In all figurative visual imagery, whether painting, photography or film, there are generally two ways in which the viewer interacts with the represented.
In one, the subjects perform their narratives unaware of the contemplative gaze of their audience. We see them but they do not see us. This is as true of documentary photography and the narrative film as it is of history painting.
In the other approach, typical of the snapshot or the video interview talking head, or the self-portrait, the subjects consistently maintain eye contact with the viewer. In Michael Banks paintings, the figures, without exception, look straight at us and at our world, even when represented in profile.
These figures, usually cropped at the waist or the chest, and alone or in groups, with tightly pursed lips, clenched teeth or protruding tongues, steadily return our gaze with their tiny eyes oddly placed on the outermost contours of their faces.
Such an intense stare is usually associated with the self-portrait, a result of the artist looking hard into the mirror as he tries to capture his own likeness, and perhaps this is why these works are disturbing. How is it possible that creatures so strange, so other, could look back at us as if from a mirror?
Banks may find himself marketed as an Outsider artist in the U.S., but the meaning or content of his work places him with some Latin American contemporary painters, who are far from marginal. Some years ago, I wrote essays on two such artists, the Puerto Rican, Elizam Escobar, and the Mexican, Jose Luis Cuevas, in whose paintings strange creatures seem to hold the viewer captive with that similar penetrating stare.
At the time, I associated both artists works with a story by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, in which the world is inhabited by two races that co-exist harmoniously, until one is imprisoned in the mirror by the other, and thus condemned to a life of slavish reflections.
Ultimately, the mirror people revolt. They no longer imitate us, but assume their true otherness and break through the mirror to invade our own world.
What strikes me now, looking at Banks paintings, is how even more than those of Escobar or Cuevas, they resemble Borges mirror people. If we regard the picture frame as that of a mirror, the scale of the figures is perfect, and particularly in a work like, Lost in the Crowd, the figures, although cropped by the frame, seem to attempt to crowd in from the sides to become included in the picture, like children having their picture taken at an outing.
And they come so close to the picture plane, it is as if they are about to burst out. We are made to feel as if we are only seeing a fragment of a whole world of otherness existing elsewhere.
What characterizes these others from the elsewhere world behind the mirror? There is nothing at all aggressive about them. In fact they seem to resemble small boys (or girls, as in the case of New Mask and Harmony) in patterned, crew neck sweaters and often wearing imposed disguises, carnival masks, clown noses and dunces caps, all that remains of their enforced resemblance to humanity.
As Borges puts it in his story, Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. Will we then begin to fear them, simply from their perceived difference?
Not only has Banks discovered within himself a unique vision, but he has developed a painting technique to suit that vision. His chosen surface is plywood, on which he applies a layer of roofing tar, into which he etches the contours of his figures with a sharp instrument.
In addition to the dominant figures, there is a subtext of graffiti scratches - words, numbers and small wrestling or dancing couples. He is a masterful colorist, and aided perhaps by the tar under painting he creates an unusual range of almost Venetian colors - reds, greens and off-whites.
Banks work can easily be seen in the context of international contemporary painting, and it may seem strange that he should in this country be relegated to Outsider status. But not if you understand that this is a category entirely defined by class. Privilege and expensive higher education are the tickets to inclusion in the mainstream; everything else is carefully confined to the margins. With this in mind, one can be forgiven for seeing Banks mirror people as an allegory of revenge against an enforced outsider status.
Borges concludes his story with a prophecy that the mirror people will break through the barriers of glass and metal and this time they will not be defeated. Similarly, the authentic, subversive artists will one day invade the center of contemporary art, which is now a culture in deep crisis.
The Hurn Museum tells us it is dedicated to removing the distinction between the inside and the outside within contemporary art (which would certainly revitalize a disintegrating establishment), and Michael Banks brilliant exhibition is a profound contribution to this determination. It should not be missed.
The Hurn Museum of Contemporary Folk Art presents work by outsider artist Michael Banks through Dec. 31 at 1015 Whitaker St.