by Bill Ellis, Saint Michael’s College Assistant Professor of Fine Arts: Music
Larry Bissonnette’s art is many things: colorful, playful, energetic, and visceral. Context is as thick as the layers of paint he smears with his hands. His work can be viewed through the spontaneous, untutored aesthetics of the self-taught, or at the interchange where autism and art meet. His multimedia creations find kinship with contemporary art, offer social discourse coupled with incisive humor, and mediate the gap between disability and ability. Not least, they place him in a select vernacular of Vermont artistry.
Just don’t call what he does “autistic art” explained away as a byproduct of disability. Instead, his art speaks past autism to share the humanity of a person whose diagnosis inhibits typical communication of feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Historically, singular abilities in the arts have countered the conventional narrative of disability, such as the technical brilliance of many blind musicians. To that end, Bissonnette provides his own explanation of what he does: “Love to look at my art as intuition driven not ordered by my disability.”
Autism does feed his routine, which involves daily drawing and weekly painting, the latter at workshops sponsored by G.R.A.C.E. (the Grass Roots Arts and Community Effort). “Yes, used to certain habits of doing things,” says Bissonnette, 57, who types responses via facilitated communication. His assistant, Pascal Cheng, places a gentle hand on the artist’s shoulder to keep him focused as he types – no such assistance is required when Bissonnette makes his art. “Upending the routine would be good.”
Some traits in his work are common to art made by people on the autism spectrum, such as thematic repetition, interest in the past, transportation imagery, and a compulsion to create for its own sake. Indeed, the understanding and appreciation of art by those classified autistic has grown in recent years. This includes an ever-expanding list of books on the subject and as well as studios, exhibition spaces, and representation for autism-related art (California’s Art of Autism collective – the-art-of-autism.com – lists more than 50 such organizations). Yet given that autism exists on a spectrum – i.e., no two people with the diagnosis show exactly the same symptomatic behaviors – it follows that work by visual artists with autism is just as varied, existing on a creative spectrum that ranges from the hyperrealism of Stephen Wiltshire to the ethereal pop art of Jessica Park to the Lego compositions of Alex Masket.
As for Bissonnette, recurring motifs, gestures, themes, and ways of doing things in his art can – and should – be attributed as well to personal style. Some distinguishing elements in his work are: memory-based subject matter; preference for multi-media; recurring iconography and symbols including hyperlexia; motion imagery such as wheels and circles; faces, both painted and photographed; marginalia; handmade frames; and commentary on disability issues, for which he is a well-traveled advocate.
Visually arresting, Bissonnette’s larger works take the form of oblong, multi-media panels layered with acrylic paint, marker, colored pencil, Polaroid film, tape, wood, and nails. As the book, Loud Hands, points out, people with autism often rely on their hands to break the “language” barrier – and by extension the deflating stereotypes – that accompany autism. How fitting, then, that his art relies on bold, tactile gestures that could only be made by engaging one’s hands in a direct dance between paint and panel.
The frames are their own marvels, thick blocks of wood that usually hide or obscure part of the painting, which may be the point. Here is an unrevealing element between art and viewer that hints, perhaps, at the impasse autism can inflict on social interactions. Then again, “the frames add a formality that lifts the work into a realm of intention and public communication,” as art scholar Lyle Rexer writes. Put another way, the frame gives purpose to the act of viewing and to what is being viewed, which would explain why Bissonnette refuses to call a work finished until it is framed.
Many of his works are memory based, recalling more often than not his institutionalized childhood at the since-closed Brandon Training School. Far from the nostalgic, rural vistas of, say, Grandma Moses, or the whimsical recollections of fellow Vermonter Gayleen Aiken, Bissonnette’s paintings and sketches bear witness to a time when he was most misunderstood and mistreated. And yet the young boy – who first learned to draw as a nonverbal child – nurtured his love of art at Brandon, where he would sneak off in the middle of the night to the padlocked art room, break in, and get about to the business of making art.
Such burning single-mindedness can spill over into the constant revisiting and refining of a theme, such as many drawings he has made of a school playground. This form of perseveration locks in the rhythms and patterns of a scene or scenario, a quality that may well equip children on the autism spectrum with the kind of practice-instilled discipline necessary to create art. Still, his paintings are atypical of “systematizing tendencies” by so-called savants and artists with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in which recreation of a scene or experience is rendered in painstaking detail and accuracy, such as the aforementioned work of Stephen Wiltshire.
Bissonnette’s style and content – which has consciously shifted and adapted over the years and contains an abundance of self-reflective humor and social critique – leaves no doubt that the autism-classified artist is auteur, not automaton. One only has to compare his earlier works, tightly conceived and executed, to his late style full of impromptu swirls of color and a looser command of materials. “Wilder and more movement driven, paint is thicker,” says Bissonnette of his current approach. Stuart Murray sums up the Vermonter’s art, calling it “a supreme example of autistic intelligence at work in a portrayal of disability…His individual version of autism and his chosen working method represent a unique version of autistic expression.”
Like many artists with ASD, Bissonnette revels in an obsessive iconology, one packed with allusion and autobiography. Numbers figure prominently in his work, including the numeral 3, which refers, he says, to the age when he started to do art. Even his numbering system for dating works becomes, a la Howard Finster, part of the painting (“It’s like popular magazine timeline of regular issues,” Bissonnette says). So too do the walls, rooms, windows, play park swings, and zip code of Brandon Training School make frequent appearances, as does an anonymous painted face that, Bissonnette explains, is no one in particular, just the same face in different scenes. Still, the hyperlexia and fanatic pervasiveness of certain shapes and objects in his work, I would argue, is no less compulsive and artful than Jasper Johns’ fixation on flags, maps, and numbers.
Even more defining is the other face that shows up in nearly every painting as a photograph attached by bands of tape. These photos – initially taken with a Polaroid camera though he has since switched to a Fujifilm Instax 210 – are of family, friends, and those he meets at conferences. He likens the method of placing photos on his canvases to adding “a topping on an ice cream sundae” and says he will sometimes wait years before he matches an image with the right painting (this explains why the dates on the front and back of a painting frequently disagree). More than a mere topping, these photos anchor the paintings in complex, associative ways. If the human face has been at the forefront of modern art, as Lucienne Peiry contends what to make of the instant camera headshots that give weight, balance, completion, focus, and human connection to the background abstractions of Bissonnette’s paintings. It’s almost as if the painting becomes activated or inspirited once he tapes on the face, a post-modern Janus figure moderating two worlds, the autistic and non-autistic, who now share a space of recognition.
Many pieces as well have the recurring catch phrase, “No Parking,” stamped in stencil-like lettering almost as a kind of graffiti politik. It is the artist at his most political, suggesting the socially imposed limits of inclusion and presumption of competence for the disabled. The way he explains it, anybody can park where you like unless you happen to be disabled, in which case you are met with “no parking” at every turn.
There are other aspects to the Milton native’s artistic identity. His color palette, nature-imbued sensibility and sense of line, and rootedness of location confirm his ties to the Green Mountain State. And he embraces his “outsider” status, though the label risks marginalizing him further than disability has already tried.
True, he experienced relative isolation at Brandon when he was developing his artistic voice, and his autism can be misread – to the uninformed, at least – as severe disengagement. But the self-taught tag is relevant only in that he has not let the absence of tradition or formal art training dampen his desire to create. The G.R.A.C.E. program he partakes in is a community, after all. Add his family, his Howard Center relationships and interactions, his ongoing presence in academic and disability rights circles, and his sundry travels abroad, and he is more of a global citizen than many of his neighbors.
In 1949 French artist Jean Dubuffet put together the first exhibition of art brut, which championed the creativity of children and the institutionalized as an alternative to schooled, conventional art. In the show’s catalog, he wrote, “Where is he, your normal man? Show him to us! Can the artistic act, with the extreme tension it implies and the high fever that accompanies it, ever be deemed normal? … artistic function is identical in all cases, and there is no more an art of the insane than there is an art of dyspeptics or those with knee problems.” We have come a long way since Dubuffet’s time in understanding the complexities of the mind and in cultivating a culture of empathy and inclusiveness for those with disabilities. But his argument holds true. Bissonnette’s dazzling work, which resides, aptly enough, in Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut, uses color, form, and line – the capacity of any and all visual art – to make us see the world in ways previously unimagined.