Melvin Way (b. 1954)
“If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” titled after a song by Robert Johnson, brings together five artists working in disparate media, from batteries to ballpoint pen. These artists have in common the desire to shield themselves, through their creations, from real or imagined harm. Variously medicinal, instructive, incantatory, or wishful, their works exist as talismans against chaos and disaster. Formally, the pieces in this exhibition share a complexity and quality of line that betrays their makers’ belief in the protective or transformative power of their art.
Subject to terrifying hallucinations, Swiss farmhand and laborer Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930) was committed in 1895 to the Waldau Clinic in Bern, where he spent the rest of his life. A few years after being institutionalized, he began to make art. His drawings, which combine images, words, and musical notations form a fanciful autobiography in which a triumphant Wölfli overcomes catastrophe to become St. Adolf II.
The spirit of scientific inquiry inspired Emery Blagdon (1907–1986) to create, between 1950 and his death, an extraordinary body of delicate assemblage sculptures and geometrically patterned paintings that he called his “Healing Machine.” Contained in a shed on Blagdon’s property in Nebraska, the entire apparatus was composed of hundreds of separate parts, many wired for electricity. Blagdon believed that these elements, when arranged correctly, generated curative electromagnetic energy, alleviating pain and preventing illness.
Knowledge was power for New York artist Mark Lombardi (1951–2000), who achieved recognition in the 1990s for his constellation-like, minutely researched compositions tracking the flow of capital and influence in contemporary society. His drawings addressed such subjects as the savings and loan crisis, Iran‑Contra, and the Vatican bank scandal, and delineated global crime and conspiracy networks in direct and readable form.
New Yorker Melvin Way (b. 1954) was a musician before the onset of mental illness in early adulthood. He creates intricate formulas in ballpoint pen that incorporate mathematical symbols, chemical diagrams, punctuation marks, texts lifted from computer manuals and art books, punning and free-associative wordplay, and pictograms of his own invention. Way describes these formulas, which he treats as amulets, as very powerful and warns against their use.
Similar in scale and intimacy to Way’s paper incantations are the small, totemic sculptures of the Philadelphia Wireman (20th century), which were discovered abandoned in an alley in Philadelphia in the late 1970s. Each of these constructions consists of a group of found objects—including pens, batteries, reflectors, hardware, and tin foil—bound together with heavy-gauge wire. Their maker remains unknown, but the specificity and dynamism of the works suggest a shamanistic purpose, or perhaps just our own projected need for mastery over circumstance.