I had every intention of writing up Melvin Way‘s new show at the Christian Berst Art Brut gallery on the Lower East Side while it was still up, but that moment has passed. It closed July 19th. May this latent write-up atone where it can.

First off, it should be noted that the modern mass audience for art has threatened to elevate Way to the status of secular saint many times over the last twenty years. It may just be that his vision is too personal and too confounding to fully crossover. So-called “outsider artists”those deemed mentally ill and untrainedare far more easily romanticized when they have passed from this world. Yet if ever the oeuvre of a contemporary artist begged for the solitary, unhurried eye to receive its energy and depth of conviction, it is Melvin Way.

The show was titled “Gaga City” and saw the artist generating a new series of cryptograms on scraps of small paper. Way labors over them for months, even years at a time. He often carries the paper with him in his coat pockets and one can’t help think the exposure to the elements is part of their process to completion.

Mixing mathematic equations, fragments of poetry, and abstract patterns into two-dimensional theses, Way refines each piece with layer upon layer of scotch tape and thick scrawls of ballpoint pen.

Born in South Carolina, the artist grew up in Brooklyn. That borough, during the 1970s and ’80s, was not what it is today. Nearly provincial, it was also filthy and exotic. In such places, patterns take on a clarified role, especially for those struggling with mental illness. The young Way tried taking classes at the Technical Career Institute in Manhattan, but soon wound up homeless, and in and out of shelters, before being diagnosed with schitzophrenia.

He met an artist named Andrew Castrucci who taught art classes to patients at the Ward Island psychiatric hospital during the early ’80s. Castrucci quickly became Way’s champion and has collaborated with him ever since. (The two had several pieces executed together in “Gaga.”)

Titles in the new show include Carborane and Orthodontics, both of which reveal an interest in the mechanics of science and medicine. The overall impression, though, is one of Way trying to figure himself out, which explains why the equations are decipherable to none but himself.

It is easy to see them then as the mad visions of a real-life madman, but that would be idiotic. Just because we don’t understand how or why Way collects and disseminates information the way he does, does not mean we can’t appreciate the aesthetic organization of thought the same way we would, say, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s late work.

If sanity is defined in terms of exact judgment and power of visual analysis, both Basquiat and Way show a clear objective: to outwardly express what goes on inside. Their beauty and pathos is self-evident. (Brian Chidester)

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