Monday, May 12, 2008

Greg Bottoms, "The Colorful Apocalypse" (2007).

There's something about half-crazed, backwoods, fundamentalist Christians that lends itself to making imaginative claims about looming apocalypse. Sometimes such self-styled ministers have intense visions and decide to commit them to canvas in the form of paintings. Fortunately for a lucky few, we happen to be living through a particularly millenarian age- when even those who can be called nominally 'sane' have their dark moments of terror. This means that there is a growing audience for artwork by these folks. In fact there is even a cultural apparatus evolving to deal in such works. There are galleries, journals, and even museums where you can see it. There's even a formal term to refer to it- "Outsider Art".

Certainly people have their disagreements about just what is, and what is not, Outsider Art. There are some that would suggest that artists who create work outside the mainstream count as members within this category. Others would assert that these creators are, by necessity, driven by mental illness. Greg Bottoms, an English professor, impulsively decided to explore whether or not some of the more famous Outsider Artists were particularly afflicted. Instead of going to the institutions (mental asylums, prisons, etc.) from where much of this body of work originates, he chose to travel to the Deep South and the Mid-West, to meet a few of the most famous Christian Visionary painters of the day. He resolved to keep journals and other recordings from this journey, and eventually worked them into The Colorful Apocalypse.

Bottoms was too late to meet Howard Finster, as he had recently passed away. He was able to meet Finster's sister, who was struggling to preserve her brother's land (called Paradise Gardens) in the face of financial difficulties. After riding around with her for a bit, the author decided to venture forth and meet William Thomas Thompson- an eccentric ex-millionaire who experienced a torrid vision of the end-times, and subsequently devoted his life to depicting harrowing portrayals of Christian horrors. Through lengthy conversations Bottoms was able to get Thompson to expound on his conspiracy theories, and his strident criticism of 'False Christians'. He also managed to wrangle an introduction to Norbert Kox, Thonpson's friend and sometimes collaborator.

Kox was an Outlaw biker from Wisconsin whose revelations came by way of a very bad acid trip. He decided to abandon his wife and child, and his motorcycle body shop, and enter into a decade-long retreat in the woods. There he built an elaborate shrine documenting the visceral sufferings of the crucified Christ, and intended to serve as a tour guide and missionary to visitors. He also painted several hundred paintings along similar lines. Philosophically, Kox and Thompson share a lot of the same obsessions. They are both concerned with the political influence of the Masons, the false teachings of Catholicism, and the impending final judgment. Kox has been 'discovered' by the legitimate art world, and has shown his work in galleries across the US and Europe.

Much of The Colorful Apocalypse recounts the interaction between Bottoms and these artists. The author is clear about not being an expert in the field of art history. And while that is not enough to invalidate his insights, it does provoke an inevitable question- just what is Bottoms motivation for writing this book? Apparently he has had personal experience with madness, and he wants to understand its nature. His brother is a schizophrenic who has embraced fundamentalist Christianity. This is problematic as it suggests that Bottoms is clearly biased in his assumptions about Christian Outsider Artists. While he has crafted an entertaining journal, he has also made himself vulnerable to a disproportionate amount of criticism for such a slim and innocuous book.

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