Greetings from the North. I'm back from a seven-city suicide sprint through the Mid-Atlantic disguised as a vacation. Between 20-plus hours of planes, trains and automobiles, I managed to squeeze in some quality culturing. Arts aficionados rightly elegize the Northeast, but wherever I went, I saw the City Beautiful staring back at me. Everywhere is becoming Orlando, and Orlando is everywhere.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City
Emerging from the 53rd Street subway station, I saw my first sign of incipient Orlando-itis: a down-the-sidewalk queue to enter the fabled MOMA, followed by a second line to buy tickets. Thankfully the line moved with Small World—like swiftness. The first five floors hold the greatest hits of art's last 100 years or so (Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, et al.), but the crowds were there for the sixth floor's short-term shows. Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (through Oct. 20) focuses on what one might suppose is the least artistic sort of architecture — the manufactured home. While Floridians may think of them as hurricane-hurled deathtraps, some of the world's greatest designers worked on prefabs that you won't find in any white-trash trailer park. Le Corbusier's bare-bones Domino House in 1914, Gropius' copper homes (popular among Jews fleeing Nazi Germany for pre-independence Israel), Buckminster Fuller's 1929 steel-shelled Dymaxion and more mod modulars are remembered. In the outdoor annex, explore a post-Katrina prototype, the plastic-and-steel Cellophane House and other walk-through installations. Finally, among the masterpieces hang images of Disneyland's 1957 Monsanto House of the Future and Walt Disney World's Contemporary Resort.
Across the hall is the exquisite Dalí: Painting and Film (through Sept. 15). Plenty of the extravagant eccentric's important paintings are on view, including the formative "Unsatisfied Desires" and the familiar (and unexpectedly small) "Persistence of Memory." The focus is on Dalí's cinematic output, from early Expressionist explorations with Luis Buñuel (horrific infestation imagery that prefigures Lynch) to his dream sequences for Hitchcock's Spellbound. The grotesque erotica essential to Salvador's sense of surrealism is on display also — in pages from an aborted script, he repeatedly and graphically describes a feather-boa-framed "cunt." Yup, the guy with the funny mustache was a dirty old man — which makes me wonder what his relationship was like with the conservative Walt Disney, a man he called one of the only "great American surrealists" and his collaborator on the cartoon Destino. The animated short subject, in the style of Fantasia, was begun in 1946, abandoned for decades and finally completed in 2003. The finished film, rarely screened and unreleased on video, features Dalí's "transformative paranoia," brought to life in Disney's classic hand-drawn style. It's transfixing, but what would Uncle Walt have thought of the television documentary in which Dalí narrates the electron-microscopic examination of a brass pen he systematically pissed on?
American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore
With all due respect to MOMA's masters, the most exciting art I saw in my travels came from creators that never worked with Disney, nor probably with anyone else you've ever heard of. Opened in 1995 at the foot of Federal Hill, within walking distance of the scenic Baltimore Inner Harbor, the American Visionary Art Museum provides a unique home for art's true outsiders. The institution's formal focus is "art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself." Sometimes that translates as artwork so powerful that it led its unstudied crafters into — or through — mental illness. The permanent collection includes pointillist masterpieces more detailed than any Seurat, executed on cardboard with single-hair brushes; a scale model of the Titanic made of matchsticks; and a gallery devoted to OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Delight.
The recently concluded All Faiths Beautiful exhibit focused on ecstatic religious expression, a frequent feature of visionary folk art. In the hallway hang Alex Grey's hallucinatory, transcendental anatomy portraits (his interests include autopsies and LSD). Up the stairwell spiral submissions to Frank Warren's PostSecret writing project, in which ordinary people confess their deepest spiritual secrets ("I am a preacher's wife and I don't believe in God") on artfully decorated postcards. A video shrine built from bottles of his signature organic soap honors the late Dr. Emil Bronner; their text-covered labels mix ecumenical evangelicalism with instructions on product usage as everything from toothpaste to contraceptive. The gift shop is a treasure trove of kitsch, as if John Waters ran Spencer's Gifts. And there's a giant mirrored egg out front.
The best place outside Baltimore for similar inspiration may be Downtown Disney. The House of Blues houses an excellent folk art collection, which they show off during the annual Festival of the Masters (Nov. 7-9); the festival is attended by recognized visionaries like Mary Proctor, whose found-object collages hang in the AVAM (and my condo).
The day I visited the Visionary, I also read the vigorous (and vitriolic) online debate over Megan Bardoe's Aug. 14 arts review, "A lesson on showcasing fresh talent." If Orlando's artists could follow their own individual visions, without regard to competition or convention, we'd all be a lot firstname.lastname@example.org