Palmerino Sorgente in his workshop in Montreal, 1999. Courtesy the American Folk Art Museum. Photo Marie-Christine Cyr and Georges Aubin Jr.


Among the crucial insights of the American Folk Art Museum’s exhibition “When the Curtain Never Comes Down” is that the performative impulse was vital to self-taught (or “outsider”) artists long before it emerged in contemporary art in the 1970s. In addition, the show offers an expansive view of what constitutes performance (not only public interventions, but also the process-oriented mechanics of collecting, weaving, assembling and knitting as creative outlets or ways of marking time), productively transgressing borders between everyday life and artistic actions.

Organized by the museum’s curator Valérie Rousseau, the exhibition brings together nearly 300 works by 26 artists and one religious community. Spanning from late 19th-century Germany to contemporary Detroit, the selection is organized without reliance on thematic categories or chronologies, an approach that fosters delightful, poignant moments of dialogue between objects. In one room, for instance, glitter-encrusted crowns and accessories fashioned in the early 2000s by Palmerino Sorgente (1920-2005)—the Italian-born, self-styled “Pope of Montreal”—are positioned next to bright costumes and a headpiece meticulously crafted in the 1990s by Raimundo Borges Falcão (life dates unknown) for Brazilian Carnival. Assembled from sequins, carpeting, cellophane, buttons, tinsel and other materials, Falcão’s extraordinary regalia incorporate ocean iconography, paying homage to Yemanjá, a spirit of the sea in Afro-Brazilian culture. Seen together, Sorgente’s and Falcão’s works not only present costume and self-adornment as inextricably linked to cultural ritual and public ceremony, but also show the activity of wearing as a way of being in the world. 

Dressed as a trolley driver and operating a self-built streetcar through the streets of Lausanne, Martial Richoz (b. 1963) is warmly documented in a 1983 film by Michel Etter. Richoz, in his jovial disruptions of public space, calls attention to the absurdities of controlled movement and social order in cities, as seen through his own physical and imaginary navigation of his environment. 

Space becomes a simultaneously constraining and liberating force in the work of Fernando Oreste Nannetti (1927-94), who meticulously carved daily inscriptions into the stone walls lining the courtyard of the psychiatric institution where he lived in Tuscany. Seen here in large-scale photographs, Nannetti’s jagged markings have been decoded to reveal a complex worldview detailing imaginary sites, battles and figures. That the walls have been preserved by the hospital he resided in speaks to the mediating role of medical and psychiatric institutions in many of these artists’ lives. Across the room, stone carving is also presented in the work of the French sculptor Jean Loubressanes (b. around 1860, death date unknown), who created tiny, amulet-like figurines that have been conserved by the asylum in which he lived. Delicate and intimate, the figures evoke a form of performance that is located, perhaps, in the process of carving, or in an unknown or unremarked personal veneration.

“When the Curtain Never Comes Down” raises pressing questions for the medium, such as: How do we situate an event when it is enacted in private, apart from public audiences either by choice or through enforced administration? What does it mean for performance to be contingent on the imaginary or the fantastical if such qualities are connected to mental illness, institutional confinement or societal estrangement? Put another way, how might performance facilitate the drive toward an alternate reality or cosmology? Although bringing together a fascinating array of works, the show might have further defined the notion of the endless performance implied by its title, and the extent to which it is germane to the practices of self-taught artists.