William van Genk’s (1927–2005) eccentric and unique artworks are on display at the American Folk Art Museum in his solo show titled Mind Traffic. A particularly interesting aspect of van Genk’s work is his preoccupation with totalitarianism and power. At the age of 17, van Genk was interrogated by the Gestapo for using his home as a hideout for Jews during WWII. This interrogation initiated his obsession with trench coats—worn by the Nazi soldiers who questioned him–and their representation of authority. Of the hundreds of altered raincoats he has collected, twelve hang on the back wall of the exhibition.. Seeing this common outerwear in a museum makes me feel uncomfortable and confused. The raincoats no longer seem protective or practical. These plastic body suits are presented as symbols of restrictive authority, lined up against the wall like an approaching army.
On the adjacent walls hang thickly worked panoramic views of busy urban scenes—often based on van Genk’s visits to European cities. These paintings are organized similarly to comics, with each panel filled with words and detailed images that tell seemingly incoherent, but fascinating stories. Many of his paintings allude to contemporary media from the period. For example “Untitled (New York Proclamed …N. Petrov)” references a Life magazine cover featuring an eerie businessman. Six trolleys, made of a conglomeration of materials, stand in the back of the gallery. Van Genk, as a self-taught artist, has the energy and unrestrained style connected to outsider art scenes. His lack of training led to unusual uses of materials, evident in his trolleys, and his unique manipulation of paint. Van Genk’s incredible talent has not been widely recognized in the United States, but rightfully revered in Europe. His brilliance, talent and oddities make the show, which closes on December 1st, worth a visit.