Art has a powerful and complex relation to culture as a whole. While some art fits into cultural norms, other pieces take a more critical lens and closely exam aspects of society that need to be explored and altered. Renowned Chicago artist Henry Darger took the latter route with his writing, painting and collaging, using his work to push back on societal expectations of gender and sex norms.
Darger is a celebrated artist within the "outsider art" community. He was a nontraditional artist who was self-taught and lived a reclusive life in Chicago during the 20th century. Darger worked as a janitor during the day and kept his work so secret that no one knew of its existence until after his death.
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art hosts a permanent exhibit featuring his work, and on June 29, the center held a panel, "Doing Justice to Gender Particularities," to discuss the work of Darger and his fantastical interpretations of gender and sexuality.
Panelists included Leisa Rundquist, curator of Betwixt and Between: Henry Darger's Vivian Girls; Adam Greteman, director of the Master of Arts in Teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and Rev. M Barclay, a provisional deacon appointed as director of communications at Reconciling Ministries Network in The United Methodist Church.
Rundquist is an associate professor of art history at the University of North Carolina Asheville, where she researches the intersections of childhood, religious piety, gender and race in the art of Henry Darger. Greteman is the director of the Master of Arts in teaching program and adjunct assistant professor of Art Education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he explores the affects of sexuality and gender on education. Barclay brought a unique background to the panel. Their work at Reconciling Ministries Network primarily aims to end discrimination in religious spheres.
The panel began with spending time observing and interacting with a few of Darger's works. A notable theme within all of his work, as Barclay said, is transgression. "I see him playing with a lot of the gender conventions of the time," they said. "Transgressing expectations and power dynamics not just for the purpose of being provocative but for liberation and bringing healing to the marginalized."
The panelists discussed and analyzed the ways that Darger depicted human bodies and genitalia, religious symbols and gender roles and their development throughout childhood.
Barclay said that, repeatedly, Darger repurposed aspects of popular culture in a way that re-examined societal norms. Using coloring books, advertisements and the like in his work, Darger "blurs the lines the expectations ... and completely shifts the boundaries of what those images should symbolize," Barclay said.
Darger's religious background informed his art and interpretations of gender and sexuality.
"That's something that I find to be very much in line with my own views," Barclay said. "To take something that has been used and started to be used in a harmful way... and queer it."
For more information about Intuit and its Darger collection, visit Art.org/henry-darger-room-collection/ .