(The Art of Charles Dellschau is on view at Stephen Romano Gallery Dec 17 – February 29 2016)
NOTE: For the backstory on the art of Charles Dellschau see this story on MessyNessy.
Extracted from: Charles Dellschau’s Aporetic Archive by Thomas McEvilley
For forty years Dellschau’s thousands of Plates moldered in the darkness of a closed attic, gathering dust. The only intrusion known to have taken place was when a male child of the Stelzig family became curious about the Dellschau books and rummaged through them. Sometime in the 1960s there was a fire elsewhere in the house, and a fire inspector said to clear the debris out of the attic. So, after four decades in the secret dark, gently wafting the aura of twenty years of solitary late-night concentration into the depths of shadowy and slightly sinister corners, over the pieces of sad furniture with sheets flung over them and gathering dust, Dellschau’s life-work was carried unceremoniously out into the light of day and literally left in a heap in the gutter. (It was born into the gutter, you might say.) So the first venue for Dellschau’s oeuvre was his bedroom; the second, an attic; the third, a heap in the gutter. From this point there is uncertainty, and two versions have emerged. First, that a furniture refinisher named Fred Washington, making his rounds to see what people had thrown out, found Dellschau’s stuff and took it to his shop in Houston, called the OK Trading Post. Another version adds another pair of hands and another transaction. The heap in the gutter, on this account, was taken to the dump by a garbage truck. In the junkyard a nameless picker found it and sold it to Fred Washington for $100.
In any case, the story is that once Washington had Dellschau’s things in his shop they spent some time under a stack of old carpets or, in another rendition, tarpaulins. Before long they were discovered by a browser who recognized them as artworks of some kind, and then the books began their wanderings through the artworld and its levels of society.
The find made under a pile of carpets in the OK Trading Post was talked about a bit and began to be split up and moved in various directions—mostly upward (through the classes). Four of the twelve books were acquired by the Menil Collection, in Houston, which had previously shown some interest in outsider art.9 Fred Washington sold the other eight books to a man named P.G. Navarro, who is an interesting figure in the story. Navarro was a practicing commercial artist in Houston who in his spare time had developed as a hobby an investigation of certain reported airship sightings.
These mysterious airship sightings occurred in the late 1890s first in Northern California (not far from Sonora), then throughout the United States but especially in the Southwest and Texas. The phenomenon was known in the press (not only in Texas) as the Great Texas Airship Mystery. Navarro was studying the airship mystery at the time Dellschau’s books were discovered in the OK Trading Post, and it occurred to him that the Dellschau material might somehow be a part of it. Perhaps at first Navarro didn’t know about the Sonora Aero Club and assumed that the Aero drawings referred to aeronautical events around the turn of the century.
You’ve got to admire this sensible guess, and as he started to carry it out it became even more admirable. Navarro filled several notebooks with his findings, and these pages are exquisite in conception and execution; his obsessive concentration on order and neatness was not so unlike Dellschau’s own. Dellschau’s aesthetic is more expressive—meaning somewhat looser and more gestural—whereas Navarro’s notebooks are “expressive” of rigid order—more or less a contradiction in terms.
Perhaps Navarro appreciated Dellschau’s books as artworks. In any case it is clear that for one reason or another—maybe aesthetic, maybe spiritual, maybe as a search for something he couldn’t exactly name — Navarro felt a strong attraction toward the Dellschau material. It almost seems he got into a folie à deux with the long-dead Dellschau; in his notebooks, Navarro redrew many of Dellschau’s pages, carefully and in detail. He worked many long evenings to decipher coded messages he found there in what looked vaguely like alphabetical symbols, as seen in Plate 1631 (at left), but from some other tradition. Navarro says Dellschau used a simple one-to-one substitution code and claims to have worked it out.10 He worked on this hobby for thirty years and became something of a philological scholar in the process. He is still alive now at age ninety-three, the age at which his ego-ideal Dellschau died. At some point Navarro sold four of the eight Dellschau books of drawings in his possession to the San Antonio Museum Association; two went to the San Antonio Museum of Art and the other two went to the Witte Museum, also in San Antonio, a museum devoted to South Texas culture. His remaining four books ultimately entered the art market and ended up in various hands.