Curated by Laurie Simmons
A Parallel Vermont
An introduction to the world of Gayleen Aiken
“It’s easy to think about Gayleen Aiken as an outsider artist and to neatly categorize her as naïve, self taught, outside the main stream artworld and also focus on her mental state – which is at the very least what we would now refer to as on the spectrum.”
“Putting all that aside I was struck by something so eerily familiar in style and color and fantasy - a place many of us artists can remember (at least those of us like me who identified as artists at an early age) the world of the uninhibited child artist.”
“I know many artists that focus on a time before they were aware of “real art” or took art lessons or went to art school. My husband, the painter Carroll Dunham, cherishes the drawing he made at age six of Jesus being taken down from the cross naked with accurate anatomical detail which still hangs in his drawing studio.”
"We saved all our children’s drawings in boxes and our son Cyrus’ illustrated story “Once I land on Mars,” became the title of my husbands 1999 painting (which was inhabited by green, red and yellow characters with big white teeth and guns). We both studied our children’s drawings like they were the holy grail – they existed in a world unmarred by self consciousness or anguish or various insecurities. We projected unimaginable freedom and purity and of course the memory of making them – the scratch of crayons and hard pencils on newsprint. The smell of tempera paints."
Gayleen Aiken’s drawings portray wonderfully detailed rooms and homes
"I think I fell in love with Gayleen Aiken’s work when I saw the interiors. As artists I believe most of us have one subject we explore a thousand different ways. My subject has always been: Woman (or Girl) in Interior Space. All my pictures from childhood to the present have addressed this, whether formally, literally figuratively or abstractedly. What I loved about drawing and painting rooms when I was young was the freedom to make things up. Walls could be crimson or spring green (in fact, I made many detailed pictures of Dorothy’s green tinted life in the Emerald City). Furniture could hang from the ceiling or stick out from the walls. Girls could wear party dresses at home with hats and one room could have twelve telephones."
“Interiors seem to be the central motif in Gayleen’s world and that’s where her pictures really come alive. Great attention was paid to the details of the rooms. Wallpapers and wood paneling and molding and doorways which opened into other rooms were rendered meticulously. Clothing and particularly dresses were shaded and ombré.”
“One interesting detail is that in some rooms which showed at least three dozen people (I’m thinking of Our Big Art -Show And Book Sale) the characters look like flat cutouts – perhaps Gayleen brought all her cut-out cousins and posed them in the room and worked from life? Gayleen’s girls’ aprons had frills and blouses had bows and shoes and socks were always rendered in bright colors.
I was interested to see the footage of Gayleen actually painting and drawing. She was so comfortable with a paintbrush in her hand.”
“In the film, Gayleen carries her cut out cousins around a real house and you can see her pure childlike joy going from room to room, up and down stairs. She seems to like to scare herself imagining dark rooms holding surprises and exposed pipes as threatening foes.”
Laurie Simmons on Gayleen’s World
“Music as a theme runs through Gayleen Aiken’s artworks. The piano or nickolodean shows up repeatedly with a single player, players performing duets and a singer and an accompanist. Instruments are repeatedly catalogued, mostly keyboards from player pianos to grand pianos, organs and accordians.”
“The first scene of the 1985 documentary about Gaylene Aikin shows the artist standing in front of a decaying shingle style Vermont mansion playing the xylophone.”
“Two things stand out: The artist is standing next to a hand drawn life-size cutout of a child and the music, which at first sounds melodious, turns out to be the focused pounding of an untrained musician. The artist is clearly caught up in the reverie of performing.”
“Some musics and Music-Instruments are endearing pictures that feel like the artist is both recording and boasting about her knowledge of how many ways people can make music and in how many places they can perform.”
“My favorite part of the film was the footage of Gayleen sharing her collection of miniatures starring tiny harmonicas — which she plays and describes as “making a joyful noise unto the lord” — and little dollhouse size player pianos which she cherished, though many were broken. She shows us a tiny little record which she promises does not play because she tried it once. And at one point she turns on all her music boxes and player pianos which create an alarming cacophony of sounds that Gayleen seems to love.”
A family of children living in a parallel reality
Gayleen created a complex world of imaginary friends. She claims she made up a story about them when she was 3 or 4 and they eventually became a group of roughly 24 perpetual teenagers - a family group loosely billed as the Raimbilli cousins. They exist as both a group of life size cutouts and as characters in drawings, paintings and comic strips. Interestingly they’re often “bad” which in Gayleen’s world means they jump on the bed, mischieviously ‘dust the house’ by spreading granite dust rather than cleaning it up and often shirk their regular household chores.
“Gayleen refers to herself as doing ‘imitating voices.’ In the documentary she moves seamlessly in and out of her own reality into the cousins’ world — dancing, flirting and giggling with them giving each cousin their own individual voice and detailed back story. Gayleen’s comfort with speaking through the cousins is familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a child with imaginary friends (or anyone who remembers having imaginary friends).
“In Gayleen’s world, The Raimbillis go to camp, play musical instruments, Tom the clown is also Peter the clown and Cousin Gawleen cuts her hair but didn’t really cut her hair.”
“Her laugh and genuine lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera — there’s also a scene where she’s literally skipping and dancing through a meadow while playing a tuneless tune on the harmonica — reminds me of my own son having hour long conversations with his super heroes. Our family basically lived in one big room and I felt I needed to respect his privacy so I never turned on the tape recorder, something I deeply regret to this day.
Snippets of these complicated back stories turn up in the Rambilli drawings. One almost feels like the descriptive titles assume that we know way more about the Rambilli family than we do — as though this moment captured on paper is part of a very obvious and much larger narrative. There’s an obsession with small moments that might be huge to a child like chimney soot staining a wall, buying a new furnace, or a steam pipe sounding like the house is haunted. Gayleen Aiken’s formal ability to layer Rambilli upon Rambilli cousin is absolutely charming and beautiful and strangely skillful.”