The Outsiders

Art sometimes turns up in the most improbable places, manifesting itself in the most surprising ways. 9Muses Art Center is located in a nondescript strip mall in Lauderhill, and the artworks on display in the one-room gallery there, as well as those being worked on in the center's adjacent studio space, are the work of the mentally ill.

When it was launched about two and a half years ago, 9Muses was called Hot Sketch Studios, funded by the state and overseen by the nonprofit group Volunteers of America. About a year ago, the Mental Health Association of Broward County assumed the oversight function, and the name was changed to 9Muses. But the goal of the project remained the same: to provide a place where people with mental ailments could create and display artistic work.

The exhibit now on view is "Outsider Artist Pat Astoske -- Works on Paper and Canvas: 19951998," which showcases two dozen paintings by the Alabama-born artist, who works primarily in acrylic and oil, sometimes in combination, and has been with 9Muses since its early days. She's quoted in a biographical sketch as saying, "Expressing myself through drawing and painting has helped me to cope better in a world full of problems." Coming from a professionally trained painter, such a statement would sound disingenuous at best. From someone like Astoske, it's a disarmingly frank and unpretentious assertion.

Astoske, who's in her early fifties and has been painting since 1991, is entirely self-taught, aside from some minimal advice offered by 9Muses' fine arts coordinator, Don Anderson, who says, "I have been careful not to disturb her particular perspective. She's an original talent." Astoske's clinical diagnosis is dysthymia, a combination of depression and anxiety that's often traceable to a childhood trauma; in her case, it appears to be linked to the stress of growing up in a household with a mentally ill mother.

And yet there are no apparent dark demons being exorcised in Astoske's paintings -- no tortured imagery, no skeletons dancing in the family closet. The Combatants features her most volatile image, and it's far from extreme: a pair of male nudes fighting, surrounded by a handful of onlookers who may or may not be urging them on. With Losing Battle (Combatants), Astoske seems to have created a sort of companion piece that serves up a little moral on the futility of fighting.

Next to Losing Battle is The Beginning (Dancing), which features two hairy-chested male figures, clad only in briefs, whose awkwardly splayed legs echo the distortions of cubism. In the blurry, green-and-blue background, two ghostly figures hover; the one on the left appears to be tipping a hat, while the one on the right stretches its arms above its head.

These vaguely ominous figures lend a subtle tension to the image, an ambiguity that suggests that they're either on the verge of inciting the exuberant dancers to violence, or that they've just settled a squabble between the men. They may even be attackers or avengers of some sort. The Combatants, Losing Battle, and The Beginning play off one another so well that I can imagine them as a lovely Astoske triptych, with The Beginning as the centerpiece.

Aside from this richly suggestive trio of pictures, Astoske's landscapes are much stronger than her figurative paintings. Too often her crudely sketched humans are as blandly anonymous as barely fleshed-out stick figures. (In at least one piece, however, this interchangeability works to a witty advantage: The Audience, which is crowded with row after row of faces staring blankly ahead.)

The landscapes are pleasingly varied. While the van Gogh-inspired Crazy Clouds (Homage to Vincent), with its atmospheric swirls of yellow dotted with red, doesn't quite come off, A Sunny Neighborhood, with its skewed perspectives and an energetic cluster of houses painted bright yellow, pale blue, and brown, lives up to its name.

Astoske really hits her stride with landscapes that veer more toward abstraction. She achieves a simple but lyrical balance in Lilies Along the River, which consists of fairly symmetrical horizontal striations of sky, green and brown earth, lilies, and water. There's a similar feel to The Fierce Sea, which varies the formal structure slightly to include a couple of columns of trees that frame the turbulent title waters.

Dream Time is an even bolder foray into abstraction, with feathery, cloudlike daubs of acrylic poised above what could be white-capped waves or just as easily snowcapped mountains. Vagueness is a virtue here, because the painting is less a literal landscape than the embodiment of the idea, the sensation of a landscape.

For Night Delight Astoske seems to have unwittingly adapted the techniques of pointillism to her own ends, enlarging the characteristic tiny dots and delicate brush strokes into large patches of color on a black field. Again, only the suggestion of a landscape is evident -- looking, in this case, like a starry sky above blue and green waters and a stretch of shoreline.

In sharp contrast to these technically accomplished landscapes, Astoske's most arresting image is one that is traditionally "primitive": Cutting the Losses. What comes across initially as a jumble of surreal forms resolves itself into a collection of domestic bric-a-brac -- a fan, a barrel, a clock, a stool, a vacuum cleaner -- arrayed outside a little hillside hole. An alligator, a cat, and two big fish -- live or artificial? impossible to say -- complete the mix. Imagine a yard sale by a hobbit, and you get the picture.

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