Brian Belott created a secular church to children’s art for his show at Gavin Brown’s enterprise in Harlem. He selected three hundred pieces from the over one million housed in the Connecticut storage unit belonging to the estate of educator and psychologist Rhoda Kellogg (1898–1987), and installed them salon-style on walls covered with custom wallpaper whose design he based on Kellogg’s tracings of children’s drawings. The figures the children had drawn, blown up to large scale on the wallpaper, towered like patron saints over the individual artworks. One wall featured dozens of Belott’s “forgeries” (as he calls them) of works found in Kellogg’s collection or in his own vast collection of books on children’s art, the images reading as homages by an adult longing to reconnect with the unfiltered energy of childhood.
Are his re-creations compelling paintings? Sure. The elevation of bobbleheaded, wonky-bodied figures from scribbles on cheap paper to paintings on canvas does make for enjoyable viewing, even if, as Belott himself would readily admit, they don’t hold a candle to the originals. While it’s easy to dismiss contemporary artists who borrow from outsider or Art Brut vocabularies as aesthetic tourists appropriating the earnest expressions of those unencumbered by the market or the academy, Belott’s admiration for children’s art and for Kellogg’s tireless effort to catalogue and celebrate it as a universal proto-language comes across as sincere.
Serving as a soundtrack to the show was a two-hour collage of found sounds (some from “The Audio Kitchen,” an old WFMU radio program devoted to such recordings), including clips of children screaming, making up songs, and playing. It was an appropriately rambunctious audio accompaniment. High on one wall hung a light-box piece mimicking a rose window, with forms, rendered in theater gels, based on Kellogg’s taxonomy of imagery children make as they proceed through stages of development. Belott also unearthed some never-before-seen gems by Kellogg: a 16mm film (Early Expressionists, 1965) and an unpublished book (How One Three-Year-Old Girl Taught Herself to Draw, 1959) that was distributed here as a takeaway zine.
The most irresistible aspect of the exhibition was the on-site classroom: an area at the center of the gallery demarcated by three freestanding walls that regularly hosted children from New York public schools without arts programs. In keeping with Kellogg’s pedagogical method, the kids were given supplies and encouraged to go wild, with minimal guidance from Belott and a handful of his artist pals. The resulting works became part of the show, filling the classroom’s walls. At the exhibition’s close, the students and their families and friends were invited to a special event celebrating the works they had created. During additional public hours held on the weekends throughout the show’s run, the gallery welcomed anyone in the neighborhood to come and make work. As I spoke to the gallery’s outreach director, Marquita Flowers, during my visit, several passersby entered through the invitingly open garage door, marveled at the installation, and asked, “What is this?” When Flowers said they could come back with children and use the art supplies, they were surprised but enthusiastic. “Seriously?” asked one woman. Yes, seriously.
Brian Belott is a master collagist whose sensitivity to his materials transcends the kitschier qualities of his work, which has a blissfully homespun esthetic all its own. For “The Joy of File,” Belott constructed a sort of modern-day cabinet of curiosities, building a freestanding room-within-a-room on whose exterior walls he sampled results of his obsessive scavenging projects. Thrift store picture frames, old children’s books and abandoned family snapshots are carefully collected and sorted, only to be radically transformed into elegantly sloppy abstractions. Utilizing materials like glitter, tinfoil and neon-colored paint that are associated with a suburban child’s arts and crafts table, Belott seems to maintain an ongoing conversation with a youthful self—one that would have been familiar to many viewers. Strolling past the densely collaged walls as the subtle sounds of found cassette tapes drifted overhead was akin to revisiting in a dream the corridors of a once familiar elementary school.
Big expanses of the structure’s wall space were filled with recycled photographs, which mingled mischievously with graphic scraps of textbook pages and lushly hand-painted swaths of paper. Here and there, patches of glitter defined biomorphic shapes. Vivid oversized combs floated delicately in waves of red spray paint. Wooden clothespins and dangling house keys were strung together into a visual pun on a piano keyboard, which wrapped around the entire bottom of the structure. As wildly complex as some of the walls were, each was anchored by a single larger framed picture. One example of what Belott terms a “glass work” (a painting incorporating a found frame and its glass) playfully evoked, with a crooked grid, both the Bauhaus constructions of Josef Albers and the geometric austerity of Ad Reinhardt. Belott’s clumsy and almost slapdash use of brightly colored foil serves as a goofy response to the cerebral standards of abstract formalism. Another smaller grid painting is built from Styrofoam packing squares that have been awkwardly glued to a small pre-stretched canvas and drenched in luminous acrylics.
While such materials and techniques are often linked with high-concept appropriations of low culture, the artist employs them here with nary a hint of irony. Instead, his work forces us to confront that strange moment in childhood when innate creativity and serious art-making become, sadly, disconnected. In Belott’s world, the kids have run amok in the classroom. They refuse to let their imaginations be confined to a limited period of time (recess, for instance). By obliterating any hierarchical distinctions between handmade craft and high art strategizing, Belott is able to harness his wild creative energies into a very refined and joyful dissertation on our collective inner child.
Photo: View of Brian Belott’s mixed-medium exhibition “The Joy of File,” 2010; at Zürcher.