Birdie Lusch (1903–1988) was a self-taught artist who worked for most of her life at an assembly line in a ball-bearing factory in Columbus, Ohio, and made art out of found materials and repurposed household articles such as fruit crates and potato sacks. The selection of her paintings, sculptures, and collages shown recently at Kerry Schuss was of uneven quality: some works appeared simplistic or overwrought and others sophisticated and clear-eyed.
The collages (all untitled and all but one ca. 1977) were among the latter. Made on Hallmark Cards sales catalogue pages, they are variations on a single theme: one, two, or occasionally three vases with flowers against a white background. The vases and blossoms are composed of magazine clippings, while the tabletops on which the vases stand are indicated by marker scribbles. In some pieces, several lines of printed text and a Hallmark logo are visible behind the imagery, and a rectangular frame that once held a card sample now resembles a picture or window in the back of the depicted space.
Despite the limited means, the collages have a remarkable spatial complexity, with the push and pull between the drawn lines, printed text, and colorful cutout shapes producing Cubist-like visual oscillations—an illusion of depth momentarily opening up and collapsing again. Fragments of the original imagery cropping up in the cutout pieces strengthen or disrupt the figuration. In one image the vase is fashioned out of a black-and-white photograph showing three gazelles frozen in place against the night sky; their long necks and legs create a rhythmic pattern that seems to twist around the vase’s rotund body. In the same work, images of a tomato, a pillow, and a bowl of rice are deftly employed as red and white blossoms. There is a strong modernist impulse in the collages: the methodical exploration of slight variations in a predetermined format, combined with the mundane subject matter, demonstrates the artist’s deep engagement with the mechanics of pictorial organization. But the main attraction of these works lies in their fine balance between a rigorous, experimental attitude and an easy playfulness and humor in the artist’s handling of found imagery.
A few other pieces in the show displayed the “naive” aesthetics and eclectic use of materials often associated
with the works of self-taught artists. In Aspire to Inspire Ere You Expire (ca. 1977), the title words are carved into a wooden panel, with glass beads marking the letters’ openings. Two small, untitled wall-mounted sculptures have similar compositions—five tubular bottles positioned on the lower ledge of a wooden frame and secured with wire—but different color schemes: black, silver, and gold in one case (ca. 1978), and the colors of the American flag in the other (ca. 1975–85). That the sculptures evoke Joseph Cornell’s boxes and Jasper Johns’s assemblages is likely accidental, showing how similar aesthetic devices can crop up in the practices of artists inhabiting different environments but confronting the same broader cultural conditions. The show, in fact, led one to wonder what the careers of certain established figures would have been if they had worked outside the main art cities and without funds, leisure time, or peer and curator support. Despite the allure of notions of genius, social class and location are major factors in elevating certain artists from the mass of aspiring talents. Although in the last years of Lusch’s life she enjoyed moderate success in Columbus and had her first New York show at Sale of Hats (a predecessor to Kerry Schuss), she had not crossed the barrier from outsider to insider, and her work still awaits wider recognition.