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From the Vault: Alien Forms

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Submitted Photo Bernard Schatz/L-15, “L-15 Elemental Angel Vessel,” 1986, glass red raku glaze on terracotta, acquisitions fund purchase.

By Aubrey Hobart

Roswell Museum and Art Center

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

What creeps you out? Spiders, snakes and mice? Dolls and robots? Thousands of tiny holes? Glistening or gloopy surfaces? Outstretched tendrils? Human beings are hard-wired to find all of these things uncomfortable to some degree. We subconsciously spend a lot of time scanning our environment for things that might present a danger to us. Snakes and spiders are relatively easy to understand; they could bite us and may be poisonous. Mice and other rodents can carry deadly diseases. Glistening surfaces could reflect the presence of spilled fluid, which might indicate danger, or else suggests the characteristic shininess of many poisonous plants and animals. Trypophobia is the name for a fear of irregular clusters of holes or dots, and might stem from seeing contagious diseases like chicken pox, spots of mold on food, or a resemblance to scales or patterns on dangerous creatures. Long, thin tendrils suggest that something is decidedly not human, while dolls and robots may be disturbing because they look too human. All of these different forms of discomfort are the subject of our new art exhibition at the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

The show is entitled Alien Forms and it includes the objects in our vaults that I personally found the most unsettling. There is a spindly woven sculpture that stands almost 8 feet tall, and is precariously balanced on three tiny legs. Another aggressive sculpture is studded with sharp metal and stone shards. On the other end of the spectrum are lithographs of swirling, organic forms that remind us of our own fragile bodies and how easily they can be broken or torn. Yet, there is a lot of humor present in the show, as well, from Karel Appel’s cartoonish faces, to Gustave Baumann’s parody of modern art.

As a general rule, art historians no longer associate an artist’s output with their psychological state; that tends to be an older idea that has been rejected in recent years. So, I would never suggest that the odd works in this exhibit indicate anything about the personalities of the artists who made them. Most objects that may be perceived as creepy are not actually made by creepy people. Rather, these artists were simply exploring new ideas, copying from nature, or trying to generate a specific emotional response from the viewer. One of the things art does well is challenge us. However, for one artist in the show, the line between art and life seems less clear.

According to the book, “The Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program: An Anecdotal History,” by Ann McGarrell, Bernard Schatz (1931-2015) moved to Roswell in 1986 to participate in the RAiR program. Having a self-described “overblown artistic ego,” he refused to complete an application like the other artists. Instead, he sent in his own form for the museum to complete, including questions like “List five reasons why you became a museum,” and “Send descriptions of 10 projects you have presented in the last 24 months.” This reverse application seems to have arrived at just the right time (and amused Don Anderson enough) that Schatz got one of the coveted slots.

He doesn’t seem to have been very popular amongst the other artists in the program, though. In the book, Stephen Fleming recalls that almost everyone on the compound had nightmares about Schatz, and some of them even had the same nightmare: hiding in tunnels to escape from him. Schatz also clashed with the program’s director at the time, Bill Ebie. The archives at RMAC reveal a contentious collection of letters back and forth until Schatz refused to speak with Ebie entirely. Yet, RMAC’s ceramics instructor, Aria Finch, remembers him differently. She says they had a wonderful relationship and she liked him a great deal, even as she concedes that he didn’t get along with others very well.

Perhaps the most inexplicable story regarding Schatz involves a hospital visit in 1986. In the catalog for his one-man show at RMAC, Schatz wrote that he experienced a mysterious case of internal bleeding while in Roswell, so he was put in an x-ray machine for diagnostic tests. He claimed that being bombarded with x-rays released his cosmic energy and two angels named Golk Golk and Moh Moh appeared to him. They revealed that he was an intergalactic guru artist (a wording he registered with a trademark) who was millions of years old and traveled to different planets, including Thbli (Earth) more than 15,000 times. To reflect his enlightenment after this visitation, Schatz changed his name to L-15 and began producing hundreds of ceramic pieces featuring images of simplistic, straining faces extruded from the surface of his works. The work illustrated above, which will be featured in our exhibition, is characteristic of this period.

So, was Schatz evil or crazy? I’m inclined to say neither. Perhaps he was difficult and eccentric, but he strikes me more as the kind of man who enjoyed provoking people for a response, so the whole angel story might be an elaborate performance art piece, along the lines of comedian Andy Kaufman’s work. As I said earlier, most art that may be perceived as creepy is not actually made by creepy people, but sometimes it is made to intentionally creep people out.

How will this work make you feel? Find out at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Alien Forms opens on April 20.