Known/Unknown

19 Jan — 16 Sep 2017 at the Museum of Sex in New York, United States

Unidentified Maker, “Barbie” Figures, c. 1950-1960, Ceramic. Courtesy of The MARVILL Collection.
Unidentified Maker, “Barbie” Figures, c. 1950-1960, Ceramic. Courtesy of The MARVILL Collection.
14 JAN 2017

The Museum of Sex (MoSEX) presents Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art, an exhibition showcasing the rarely seen, powerful works of artists in the Outsider/Self-Taught/Folk Art countercultures. The show features over 100 pieces, including photographs, sculptures, paintings and objects providing tantalizing, sometimes disturbing, insight into the psychological terrain of their creators.

Known/Unknown opens on Thursday, January 19, and will remain on view until Saturday, September 16, 2017.

Outsider/Self-Taught/Folk Art is not typically overtly sexual, but when it is, it’s emphatic and unconstrained, as is evident in most of the works in Known/Unknown. Eroticism is usually thought of as a prelude to the sexual act, but it can just as easily be part of a reorientation or transformation of sexuality, often driven by singular obsessions—such as power in Marilena Pelosi’s ink sketches of various scenarios of penetration—that blot out all considerations of conventional sensibilities.

"What is compelling about the pieces in Known/Unknown is that at first sight the work appears to be relatively straightforward," says Museum of Sex Director of Exhibitions Mark Snyder. "However, on a closer look, the images in the show are often complicated by an artist's traumatic or psychologically-driven event that shifts them away from reality, and makes the viewer’s encounter with the pieces all the more intimate and challenging."

The art in Known/Unknown is a long way from the typical art world. Many of the artists in the exhibit are self-taught, with little formal education, and range from institutionalized mental patients, to intellectually disabled people, to untutored isolates and eccentrics. Their pieces were often created in seemingly unlikely places; within the sanctuary of psychiatric hospitals— as is the case with Johann Garber's suggestive ink on paper sketches and Johann Korec's sensual watercolors—as well as remote and spiritual places. Sometimes in the lonely, impersonal jungles of teeming cities—as can be seen in the photograph of Henry Darger's rundown Chicago apartment, which was filled to the brim with works spanning fifty years.

Exhibition highlights include:
 Erotic sculptural figures by Steve Ashby, who did not begin his life as an artist until after the death of his wife in 1960. Pieces on view include Rocking Bed Cunnilingus Whirlgig and Masturbating Man with Hand Under a Woman's Blouse, both of which give animated reign to Ashby's sexual fantasies, as well as Woman and Dog, a sculpture of a woman in a compromising position with a dog, which exemplifies the more tongue-in-cheek elements to the sexual acts in Ashby's work.
 A collection of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's erotic photographs of his wife Marie. The black and white prints are stylistically reminiscent of the1940s pin-up and convey a loving playfulness between the photographer and his subject that is both titillating and profound.
 Grainy photographs taken of unsuspecting women by recluse Miroslav Tichý, considered the master of the stolen image in his hometown of Kyjov (Czech Republic). The technical imperfections of the prints are a result of Tichý’s crude construction of his own homemade cameras out of shoeboxes and toilet paper rolls.
 Also on display is Henry Darger's watercolor At Sunbeam Creak/At Wickey Lansinia, which is abound with images of little girls, at times subjected to horrible tortures at the hands of male adult oppressors—a theme that is possibly related to the artist's own childhood traumas growing up in an orphanage, and later an asylum.

The piece was among 15,000 pages of text and hundreds of drawings and watercolors discovered by Darger's landlord shortly before the artist's death.

Overall, the work in Known/Unknown is fueled by secrecy and isolation, resulting in imagery that is far from ordinary experiences of sexuality. And since information about the makers and their objects is often fragmentary, there is no way to know how they would have felt about having these objects on public display.

Visitors are left to determine for themselves whether they are actually encroaching on the remnants of these unconventional artists’ most private thoughts.