Caught in the Webb

One of the weirdest things about the huge self-taught art retrospective going on in Fort Worth right now is its dearth of Texas artists. Not that this region has the monopoly on outsider and naive art, but it is rife with it. Texas has really, in its own unruly way, churned out some of the most fascinating self-taught artists of this century, and continues to do so. Perhaps it's something about the leftover tinges of Southern gothic, the tight fanaticism of religion--but somewhere between the haze that drifts through the piney woods and the dust that settles over the scrub plains are the ghosts that drive isolated and disturbed souls to purge themselves through art. Granted, Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology, the Fort Worth exhibition in question, is beautiful, both in spirit and in breadth. But it includes fewer of our artists than we ethnocentric Texans and art hounds might like. Of course, what would you expect from a traveling show (on this leg setting up shop at both the Amon Carter and the Modern) that originated in New York?

That said, and for those who liked what they saw in Fort Worth in the show's opening weeks, this is an excellent time to check out Waxahachie's Webb Gallery, about 35 miles southeast of Cowtown's museums. The gallery itself has occupied a cavernous storefront on Waxahachie's historic town square for about five years now; before that it was in an abandoned barbershop across the way. In the process of cultivating their precarious business, Bruce and Julie Webb, the gallery's founder-directors, have carved out an impressive place for themselves in the North Texas art scene with their deep and sharp focus on self-taught art. The trip south is always worth an afternoon and a quarter tank of gas; the Webbs' combined passion for the self-taught genre (though lumping self-taught artists into a single category is about as cool as believing all self-taught musicians play the same riffs) has led them on all kinds of cross-country searches for the odd and odder, but their concentration of regional outsider artists is their most powerful calling card. From tormented souls living in trailer-park isolation to religious fanatics filling front yards with Christian iconography to resigned loners waiting it out on death row, if someone's making fascinating art in these parts, the Webbs know them.

Not just know about them, but keep track of them, encourage them, worry about their well-being. Recently they've wrung their hands over the mental demise of artist Hector Alonzo Benavides, who's transferred his compulsion from making dense and exacting pointillism artworks to working as a security guard in San Antonio. He's as miserable and confused as any obsessive-compulsive--paranoid about missing a shift even on his days off--and now he doesn't take time out for the therapeutic effect of art-making. Bruce and Julie, in their characteristically noble way, don't care if they ever sell one of Hector's pieces again. They visit him when they can, and plot ways to restore his peace of mind.

Throughout this decade, the high-art scene has continued its on-and-off love affair with outsider and self-taught art. Every once in a while it's the Next Big Thing (again), and some hapless whittler from the crevices of Appalachia or some paint-happy slaughter-house worker from Chicago will find himself blinking under the spotlights and microscopes of national museums and monied galleries. They're often treated as novelties, lost in the argument of folk art's place in the scenester scheme of things, and before they can even rally their spinning thoughts, they're passe again, giving way to New York's next new-Realism genius or L.A's newest conceptual art brat. It's a reckless way to approach some inherently fragile people, but commerce-minded machinery has little time for kindness--those steel jaws keep crunching away without wincing at the casualties.

The Webbs are the exception. As with Hector, even if they lose sight of the art, they never lose sight of the artist. And somehow, that Webb humanity permeates every show at the gallery; there's nothing exploitative or selfish going on here. However bizarre or breathtaking or disturbing the artwork, the Webbs remain both gracious and reverent about their business. They love this stuff, they love their work, and they've been rewarded not only by securing a place as the region's foremost experts on self-taught art, but also by getting to know the oft-intriguing and generous artists themselves.

That is, unless the artist is dead, which so many noted outsiders are. In the case of Ida Kingsbury, the Webb's current exhibition, it took the young gallerists some daunting legwork to discover and reveal the highly reclusive artist's body of work. Prior to the Webbs' involvement, the only showcase for her oddly charming and poignant sculptures was in the Children's Museum of Houston in 1990, about a year after her death. A small foundation that calls itself the Friends of Ida Kingsbury saved the works from a trip to the city dump just after her death (her step-daughters didn't appreciate the woman or her artwork), and kept the collection in storage. And now, eight years later, the Webbs have shipped up, dusted off, and installed a hundred-plus of Kingsbury's smiling creations in their Waxahachie space, and the effect is overwhelming: a huge stretch of angular wood-and-metal people and animals that Kingsbury made, daily, for nearly two decades, to keep herself company after her husband's death in 1971. According to the Webbs, an art therapist looked up at the hallowed, glaring white eyes of Kingsbury's mob of creatures and declared the artist a likely schizophrenic.

Not too surprising--outsider artists aren't exactly known for their mental stability. Perhaps it was Kinsbury's mental condition that allowed her to produce the full-blown environment for which she became known. Few self-taught women artists employ the kind of physical labor involved in creating such space-swallowing visions; that Kingsbury allowed her "friends" to take up all of her home and yard (by the end of her life she was sleeping out in her car) says plenty about whatever interior devil or angel drove her to such extremes. Her house was choked with her makeshift characters, her garden was overflowing with more of the same, plus countless hand-painted welcome and warning signs: "You Keep out of Yard," "Bunny Boulevard," "Home Sweet Home." In one photograph of the place, snapped just after her death, it looks as though every breathing inch is flooded with her objects-turned-artworks. She threw nothing away; common trash (a dented ice tray, a paint-bucket lid) was her glorified canvas. Such text, religious iconography, and use of should-be discarded objects plant Kingsbury firmly in naive-art terrain--it's the uniform grins and rosy nostalgia of Kingsbury's scenes that set her apart from kindred spirits. Relentless cheer from such a doomed persona--collectively, her work forms a bigger picture of a lonely, industrious, guileless woman.

Granted, half the appeal of outsider art is the story of the artists that make it, and Kingsbury's tale packs all the drama of a Gothic romance a la Brontë. The Webbs tell it best: As a young woman from a German immigrant family in Schulenburg, Texas, Kingsbury left her parents' farm to work first as a waitress in La Grange. Then, sometime in the 1940s, she worked as a live-in nurse for the affluent Kingsburys in Pasadena, Texas. The Kingsbury wife, Ida's ward, passed away after a time, and the head of the household, Robert, scandalized the community by marrying the thick-accented Ida. (In the wake of WWII, Germans weren't exactly embraced by patriotic Americans.) The two daughters shunned her, the neighborhood thought her odd, and once Robert died in 1971, Ida was left to her own defense and waning faculties, and began the overtly eccentric practice of saving all her trash and transforming her Pasadena home into a theme-park dreamworld populated by her own make-believe buddies and pets.

The Webb Gallery show reaches for the honesty and strangeness of Kingsbury's thought processes: Evoking the old cigarette ad, one of her paintings depicts a cat hanging by its claws from a limb with the caption "Oh, shit" scrawled near the edge. Kingsbury created this same image no less than a half-dozen times and proudly displayed every one. She paints farmers with cotton crop tools, plaques depicting rural dances, smirking policemen (again, to keep people at bay), toothy couples and sign-wielding clowns, tin-cut birds and huge, ragged-edged homages to her two dogs. She sawed, she hammered, she painted with house paint and aerosol, and she wouldn't even toss out a broken, splintery crutch (which makes, by the way, an excellent signpost). To Kingsbury, nothing and everything was sacred.

She's quite a find, even against the showier, critically acclaimed Fort Worth retrospective. But then what would you expect from a Texas outsider and the Webbs?

Friends of Ida Kingsbury is at the Webb Gallery, 209 W. Franklin, Waxahachie; open Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m., or by appointment. Call (972) 938-8085.


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