Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Drawing Always Was His Only Way of Talking"



"Kevin White: Untouched" at PAC Gallery in Walnut Hills is a big and bountiful exhibit, as if the curators were surveying a lifelong career, not just the outpourings of the last year or so. But Kevin is like that. He produces a lifelong career's worth of art weekly, sometimes daily. Curating all that art is complicated because his output can be pigeonholed under "Outsider Art." Kevin has Down syndrome, which may or may not be one of the reasons he is such a genius. I would probably place my money on the idea that it isn't the reason. I think Kevin was born an artist, and the Down syndrome thing was something he's had to deal with to let the art part of himself get recognized. "Untouched" is a great step forward in helping Kevin to break out of this trap.

I met Kevin nine years ago, when he was attending a sheltered workshop for people with developmental disabilities and getting into trouble for drawing when he was supposed to be doing piece-work. Creativity was just leaking out of him in a haze of drawings on paper-towels and napkins and Arby's receipts: odd and delirious configurations of animals and machinery, landscapes and Utopias, monster trucks and angelic onions. His oeuvre was like a portfolio from some unknown European Surrealist from the 1920s, lines murmuring and retracing themselves into dreamy chandeliers made from bones and fur and broken radios. I could go on. What Kevin does is evoke a world by drawing a line. He can do that with a Bic pen or high-quality acrylic paint, on canvas or a thrown-away piece of cardboard.

At the time when I first met Kevin, Bill and I were pulling together the initial stages of Visionaries & Voices, and Kevin was the first artist to attend the day program five days a week. Time well-spent, and it still is, nine years later. "Untouched" is wonderful proof of that. In almost every painting and drawing in the show Kevin is dramatizing some really bizarre and poignant biological struggles. Nature and nurture are often in conflict, and like Alfred Hitchcock Kevin seems to delight in the cruel hilarity. Check out the painting above from "Untouched," not a great photo I know but still... It has a structure and meanness to it, with its cuteness still intact, but waiting in the wings? Black little winged machines ready to read your mind. You get the picture: Kevin is not an innocent. He has some truths to tell, albeit coded and concealed in a visual language we will never quite figure out Thank God. That's just the way the world works: mystery conceals meaning, but meaning still has a voice, like someone yelling from inside a car-trunk. Kevin's sophistication emerges from the way he arranges and manages that meaning and mystery in each work.

The hardest part in curating a Kevin show is delivering Kevin's art to the world while being true to its roots. These works are the musings and experiments of a vital working artist with something contemporary and just plain weird to tell you. Kevin is a genius. I believe that. But I don't think that genius has anything to do with his "disability" or his "outsider" status. Again, "Untouched" provides a catalog of evidence to support this assertion. In fact, if you were to stumble upon this exhibit not knowing Kevin or his biography, you would just simply witness the the work of a prolific artist interested in the high-style clashings of dream and machine, animal and robot, vegetable and virus.

What Gertrude Stein writes in her memoir about Picasso rings true of Kevin: "He was born making drawings, not the drawings of a child but the drawings of a painter. His drawings were not of things seen but of things expressed; in short they were words for him and drawing always was his only way of talking and he talks a great deal."

Thanks to everyone who had anything to do with "Kevin White: Untouched." It's the next step on his journey to becoming what he needs to be.