Funky Chic'n

As owner Terry Michael Kost likes to say, his RaZoo Gallery "may be America's only self-service, do-it-yourself art gallery." He's referring to his tendency to leave his funky little art space open but unattended. Indeed, on my last two visits, he was nowhere to be found, and I had to track him down by phone later to ask a few questions.

It's not that Kost is negligent. He just likes to let gallerygoers wander in and out to browse at their leisure, without any sales pitches to distract them from the art that's crammed into virtually every available area (including the restroom). There are handouts for some of the artists, information posted on wall panels for others so that newcomers can educate themselves as they go along. And if he happens to be on the premises, Kost, a transplant from New Orleans, is a natural-born raconteur who will readily supply stories about the artists and their art.

The gallery is situated in a spot befitting its funkiness: the Times Square Antique & Design Center, a cluttered store in the middle of a typically nondescript Fort Lauderdale strip mall on the southeast corner of Federal Highway and Oakland Park Boulevard. Visitors have to pass through the sensory overload of the antiques shop and up a creaky staircase at the rear to get to RaZoo, making the visit a little like rummaging through an eccentric friend's attic. And visitors who go on to become customers can pay for purchases downstairs if Kost is in absentia. He'll sort out the details later.

This is hardly typical gallery-owner behavior. Then again, RaZoo isn't your typical gallery by any stretch of the imagination. Kost applies a variety of more or less interchangeable designations to the sort of work he specializes in: outsider art, visionary art, intuitive art, self-taught art, contemporary folk art. All are apt, although I think "art brut" encompasses them all. In 1945, French artist and theorist Jean Dubuffet coined the term, meaning raw or rough art. It has since been widely used to characterize the work of children, the mentally ill, prisoners, and naive (as in self-taught) artists such as Grandma Moses. Dubuffet's influential 1949 essay "Art Brut Preferred to the Cultural Arts" praises such work as "art at its purest and crudest... springing solely from its maker's knack of invention and not, as always in cultural art, from his power of aping others or changing like a chameleon." He went on to rally support for the work of nonprofessional artists, lecturing on the subject and collecting thousands of pieces that eventually ended up with their own museum in Switzerland.

Not surprisingly, the term quickly became problematic. It was even applied to the output of Dubuffet himself, a highly sophisticated painter who knew exactly what he was doing. I'd venture a guess that there's also a degree of irony present in the work of many if not most of the artists Kost handles (his ever-changing roster includes 50 or so at any given time). These artists make art brut as a conscious decision, as a way of subverting the rules of the game that's played by an art establishment that has scorned them and that they in turn scorn. The ultimate irony, of course, is that a lot of contemporary art brut has achieved mainstream respectability, making it harder for an outsider artist to remain on the outside.

German painter Peter Keil, for instance, embraces the bold colors and flat spaces of naive art and he has found inspiration in such subjects as drug addicts, prostitutes, and street people. Yet he's also well-educated and has spent time in the company of such established names as Georg Baselitz and Joan Miró, and his influences clearly include Picasso and abstract expressionism. His treatment of his characters' eyes, in particular, bears a strong whiff of Willem de Kooning's famous "Women" series from the 1950s.

Another RaZoo favorite, Pat Campau, likewise draws on seemingly contradictory impulses. She too is formally educated, although she creates her striking mixed-media altars and icons from junk-heap detritus. They're at once crude and raw but also evocative of the more delicate, refined boxes that made Joseph Cornell famous.

Kost, whose ex-wife is an art writer, was a collector before he became a gallery owner, and he has a collector's zeal when it comes to certain artists. A current favorite is Tim Sellers, whose art alias, Timmy Tatts, derives from his commercial work as a tattoo artist. Some of his paintings look like tattoos on canvas, but other influences show up as well, including Asian art and the cartoon-based style of artists such as Robert Crumb. I get the impression that Sellers consciously strives to keep his fine-art work from coming across as too slick.

One of Kost's latest and most impressive discoveries is John Patrick Kelly, a Colorado-born painter and sculptor who's probably the most technically accomplished artist currently on display at RaZoo. I'm not nearly as taken as Kost by Kelly's sculptures in bronze and marble, which strike me as competent but not especially interesting. His oil paintings are another matter. Kelly works in a style that hovers uneasily between realism and surrealism. Like many of Dalí's best and best-known paintings, Kelly's are meticulously detailed renderings of things that appear to be reality but are also at a slight remove from reality. The dreamy images suggest narratives that seem to unfold just on the periphery of our vision, at once tangible and elusive.

In one large, exceptionally rich piece (untitled as far as I could tell), a woman stands in a leaf-strewn yard, her eyes either closed or downcast, backed by bare tree branches and a white picket fence. Slightly to her left and in front of her stands a small blond boy wearing a white T-shirt and baggy red pants held up by suspenders, clutching what looks to be a rake in one hand, the other hand held tightly clenched by his side. The boy stands with his back to us, and our inability to see his face is both maddening and mesmerizing. The narrative possibilities of this ambiguous image are potentially inexhaustible, making it as sinister and seductive as something out of a David Lynch movie.

Kost jokingly suggests that another excellent Kelly work, Waiting Place, is the artist's attempt to do a landscape in the style of Florida's famous Highwaymen painters. Perhaps, although the picture is decidedly odder and edgier, even though it features nothing more than a rickety-looking, pale-blue wooden chair sitting at the edge of a dirt road in a lush, subtropical countryside. Kelly has an uncanny knack for imbuing everything he paints with an aura of ineffable mystery.

RaZoo trafficks in the work of many other artists. Some, such as established South Florida outsider artist Purvis Young, seem to coast on their reputations, while others, such as the late Rev. Howard Finster of record-sleeve notoriety, have had their aesthetic significance eclipsed by astronomical prices. For good measure, Kost also throws in some African masks and other ceremonial wooden artifacts.

An easy-to-miss sign near the top of the stairs to the gallery explains that in New Orleans, the word razoo, which is called out to claim all the marbles in a game before anyone else, can also be used as a verb, as in "to get there before someone else does." That's what Kost aims to do with the artists he champions and what he hopes visitors to his "anti-gallery," as he calls it, will do with the art they find there.

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Michael Mills