Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Charles Dellschau (1830 - 1923): American Visionary: By Curator in Residence Stephen Romano

Stephen Romano is the Morbid Anatomy Museum curator in residence; he is also the man behind our recent wonderful “Opus Hypnagogia" exhibit (New York Times here) in which he showcased a number of works by American visionary artist Charles Dellschau (1830 - 1923).

Stephen is now exhibiting a large collection of Dellschau's idiosyncratic watercolor and collage artworks--a few of which can be seen above--at his gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Following is a guest post about the show and the artist by Romano. You can visit the show--entitled Charles A. A. Dellschau (1830 - 1923) American Visionary"-- through February 15, 2016; more on that here.
According to well respected art writer Tom Patterson’s Raw Vision Magazine review of the extensive monograph I produced with Marquand Books and distributed by DAP Artbooks, “Charles Dellschau is widely acknowledged as an Outsider master in the same league as Adolph Wolfli, Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez.” The first exhibition of Dellschau’s works was mounted in a Manhattan Gallery in May of 2000. Since then Dellschau has been included in group exhibitions at the High Museum in Atlanta, The American Folk Art Museum, White Chapel Gallery, London, The Menill Foundation of Houston Texas, The Pinacoteca Agneili of Turin, and The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore among others.

While we know very little about Dellschau’s life, records indicate he immigrated to the USA in 1849 as a political refugee from Prussia, and upon his arrival he drifted from Galveston through Houston, where he spent most of his life, finding work as a butcher and raising a family and losing most of them to illnesses. Dellschau fought in The Civil War, and upon his discharge settled into Houston, and at the age of 68 began what would obsessively occupy him for his remaining years until 1923.  In those year, secluded in the back room of his niece’s house and living off the generosity of his decedents, Dellschau produced close to 5000 watercolor and collage artworks, of which approximately 3500 have survived. These watercolors were hand sewn into 12 massive volumes and sometime in the mid 1960’s were discarded and made their way to the dump, only to be immediately rescued by a picker named Fred Washington. They later found their way into the collection of the Menil Foundation who, in 1969, exhibited Dellschau’s works in a group show at Rice University. The remaining works were collected by a local UFO enthusiast by the name of Pete Navarro, who obsessively studied them for 20 years, making detailed field notes which are in their own right beautiful works of art.  The remaining Dellschaus in Navarro’s collection were eventually either gifted to local museums or sold to private dealers who introduced them to the mainstream art world to wide initial acclaim, including feature length articles in several art magazines as well as the New York Times. 

Dellschau’s earliest sketches from 1898 describe how a letter to the editor in the Houston Press prompted him to begin these memoirs, in which the author claimed that his design of “a perfect Airship,” that would, if ever constructed, successfully navigate "the air in any direction at will of operator... most emphatically end all wars, [and] be the means of disbanding the vast standing armies of the world, for one ship alone, in the cover of night could destroy any army by using culminate of mercury or any high explosive.” For the next 25 years, Dellschau argues via his artworks that the many airships of the Sonora Aero Club were superior in design to that  proposed by the author W.H. Brown. 
The artworks themselves, made between 1898 and 1921, tell the story of a group of men who lived in the Sonora dessert in California between 1854 and 1859 during the gold rush, and met every Friday evening as a drinking club calling themselves “The Sonora Aero Club.” Their mission was to discuss designs of the very first navigable air crafts which were powered by a secret anti gravity substance called “Suppa.” Dellschau was the Aero Club’s appointed draftsman.

But was Dellschau ever really in Sonora? Did the Sonora Aero Club ever actually exist? Despite exhaustive searches of historical records, there is no definitive proof either way.  Dellschau’s art is what the cultural anthropologist and one of the greatest art writers of the 21st century Thomas McEviley refers to as “Charles A.A. Dellschau’s Aporetic Archive.” In the monograph of Dellschau, McEvilley, in his final published essay, writes: 
One of several major questions surrounding the secrets of Dellschau has to do with the historical value of the account given in his various formats—the three volumes of memoirs and the twelve known books of Plates. Attempts have been made to find other records or evidences of the Sonora Aero Club, or Peter Mennis or George Newell or any other character of the many named, but the results have not been satisfying… The idea that Dellschau’s yarn is fiction somehow does not resolve the issue, since fiction has many modes. Is it fiction in the way a work of art is fiction? Or the way an outright lie is fiction? Or the way confusion may produce a kind of fiction? Different opinions have been registered on all this. And after considering them all, one must acknowledge that the evidence simply doesn’t provide a clear answer to this question. It is one of many questions that just have to be lived with as questions— or ignored.
Some will try to escape the dilemma by asserting that a question that does not have an answer is not a real question. Question and answer are a mutually dependent pair, like yes and no or true and false or up and down. In such a pair neither proposition can be meaningful in a universe where the other is not also meaningful. The idea that, lacking an answer, one should live with the question as a question, like an acquaintance whose name one does not know, may seem frustrating, but at least one major artist, James Lee Byars, has hypothesized the idea of Question; his oeuvre is posited on a universe in which Question rules, which he feels will be more open and creative than one in which Answer rules. Question, after all, is wide open; it could be pointing to anything in the universe. But Answer is closed, it appears as one thing and continues to do so.

Can it be that accepting a question as a question is inwardly, hiddenly, a kind of answer? Or is it just a kind of shrug? Dellschau’s twelve massive books of words and pictures may be no more than an old man’s lonely daydreams. They are pretty daydreams, which imply a pretty question mark, pretty and somehow deep, as one question behind the Aeros is the choice between ascent and descent. The breath-like striped spheres floating by may remind one of a line from a poem of e.e. cummings: “In Just-/ spring when the world is mud-/luscious the little/lame balloonman/whistles far and wee.” The little striped spheres float silently onward. What is their destination?”
Charles Dellschau (1830 - 1923): American Visionary continues through Feb 15 2016 at Stephen Romano Gallery in Brooklyn.

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