Images From the Basement
Dir. Dan Rybycky, Aaron Wickenden, USA, 2014, 93 minutes
“The artist who suffers is common. I’m going to suffer for the rest of my life. I’ve accepted that.” So says Peter Anton, an artist selling his own work whom the filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden met at a Polish festival in Indiana more than eight years ago.
After years of following Anton from a fetid heat-less house stuffed with his art in East Chicago to a senior center and then into the secrets of his life, they produced an exhibition of his work that introduced Anton to the curious outside world. Later came Almost There, a portrait of an outsider artist that opens tonight in New York.
All artists working outside the mainstream are special, or think they are, but Peter Anton was all the more special because he was alive, and still is. To meet Anton is to get a guided tour of his life and work. He’s a talk-aholic, an instant character for a film. Like a lot of outsider artists, his pictures have an innocence and a freshness, plus a Midwestern wit that takes you into a heartland surrealism. Anton created a “talent club” in his hometown in the 1950’s, documenting the people around, mostly children. It was a mix of Warhol’s Movie Stars and the odd folk of Lake Woebegone – before either of those legends existed. “It was the dream of all to be discovered. We’re going to be stars someday,” says a woman who took part as a girl. “He was going to be discovered, too.” Anton was also an archivist of his life and work, if archivist means someone who allows everything from his past to pile up like layers of trash. Entering his world and getting to the archives in his basement in East Chicago meant wearing a mask and braving the stench.
No surprise for a man who lived with his mother for 50 years, Anton turned out to be more complicated. In 1981, he was found to have taken nude pictures of children. Was the charming eccentric also a sex offender? The artist at the time explained that he was exploring the beauty of creatures without inhibitions. Now we know why Anton had been so isolated. Much of the dirt came back to the surface when his art went back on view after decades.
Rybicky and Wickenden tell their own story as well as Anton’s. They become Anton’s caretakers, as so many others have, and his archivists. And there’s a parallel story of odd coincidence. Rybicky has a mentally troubled brother who is also a painter who lives with their mother. Lightning strikes twice.
Almost There is a Midwestern Grey Gardens. It is also a case history of a dependent eccentric man, and of the perils of the many who have wanted to save him. It’s accompanied by Anton’s art, an oeuvre that’s far sunnier than his actual life.
Rybicky and Wickenden blend the sublimely weird with the rot of decades. It is art, seasoned for better or worse, with humanity.
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