Charles Wilder Oakes, “Spirit Lamp,” 1979-2011,oil on panel with constructed frame, 54 x 54 in.
Charles Wilder Oakes, “Spirit Lamp,” 1979-2011,

oil on panel with constructed frame, 54 x 54 in.
Charles Wilder Oakes has been variously described as a folk or outsider artist. When I visited him last year, we agreed on "visionary artist" if there had to be a label at all. However, he and his art challenge any easy categorization.

Asymmetrick Arts' current show, Charles Wilder Oakes: The Muses of Port Clyde, is part of the gallery's major push for recognition of Oakes, which included screening the eponymous film at the Strand Theatre. The artist's story may be familiar by now. He was born in Rockland, raised in Port Clyde, and now lives in Spruce Head in a house he designed and built. (In the early 1990s Oakes lived briefly in Brooklyn and Manhattan -information included here to debunk the idea of a completely homespun talent.) Oakes was the child of a fisherman father and a mother who mostly depended on welfare. A childhood of poverty was spent in the attic of a fishing shack, where there was only enough headroom to stand at its center.
As a toddler, Oakes saw a blond, blue-eyed angel who, as he describes it, gave him consciousness. He credits a second angelic encounter later in life with empowering him to overcome alcoholism. Oakes' conventional version of an angel appears in various incarnations in his paintings, blending with the image of real and envisioned loves.

The artist has been drawing and painting most of his life. He has attended art classes, but he chooses to ignore the lessons. Painting on canvas and found wood, Oakes centers his subject matter exclusively on himself - his childhood memories of Port Clyde, angelic visions, struggle with alcoholism, anecdotal occurrences, and the women in his life. Art and life completely merge for Oakes, making it difficult to look at his paintings for their artistic merit alone.

Works that refer to the artist's past addiction are of a comparatively somber mood, but the majority of paintings are unreservedly colorful, animated and complex. They seem to contain multiple stage sets for autobiographical narrative segments. Typically, space does not recede and rendering is meticulous and flat. Oakes' magnum opus, "The Lovers Over Port Clyde," exhibits all the characteristics of his work. There is a tremendous shift in scale from the idealized lovers hovering in the immediate foreground to the bird's eye-view of the town that contains renditions of all important events in the artist's life, including the angel's first apparition. Every last detail carries significance. All of the artist's personal history is present in a simultaneity of time, place and memory. Nothing ever seems forgotten in this all-consuming reliving.

"Spirit Lamp," illustrated here, is not typical of Oakes' style and dense compositions, but it is my favorite in the show, probably because it is less descriptive and its palette more nuanced. In the foreground of the churchyard scene, the youngish artist carries a candle light inscribed with the painting's title. Poised on a ladder, a cheerless version of the angel presents him with a draped skeleton. The artist started this vanitas painting in 1979, thinking "this is coming from my future." He finished it last year after sobering up. The expressionistic shapes and colors of this work are complemented by the symbols contained in the frame. Oakes will frequently create frames for his paintings that contain material of personal significance, such as sea glass and pottery shards the artist is almost convinced originated from his childhood home.

Oakes' uncensored and unabashed world of nightmares, dreams and visions sometimes re-minds me of Marc Chagall's mystical images and their narrative suspension of rationality. Oakes, however, is a storyteller who does not leave anything to the viewer's imagination. His paintings tend to be overloaded with incidents and maybe that is the work's limitation. Those whose subject is more general in nature, like the snowy "Port Clyde General Store," have a certain sweetness about them but lack originality. The majority of works, however, do not provide a point of entry for our own experience, our own way of relating to the world. The viewer is being positioned as spectator not participant; we can marvel but we cannot identify. This may, though, be exactly the attraction of these paintings for some viewers. Oakes' art is undoubtedly genuine, life affirming, and powerfully enchanting.

As much as Oakes has a close connection to the spiritual forces that guide him, he is just as much of this world and its concerns. The artist is not at all shy about promoting himself, and the artwork's prices speak of his and the gallery's concept of his worth. And why shouldn't it be that way? The idea of a visionary artist as an eccentric, otherworldly hermit is of course nothing but a stereotype, yet a very prevalent one, so that unjustified disappointment may set in when such an artist turns out to be just as much interested in money and renown as everybody else.

The artist is clearly compelled to tell his version of his life's story. We all attempt to create a coherent narrative of the self, but we do it more or less privately. His creation, however, happens to a large degree in public and is of almost mythic proportions.