A Fickle Situation | Letters | Chicago Reader

A Fickle Situation 

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Bert Stabler's rather confusing article on Intuit's current exhibition, "Revelation! The Quilts of Marie 'Big Mama' Roseman," is rife with assumptions and innuendos ["The Mystical Other," June 2]. While I am employed at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in the capacity of collections and exhibitions coordinator, the following is my own personal critique of Stabler's article and in no way does it reflect the views or opinions of the organization.

What framed the author's writing exercise as a muddled article was his attempt to explicate to the reader a mini-history on how "weird" and "sort of creepy" the reception outsider/self-taught art has had, and continues to have, in Chicago, and how that affects the contemporary art scene of today.

That Stabler equates the rise of outsider art in Chicago with the demise of a contemporary art scene must be a fiercely personal account of the very fickle situation that confronts many practicing artists today, but is nonetheless untrue. Any perusal of Gallery News shows the overwhelming number of venues for contemporary art in Chicago compared with only three galleries occasionally exhibiting self-taught and outsider art besides the nonprofit organization Intuit. Chicago collectors of this material are small in number compared to contemporary-art collectors, but it is their passion for the work that makes Chicago important in the field.

What inevitably spirals out of Stabler's rhetoric is the us-versus-them mentality that further alienates and suppresses any truly critical debate on the subject.

Why, in fact, was and is the city of Chicago a capital for discussing, disseminating, and exhibiting works of art by self-taught/outsiders? What were and are the conditions of possibility for such activity in one metropolitan city? What are the issues contemporary artists are facing today in Chicago? Such questions are not easy to answer. Chicago's art history is incredibly rich and complex, and one that deserves further research and study rather than glib assumptions.

One paragraph finds Stabler writing: "It's in no way obvious where the 'Revelation!' in the show's title comes from: though Roseman was a homebody who obsessively cranked out fiber artwork, that doesn't make her a snake-handling seer. The same sort of specious conjectures about who Roseman was, relating her to a mystical otherworld of feminine primitivism, also appear in Martha Watterson's curatorial statement."

What is elided in Stabler's critique is the fact that Watterson has been in dialogue with Marie Roseman's family and friends, gathering pertinent information about the little-known artist for the exhibition. The "conjectures" Stabler alludes to (dolls appliqued to her quilts represent the children she delivered as a midwife) are all grounded on interviews she has conducted in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and beyond.

That Stabler evaluates Watterson's arguments as "mystical . . . primitivism" barely scratches the surface of his own rhetoric, assuming that the title itself conjures for the author images of a "snake-handling seer." In fact, the title of the exhibit highlights the fact that this is the first solo exhibit of Roseman's quilts and assemblages. Given that a majority of her work was irreparably damaged due to flooding, the unique opportunity to see a body of her work is rare and hence a "revelation."

Stabler's statements about Intuit being a "cryptic modernist space," an "anthropological research organization," or a "social service agency" that should rename itself an "ethnographic museum" if it wants to "provide more convincing data" on Roseman all neglect a central issue: Roseman's quilts and assemblages. The quilts speak for themselves; how one interprets their relation to any other artistic movement or institution is purely subjective.

The salient feature about Stabler's article is that Roseman's work can be a catalyst for analyzing the strife that, according to the author, afflicts practicing artists in Chicago.

With that in mind, I urge readers to visit the exhibit and witness Roseman's work for themselves.

Farris Wahbeh

Lakeview

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