Magicians of the Earth

John Baldessari that bastard, the late Jimmie Byers, the late Nancy Spero, august Louise Bourgeois, Claes the great Oldenburg, and Alighero e (and) Boetti are International School artists sharing space with Third World or “marginal” or “vernacular” or “outsider” artists in Back to the Earth: Revisiting Magiciens de la Terre at Fleisher/Ollman through December 5.

Magiciens de la Terre, installation. Photo courtesy of Fleisher-Ollman Gallery.
Magiciens de la Terre, installation with Coffin Car by Kane Kwei. Photo courtesy of Fleisher-Ollman Gallery.

The original Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) opened twenty years ago at the Pompidou in Paris, united the diverse esthetics in this show, and subsequently served as a curatorial template for the dissolution of the dichotomy between insider international Big Boy art and the local outsider Little Guy stuff. Such is Fleisher/Ollman’s especial forte.

The best piece in the current show is by James Lee Byers. Byers was an insider’s outsider. The retired epistemologist, John Brockman, introduced me to Jimmy, and I published him in Unmuzzled OX.  As I continue to encounter his work years after his death, I am always struck by its beauty and brilliance, its modesty and wit. To me, Byers takes the academic beyond the vernacular into the truly Universal.

James Lee Byars, Twins Seven Seven
James Lee Byars, Twins Seven Seven. Photo courtesy of Fleisher-Ollman Gallery

The Village Voice, on the other hand, asked me years ago to interview John Baldessari. I published John, too, in OX. But I have unfortunately come to regard him as Mister Cal Arts Lightweight.  His reputation greatly exceeds his achievement. To me, his art is “academic” in the particular sense of “irrelevant.”  Baldessari represents Big Boy Art at its shallow pretentious worst. John is personable and charming, but that only serves to conceal his art’s vacuity — and, of course, makes me personally feel like a mean-spirited ingrate.

Of the outsider art my favorite is a wooden Australian aboriginal “shield” portraying two Joeys. You know Joey, right? The baby kangaroo? The artist goes by the name Murumuru today at Fleisher/Ollman, but 20 years ago in Paris he was called Wunuwunu. Something tells me he did not attend Cal Arts.

And who could dislike the coffin car by Kane Kwei?

But the most interesting piece in terms of the theme of the show is Trixie of the Night by Julio Galan. I loved this painting. Is it Surrealism? Or is it the “primitivism” which Breton and Freud so admired? Or should the distinction matter?