harris, whose richly textured surface you're tempted to touch, is framed by the work of two non-NIAD artists: a dripped silver, blue and green abstraction by Chris Ashley, who shows at San Francisco's George Lawson Gallery, and three tall, twisty gray bottles by Calaveras County ceramist James Aarons. Not far away hangs a movement-filled fabric work that was braided, sewn and knotted by blind artist Lacee King, whose mother described the melange of reds, white and blue to her after the piece was finished.

NIAD is one of three Bay Area centers for adult disabled artists founded by the clinical psychologist Elias Katz and his wife, Florence, an artist and educator. The others are Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland and Creativity Explored in San Francisco's Mission District. The Katzes, who are deceased, were pioneers in the field who treated people with respect and placed no limits on what they could do.

High-quality art
Lawrence Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, lived a block from Creativity Explored in the late 1980s and went there often.

"I was blown away by the quality of the art. There were a number of artists with very unique and powerful artistic voices, like Evelyn Reyes and James Miles," Rinder says. He's the co-curator of "Create," an exhibition opening at the Berkeley museum in May featuring works made by artists at all three Katz-created art centers over the past 20 years. He would find the art remarkable regardless of who made it.

"One's cognitive capacity in one area doesn't mean that one is limited in another area, particularly artistically. And it's not a given that just because you have a mental disability you're going to be artistically gifted."

Rinder praises Harris' subtle sense of color and surface, "the interplay between warm and cool tones." He loves the artist's multi-paneled works, like the green and red diptych that brings early Brice Marden to mind and displays a "tremendous sensitivity to the basic building blocks of visual experience." It's in the forthcoming "Create" exhibition, along with a Harris piece composed of eight panels, each a different size and color.

"It's like a family portrait," Rinder says. "I've never seen anything like it."