SF Chronicle, “Create: Art by the ‘differently abled’ at BAM”

Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic.
Thursday, May 19, 2011.

To remind their students how much the new owes to the past, art historians used to make a mantra of “art comes from other art.” But art comes from other sources also, and some we may never comprehend. Bear this thought in mind when visiting “Create,” the startlingly powerful new exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum.

BAM Director Lawrence Rinder and Matthew Higgs, a former Bay Area curator who now directs Manhattan’s White Columns, have chosen some of the most effective work to emerge from three long-standing Bay Area programs for artists with developmental disabilities. One hundred and thirty-five objects produced at Creativity Explored in San Francisco, Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland and the National Institute of Art and Disabilities (known as NIAD Art Center) in Richmond fill three tiers at BAM to arresting effect.

No doubt the adjective “disabled” prejudicially lowers many prospective visitors’ expectations. But “Create” dramatizes the wisdom of Martha Nussbaum’s civilizing suggestion that we substitute “differently abled” for “disabled.” We all have disparate abilities, so why dismiss differently abled individuals far from the statistical norm, except that they awaken our unease about our own limitations and luck?

Judith Scott (1943-2005) suffered from Down syndrome and, institutionalized for much of her life, could neither hear, speak nor write. Yet something she could not explain impelled her to wrap objects in yarn, string and fabric until unplannable metamorphoses occurred.

We might speculate that her cocooned objects – they qualify as sculptures if Christo’s bound things do – express feelings of bondage within limits that she could see others did not suffer as she did.

But the ensemble of Scott’s sculptures assembled at BAM will reduce viewers to a silence somehow different from that of mere frustrated analysis. They remind me of music anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake’s thought that we experience art today through a gauze of literacy, insensible to “what is not accessible to verbal language, what cannot be said or deconstructed or erased, but nevertheless exists to be perceived by nonverbal, non-literate, premodern ways of knowing.”

Something in this vein might apply also to the sculpture of Carl Hendrickson. Cerebral palsy severely limits his hands-on engagement, but not the search for rightness in construction that he pursues with the help of assistants who configure lumber, Plexiglas, fabric and other materials at his direction.

Hendrickson’s work could easily find a place in a conventional survey of contemporary sculpture. The paintings of Willie Harris and drawings of Dan Miller could merge comfortably into many a group show of abstract artists. So might the drawings of Mary Belknap or Evelyn Reyes.

Do they know this? Would they care? Does it matter?

Such seemingly simple questions bring us close to the sclerotic heart of contemporary art experience. University graduate programs in art today impress upon students the need to have a rationale for everything they make. The competitive frenzy of the art market further encourages thinking with cold strategy about what to make and how to make it.

The artists in “Create” do not seem to suffer these disheartening pressures, whatever the other constraints limiting them.

The art market probably still designates the work in “Create” “outsider art,” because the people who have made it participate seldom or never in the official art world. But their output comes from so deep inside, and comes into this show so well judged by its curators, that visitors will leave exhilarated.

Create: Painting, sculpture and drawings from three Bay Area programs for artists with developmental disabilities. Through Sept. 25. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. (510) 642-0808.