Framing things differently

John Patrick McKenzie
John Patrick McKenzie
His painted words are the song of a canary in a cultural coal mine. Nigel Benson meets autistic "outsider" artist John Patrick McKenzie.

John Patrick McKenzie is an artist.

He's also autistic.

And he laughs with joy when told he's having his first New Zealand exhibition in Dunedin next week.

"That's even tinier than Australia," he chuckles.

"It's part British; near Antarctica and Australia. Australia is bigger than New Zealand."

McKenzie is a cause celebre in the world of "outsider" art; artists who live on the fringe of traditional art due to mental illness or a lack of formal training.

The result is often pretension-free art, which can range from the child-like and innocent to the seriously disturbing.

Last year, Dunedin outsider artist Martin Thompson showed his exhibition of penworks, "Obsessive Drawing", at the American Museum of Folk Art in New York, which focuses on outsider art.

McKenzie's work is also in the museum's collection.

It's easy to pick out, because it says things like: "I will commit suicide in heaven."

Sometimes McKenzie signs his work "John Patrick McKenzie is nobody".

His first New Zealand exhibition, "Famous Artworks", will open at the Brett McDowell Gallery in Dunedin next week.

McKenzie (46) has a cult following in his native San Francisco and throughout the United States.

For the past 14 years, he has been creating his art at a San Francisco centre for mentally-disabled adults, Creativity Explored.

On a good day, he works feverishly.

On bad days, which are frequent, he scowls and stares at the paint-splattered floorboards.

If someone tries to talk to him, he puts his head down on the table and pulls his windbreaker over his head.

As he says in another work: "John Patrick McKenzie's artwork is always mysterious".

"John Patrick McKenzie's process is very much a part of his daily ritual," his teacher, Eric Larson, told the Otago Daily Times from San Francisco last week.

"Usually, he arrives early and turns on his radio. He will have a cup of coffee or tea and sit quietly for a while.

"If he's in the mood, I'll engage him in a little conversation. After he sits for a bit, he'll start writing.

"He usually writes in a systematic and repetitive way where he starts with a subject - i.e.: [American actress] Joyce DeWitt is a cold turkey - and elaborate on the person or thing in subsequent statements.

"I usually leave him alone to write for a while. Then, I'll read what he's written and respond with comments or suggestions.

"For the most part, I let John be. His ideas progress organically. Occasionally, I'll help create a framework for a project or series of drawings. The rest is up to him," she says.

"He likes to provoke people," Creativity Explored teacher Horace Washington muses.

He created a typical epitaph work when Hong Kong converted from British to Chinese rule in 1997. It read:"Disliking Hong Kong. Hong Kong sucks. Disliking Queen Elizabeth second, Queen Elizabeth sucks second."

Though another work says: "John Patrick McKenzie Dislikes Culture Wars".

McKenzie is quite nonplussed by all the attention.

"Doing art is fun. I like to write about people. I like to write about me, my family, animals and different food. I like to do what I do. I feel happy to do my artwork," he tells the Otago Daily Times.

And he had a simple, yet philosophical, response when asked where he wanted to take his art.

"I will be who I am."

He also has a simple explanation why he uses words in his art.

"To make money. To make sentences. I like the way words go together," he says.

I ask him: "Are the words more important or are the pictures more important, John?""Words," he replies.

"Autistic people have to learn words. Autistic people have to learn everything," he says.

"Autistic people feel OK and have nothing wrong with them. Autistic people feel proud of themselves."

McKenzie's autism is a big part of his art.

His works often reference brand names, celebrities and current events.

For example: "Linda Ronstadt kicks Spiderman between the legs".

McKenzie is a long-time fan of singer Linda Ronstadt and some of his earlier pieces pay homage to her.

Yet he is oblivious to the fact that REM lead singer Michael Stipe is an enthusiastic collector of his art.

McKenzie's works can almost resemble a music score.

He always fills in the bubbles on letters such as "e", "o" and "d".

Creativity Explored teacher Pilar Olabarria considers McKenzie an "avant-garde" artist.

"I think it's wonderful to have someone like John McKenzie. So reversed, and so far away. It makes you question the world. You start thinking, 'What is it about his state that created this spark?'."

Autism New Zealand estimates one New Zealander in 100 has an autism spectrum disorder.

The condition is believed to be caused by an abnormality in brain structure which causes messages from the brain to misfire, so that an autistic person responds differently to stimuli than other children.

Individuals with autism can range in intelligence and socialisation from the severely handicapped, or even brain-damaged, to the savant, who has a preternatural talent in the arts or maths and sciences.

Like John Patrick McKenzie.

A "Rain Man" in an art world.


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