Tonight a gallery in Brooklyn opens with the grand purpose of helping you deal with the weight of life’s mysteries. That’s not to say Stephen Romano, curator and gallery namesake, is offering any answers. Instead “Lexicon Infernali,” the gallery’s debut exhibit, is a window into a world of questions, inviting visitors to take a trip down the rabbit hole of visionary art.
“Visionary” is of course a relative term, open to interpretation. Once you’re greeted by the often horned, haunting images that comprise Romano’s collection (also currently on display currently at the Morbid Anatomy Museum), you may come up with your own set of adjectives. Whatever the word, unanimously there could be no better home for Romano’s world than Bushwick.
Romano’s description of the neighborhood as “post-apocolyptic” could equally stand as a description of his sensibility. “It’s this eclectic, hybrid mix,” he said over the phone, later adding, “You don’t know what to expect when you’re walking down the street. There’s a sense of vitality, exploration and infinite possibility.” It’s in a similar spirit that over the years Romano has built up his collection, comprised of historical and contemporary outsider (self-taught) art, vernacular photography, folk art and vintage antique books all containing, according to Romano, “a shamanistic element in their art practice.”
For reference sake, look no further than the eery, early-20th-century manipulated photography of William Mortensen, the mid-century watercolor airships of Charles Dellschau, and Darcilio Lima’s intricately drawn anthropomorphic beasts. All of the artists have come to gain recent international notoriety largely thanks to Romano’s championing.
Romano’s highly unorthodox taste came from years spent practicing as an artist himself, pursuing creative endeavors up until his early 30s, at which point he began to lose interest in the “politics of getting into galleries.” He particularly resented the institutional support placed on art of a conceptual nature over more expressionistic work. “Whenever [the value of] art is decided through consensus, you homogenize it, which is less interesting to me,” said Romano, who began shifting his interest towards the commercial side of art in an effort to more fully understand the nature of the beast.
Romano moved to New York in the early ’90s, serving as manager of the Ricco Maresca Gallery. During this period, he first encountered the term “outsider art,” a category he’d later come to specialize in when, in 2003, he became a private art dealer. For the next decade, Romano built up his collection of outsider art, developing a penchant for purchasing contemporary pieces alongside the work of older, more forgotten artists. In combining his collection of contemporary “pop surrealists” alongside more traditional “folk and outsider art,” Romano drew a connection previously unseen by most, essentially carving out his “visionary artist” niche.
“It’s about challenging the assumptions placed on the artist,” said Romano, who realized the best way to do this was most by re-contextualizing the artist’s work, giving it a different frame of reference through unexpected juxtaposition. In so doing, over the years Romano has helped make a name for himself and many of the artists in his collection, whose work would have otherwise continued to exist in obscurity.
In making the move to Bushwick, Romano will continue to challenge the perceptions of how art should be presented in a gallery and with that, what that art might reflect about our understanding of reality.
“Lexicon Infernali” opens tonight at the Stephen Romano Gallery, located at 117 Grattan Street, Suite 112, corner of Porter and Harrison.