In a recent issue of the New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross writes that "pop music is music stripped bare." In the same way, Outsider art -- the work of untrained amateurs -- is art stripped bare. R.E.M. and the Talking Heads feature Outsider art on their album covers because it reflects what's inside: raw passion unstifled by taboos. It's the visual cousin of pop's jagged guitar chords and yearning howls.
The paintings and drawings of 48-year-old German Outsider artist Alexandra Huber are like favorite pop songs: They give you goose bumps, but it's hard to say exactly why. Though her powerful, child-like pictures of human figures are big in Europe and New York, she's unknown elsewhere. Huber's work hasn't made it to CD covers yet, but a stunning sample has made it to Cleveland: Her first U.S. solo show, Open Your Windows! at Headfooters, is a mesmerizing collection of 60 new works, from tiny drawings on paper to 5-by-7-foot paintings. In them, she uses scruffy brushwork and primary colors to explore the comedy and tragedy of life.
The largest of the canvases, "Easily Inflammable" (2003), is the show's most striking piece. It's also a self-portrait emblematic of Huber's approach to life and art. On the right, a blue and black face, reminiscent of a tribal mask, is rendered from Cubist multiple perspectives, with simultaneous front, profile, and three-quarter views. A long tongue protrudes from an open mouth, occupying the bottom left of the picture. Four big flowers spring from the tongue, which is separated into sections, each containing a face. Huber created the work's glowing background by layering yellows, reds, and oranges. In most places, she scribbled in the paint while it was wet, yielding an eerie Lascaux cave-painting effect. Staring at Huber's work transports you to a timeless place that's both deeply personal and universal.
"I'm the person with the tongue and I'm tasting life," she says in an e-mail written in English, her second language. "I self-develop and self-prosper through connections, friendships, and meetings, and I'm receptive for new ideas and visions."
If Huber were academically trained, she'd be called a figurative Expressionist, a sanguine counterpoint to Francis Bacon's existential terror. "I'd like to paint the inside of human beings, as a kind of landscape of feelings, desires, demands, values, connections, and questions and answers," she says.
Calling Huber's work "Outsider" opens a Pandora's box of associations. Outsider art is hot right now, largely because it's an affordable antidote to the artifice, cool irony, and puzzle palaces of contemporary art. Beginning with Henri Rousseau's tropical fantasies of the 19th century, untutored art grew in popularity as the Cezannes and Picassos began dismantling academic tradition. Surrealists prized its absence of bourgeois dogma; in the 1940s, French artist Jean Dubuffet began collecting the art of institutionalized patients, named it "Art Brut," and then imitated its childlike directness in his own work.
"Isms" and definitions seem irrelevant, though, in looking at the elemental work of Huber. When she took up painting around 1990, she had a husband, a young daughter, a nice flat outside Munich, and a master's degree in early childhood learning disabilities. She was also depressed and uninspired. Making art returned the color to her life; it became a fresh way to ponder life's problems, questions, and feelings, big and small.
In the small drawing "What Do You Want From Me?" (2001), a blue-suited man with multiple heads turning in different directions floats in a yellow-orange background. This recurring character, whom Huber calls "Everybody," is a symbol for universal human experience. "Everybody" acts out a vast range of emotions, from suffering to bliss, confusion to hope. Here, he's perhaps frustrated and confused by his multiple roles of parent, spouse, employee, and friend. The hand in "Hand" (2000), a larger work on brown paper in pencil and white oil stick, is made not of fingers, but of faces and full bodies -- lots of "Everybodys" -- symbolizing Huber's belief that despite superficial differences, all people have the same inner needs and should work together to make the world a better place.
Early on, Huber had artist's block; she was comfortable working only with her tiny drawings, afraid to move to larger surfaces. To ease the fear of confronting a big, blank space, she collaged the tiny drawings onto bigger papers and canvas, thus using them as a secure starting point. In some works, the drawings are painted over; in others, like the enormous "Shooting Star," the collaged drawings create part of the picture. Here, "Everybody" is transformed into a shooting star, aimed toward the heavens. His head is a swirl of bright paint; his body, a colorful patchwork of small drawings, becomes like the swooshing tail of a meteor. He has round red circles on his cheeks, like daubs of rouge. "The "universal power always glows -- in a humorous way -- through the red cheeks of my figures," Huber writes. "At last, we all know what's good, right, true, and beautiful for us."
"Everybody" and his red cheeks reappear in "One Is Thinking, the Other Is Guiding," in which Huber packs a powerful aesthetic punch using three colors: a protagonist drawn in black outline, a background of yellow, and well-placed red accents, symbolizing life forces, which direct the eye around the canvas. Here, "Everybody" has two heads, suggesting the dual nature of the creative process. A huge hand protrudes from his hunched-over body, as if he's painting, Jackson Pollock-style, on the floor. The larger head, the conscious mind, is in the center of the picture, with a red light bulb hovering over it. The smaller head (drawn in red) -- the unconscious -- watches benignly from the side. A spiral -- a recurring motif in Huber's work that signifies life -- is here drawn in red near his heart.
Though Huber's work confronts conflict and pain, it's always ruggedly optimistic. She even gives sad mythological tales hopeful endings. In the pencil drawing "Icarus Flies Again," the Greek character's wings don't melt. "Eve Wasn't Prettier Than Adam" and "Adam Wasn't Smarter Than Eve," a pair of drawings in black oil stick over a white background, recast the primordial couple in an egalitarian Eden, where no one must take responsibility for the Fall. In this pair, the small squares of paper are collaged onto the surface and painted over to create the white background. The result is a gridlike effect that adds to the layered feel of the works.
Gallery owner Bill Schubert believes that Huber's work is a barometer for testing a person's humanity. If it doesn't speak to you, he says, you must be a vampire. This show is among the best and freshest visual arts offerings in Cleveland this year. Imagine never having heard your favorite pop songs. Miss this show, and that's what the world will be like: not as bright a place.