The ArtYard was designed for immersion. The galleries in this Frenchtown arts center are big enough to dry-dock a boat in. It’s the sort of place that encourages installations, rather than exhibitions. Instead of an array of pictures on a wall, waiting there to be apprehended, the Yard brims over with art. Its curators invite visitors to plunge in. The refurbished theater is impressive to behold — it’s right on the banks of a beautiful bend in the Delaware River — and it requires visions to match its dimensions. The ArtYard whispers to creators: Use every square inch of these galleries. Take advantage of the wide walls and high ceilings. Make a fantasy world.
The particular pocket-sized parallel universe now at the ArtYard is one that might feel familiar to you, even if you don’t recognize the name of the artist whose imagination you’re encouraged to access. “Ecstatic Decrepitude,” which runs until July 31, collects the works of Peter Schumann, co-founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater, an independent company that began its public ministry on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early ’60s.
Bread and Puppet is now associated more closely with rural Vermont than it is with urban New York, but its political mission remains the same as it ever was. Schumann and his players are suspicious of capitalism. They’re utopian in their aspirations, communitarian in their intent, radically egalitarian, committed to folk art and rough expressions of primal forces. If you have seen an underground theater company tilt against the establishment at any time over the last six decades, there is a very good chance they were recycling ideas from Bread and Puppet. Its massive masks, papier-mâché monsters and stilt-walking portrayals of mythological beasts, dangling puppets and do-it-yourself deities, finger-paint bright colors, rumpled surfaces and post-hippie handshakes with the grotesque have all entered the visual vernacular.
It is not misleading to say that Schumann is to sculpture and painting what Pete Seeger is to music: a people’s balladeer who has hewn much of the timber that others have built with, and who is motivated by his conscience, and his ideology, to keep things simple, cheap and accessible.
Curator Clare Dolan, a puppeteer with the company, breaks “Ecstatic Decrepitude” into two segments, both of which make an immediate sensation. The top floor of the ArtYard is stuffed to the corners with huge faces, effigies, cutouts in the shapes of tormented humans, and hulking sculptures made of simple materials like straw, cheap wood, paper, sheets, burlap sacks and half of a discarded kick drum. Massive paper-bag-brown strugglers, with heads many times the size of yours, hang from the ceiling with fists clenched and raised. A ribbon of crude but effective paintings rings the entire space. Walking through the gallery feels like taking a trip across a battlefield, and you might find yourself stepping lively in the event of cardboard land mines.
As is Schumann’s wordy proclivity, he has written on many of these pieces in big block letters. Some of them bear slogans; others, handles to let you know exactly what you’re looking at. “Life” is a woman with her eyes closed, hands clasped in prayer, head tilted back, imperiled by the unleashed forces around her. The “King,” hands raised and oblivious to all of the madness, stands right next to the “Fire Marshal,” who is desperately trying to call the sovereign’s attention to something overhead.
There is even a slump-shouldered “Journalist,” who skulks in the corner, looking down his nose at the proceedings. (I tried not to be insulted; I failed.)
The works on the crowded top floor are in lurid color. The downstairs gallery is mainly black and white. Here you will find one of the surprises of the show: smaller-scale images of fantasylands with clusters of bone-white buildings huddled under streaked gray skies in the shadows of black hills. The best of these resemble stills from a William Kentridge animation, and suggest that Schumann could have been an outstanding imaginary landscape artist if he’d wanted to be. The scariest of these pieces spills out from a binding marked “Helios” in an accordion shape, and simultaneously evokes early 20th Century trench warfare and nuclear Armageddon. As he often does, Schumann applies his block letters, Howard Finster-style, directly to the paper.
Would the piece work better without such unpunctuated ejaculations as “THE PAINSTAKINGLY RESEARCHED IMBALANCES IN OUR PRODUCTIVELY CONFLICTED SOCIETY”? It sure would. But it’s hard to fault Schumann’s motivation, or the feeling of possession that drives his work toward the hallucinatory weirdness of outsider art.
And like lots of outsider artists, Schumann is more than a little hypergraphic. He clearly loves to paint and sculpt, but he also can’t stop writing. Often, his paintings and sculptures are vehicles hijacked by his shapeless agitprop. The downstairs gallery is dominated by giant books, suspended from the ceiling, that are, in tone and purpose, indistinguishable from the Bread and Puppet pamphlets on sale in the ArtYard gift shop. You can page through them if you like, or you can walk directly into them, which is sometimes the more interesting option for those of us who always have wanted to disappear inside a text.
In the writings, we’re told that Schumann and company are endeavoring to replace the great books of great knowledge with the big books of little knowledge, written in the interest of the little. This will, we’re assured, “give history a chance to recover from its greatness.”
Fair enough. But after some time spent at “Ecstatic Decrepitude,” you may also wish for a chance to recover from the greatness of Schumann’s aspirations. Humongous homemade props often work brilliantly in a stage show, and help the playwright make his polemical points clear to those in the back row. Heaped together in an art gallery, even one as experimental and freewheeling as the ArtYard, these pieces do not strike a blow on behalf of the little, or the modest, or the disempowered. And that’s because they aren’t little or modest or powerless in the slightest.
Instead, in their imposing quality, their muscularity and their unambivalence — and their vigorous demands for your attention — they’re all rather macho. There are female figures in Schumann’s menagerie, but they tend to represent abstractions, or they’re stuck on the sidelines. The main players in Schumann’s elephantine inhabitable diorama are men, and it’s a masculine struggle that “Ecstatic Decrepitude” dramatizes.
At its best, “Ecstatic Decrepitude” is an exhilarating reminder of the liberatory power of the imagination, and a history lesson in the aesthetics of ’60s and ’70s protest. At its worst, it attempts to get over on sheer loudness, like that of a zealot with a bullhorn at a rally: bossy, overwhelming, dead certain, anxious to replace one system of domination with another that is more to his liking.
“Ecstatic Decrepitude” will be at ArtYard in Frenchtown through July 31; visit artyard.org.
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