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Art review: “In Studio/Tangent” at JDK Gallery, Burlington

Published November 25, 2009 at 12:30 p.m.


Walking around his Brooklyn neighborhood a few months ago, painter and photographer Marshall Harmon was stopped mid-stride by “some quirky art” he saw in a storefront window. Now Vermonters can see it, too.

By arrangement with his friend David Kemp, a principal in the Burlington design firm Jager Di Paola Kemp, Harmon has brought samples of that arresting work to the JDK Gallery on lower Maple Street. There’s “Apple Cat,” for instance. In this postcard piece, an unnamed artist has doodled a round head with whiskers, pointy ears and a stem; alongside are choppy block letters reading: “It’s grows on trees and it meow at night!” =

Other fantastic creatures fill two of the quadrants in Corey Scarboro’s “Animals and Reptiles.” The piece shows a rabbit and a snake and maybe a dinosaur, but what’s that thing with the crenellated head?

Justin Tong contributes “Symbols With Blue-Green” to this appealingly odd exhibit. Here, a roughly 12-by-12-inch surface is divided into small squares filled with images that, together, may form a crazily complex rebus. Some of the markings are recognizable as a car, a bunch of grapes, a question mark, a bone, a heart. Others may mean something to Tong but will leave his viewers puzzled.

Much of the work on JDK’s walls seems to discharge a raw roar, figuratively speaking; a few pieces, however, hum harmoniously. Kenya Hanley shows a sure hand at grouping objects and contraposing colors in two suavely minimalist compositions: “Pitchers and Pots,” a cut-out collage; and “Cakes,” a crayon-and-ink drawing that could be mistaken for an early sketch by California confectionery artist Wayne Thiebaud.

The show’s focal point is a lovable aluminum-foil menagerie assembled by Dean Millien. All manner of beasts — spiders, elephants, turtles, birds, kangaroos — have been twisted into silvery lifelike forms of various sizes. A wall text explains that Millien’s hands move urgently as they turn out what he terms his “Tin Things.”

Each of the 10 young men and women represented in the gallery’s main space is autistic as well as artistic. All take part in a free-form art program developed by the League Treatment Center, a long-established organization serving low-income, developmentally disabled New Yorkers. Harmon, who has worked in Burlington as well as in Brooklyn, was so intrigued by what he saw that day in the League’s window that he signed on as the program’s first visiting artist.

About a third of its “neurologically diverse” members qualify as high-functioning, Harmon says — meaning they have rudimentary social skills. Some of the others are “shut down in their own world,” with art serving as a window to what’s inside.

Seeking to integrate the interpersonal with the creative, Harmon takes his autistic crew on field trips to the main post office in Brooklyn. “They have to stand in line, pay for stamps, get change, drop the cards in the slot,” he recounts. “Then, a couple of days later, it’s ‘I got mail!’ Some of them have probably never gotten mail before.”

“Apple Cat” hangs in a section of the show that features several of the hand-crafted postcards the League artists make and then mail to one another. In another notable example, a series of chalk portraits on black paper include a Santa-style rendering of old-school TV star Danny Thomas and a sketch of a house that’s supposed to represent slapstick celebrity Soupy Sales, who died recently.

Everything in this show falls under the heading of “Outsider Art.” Intense collectors’ demand for work by the mentally impaired is evident at the annual Outsider Art Fair in Manhattan, where some pieces sell for thousands of dollars. So who knows? Maybe a cult will form around one of the artists now showing at JDK. The exhibit could be seen as a timely investment opportunity; none of the works on display is priced at more than $150.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York is already interested. Harmon and others at the League have persuaded MOMA to expand its “community access” program to include visits to the collection by the autistic artists every other Tuesday, when the museum is closed to the general public. An art educator from MOMA comes to the League’s workshop in Brooklyn on alternate Tuesdays.

Harmon is adamant that such instruction be entirely focused on art and not therapy. “They get plenty of therapy as it is,” he says of the League’s clients. “They’re overtherapied, if anything.”

Four of Harmon’s radically cropped cloud photos are displayed, along with works by League colleagues Matthew Bede Murphy and Susan Metrican, in an adjacent room under the title “Tangent.” One of Murphy’s drawings is a loose, gestural portrait of Justin Tong.

Because most of the work in “In Studio” is unprofessional, this JDK show might be easy to overlook. Give it a chance, though, and it will unsettle your mind and touch your heart.

“In Studio/Tangent,” works by adult artists with disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, and works by their mentors. JDK Gallery, Burlington. Through December 6.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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