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Ralph Gardner Jr: The Earl Show

Linda Mussmann, founder of Time & Space Limited with her portrait by Earl Swanigan
Ralph Gardner, Jr.
Linda Mussmann, founder of Time & Space Limited with her portrait by Earl Swanigan

I didn’t know Earl Swanigan. Apparently, I’m one of the few people who frequents Hudson, NY who didn’t. Earl, an artist and local presence who died last year, is the subject of a major retrospective that runs through the end of October at Time and Space Limited, an arts organization in Hudson. He’d probably be described as an outsider or naïve artist, one who’s self-taught.

Part of the reason Earl was so well known is that he was extremely prolific – the show includes over 200 works – and because he plied his trade along Warren Street. Nancy Shaver, an artist, antiques shop owner in Hudson and a patron of Earl’s described him as a cash-and-carry artist. If you had the cash the painting was yours.

He explained his prodigious output to Dexter Zimet in an appreciative short 2017 documentary about Earl that can be found online. “It don’t take long at all,” he explained while painting outdoors, his canvases propped against a chain-link fence. “I don’t have any particular picture that I like. I like all of them. No favoritism. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Get up Monday and do it all over again. I’m going to be doing this until God call me home. It’s just something to do. Something to keep money in my pocket.”

He’d paint several works in the morning – his material included everything from plywood to carpets to place mats to a giant black cat on the side of a barn – then load them onto his pushcart, size permitting, and peddle them along Warren Street in the afternoon.

One of the works featured in the show is a painted table, an unrequested commission. “I didn’t want the table but Earl had a way,” Linda Mussmann, TSL’s founder recalled. She paid him $85 for it. “It just sold for $500,” she said.

There’s a tendency – dating back to the Medicis and probably well before that – to idealize painters or anybody who does something ostensibly creative for a living. But the dirty little secret is that it’s a job and the ones who do the best at it are those who treat it as such; rising in the morning and getting to work whether they feel inspired or not. Inspiration has a strange way of finding you, but only after you show up.

There’s also a tendency to dismiss outsider artists that haven’t been professionally trained and learned the tricks of the trade. But there’s an acid test that can be performed on any work of art: would you be happy to have it in your home, on your mantelpiece? The test is especially timely in Earl Swanigan’s case since many of the works in The Earl Show, as it’s titled, are for sale.

And Earl’s art passes that test with flying colors, no pun intended. The paintings are distinguished by a bright, confident palate; a superior sometimes sexually infused sense of humor, a respect for history and – this may cue you to the fact that I’m not a professional art critic if you haven’t figured that out yet – a skill at painting celebrities’ likenesses: from Barack Obama to Gomez Addams of Addams Family fame.

Animals – dogs, cats, roosters – are also prominently displayed, sometimes anthropomorphically, sometimes not. One painting features a man and a kangaroo duking it out in a boxing ring, the marsupial more than holding its own. The caption? “You got the wrong kangaroo.”

The show was co-curated by Linda, her wife Claudia Bruce, TSL’s co-director, and staff member Kevin Gilligan. Admission’s free but masks required. It’s recommended that you register online at Timeandspace.org for a 30-minute time slot.

The show also marks the latest reimaging of Time and Space Limited, an organization that’s a perennial and intentional work in progress. That’s a good thing in the middle of a pandemic when improvisation is a key to both sanity and survival. Indeed, Linda seems hardly more sentimental about TSL’s past mixed uses than Earl was about his art.

The café is gone, replaced by the unpainted plywood walls that hold Earl’s retrospective. The bookstore is also history. “The bookstore was doing really well,” Linda reported. The theater, known for simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and avant-garde films, has moved outdoors to the parking lot. And since the start of the pandemic TSL’s commercial kitchen has been used to cook thousands of meals for the community.

Indeed, it hosted one of my last outings before the pandemic forced me into relative seclusion. The occasion was a showing of the documentary Fantastic Fungi. It played at TSL in January, February and March. “It played and played,” Linda said. “I always thought they were taking mushrooms and watching it.”

Just for the record, I wasn’t. The film was more than capable of holding its own.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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