As show titles go, this Self-Taught Genius expo of masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum poses a unique question: How does one become a self-taught genius? Most would-be art geniuses go to school, but only learn about other people's genius. Some, like Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock, break the mold with fantastical visions that define their time. This show suggests that folk art geniuses are people whose intuitive visions are shaped by their fertile imaginations. The show's 115 works date from early America to the present and fall into diverse categories united by a certain psychic intensity. For instance, an 1830 painting, Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog by Ammi Phillips, is a marvel of sublime simplicity, but the otherworldly look of his subjects reflects an early American view of children and animals as agents of nature's weirdness. Similarly, Asa Ames' 1850 Phrenological Head wood sculpture (pictured) depicting early brain science is a surreal masterpiece. Folk art became more worldly by the 1950s. Car mechanic Marino Auriti's 11-foot-tall Encyclopedic Palace of the World tower sculpture was a model for his proposed 136-story museum that he said would display "all the works of man... from the wheel to the satellite" and occupy 16 city blocks in Washington D.C. The idea never caught on in Washington, but his model was exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
These days, folk art is more associated with eccentric black or white Southerners whose best works are examples of abstraction or expressionism on par with that of Pollock or Picasso. Sheet metal paintings by Mississippi's Mary Smith extend traditional tribal art's tendency to depict the forces of man and nature as fantastical figures, and Alabama sculptor Lonnie Holley's psychically fraught sculptures rival the aesthetic sophistication of modernist icons like Robert Rauschenberg. By displaying their work in their yards, such artists presaged contemporary installation art by decades. More folk masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art collection are on view in its Unfiltered Visions expo upstairs.