The past ten days shone a spotlight on “outsider art” with the death of artist Thornton Dial on January 25th, the sale of William Edmondson’s 1936 sculpture Boxer at the Christie’s Outsider Art Sale for $785,000, and the Outsider Art Fair over the weekend, the last two prompting people to once again ask whether “outsider art” has gone mainstream. That was one of several questions tackled by the panelists at a lively and wide-ranging discussion at the Swiss Institute last week, as part of the Outsider Art Fair. (Panelists were: Dan Fox, co-editor Frieze magazine; Massimiliano Gioni, Artistic Director, the New Museum; Jens Hoffman, Deputy Director Exhibitions, the Jewish Museum, and Amanda Hunt, Assistant Curator, the Studio Museum in Harlem; Chris Wiley, artist, moderated).
The profile of “outsider art” was certainly raised in 2013, when it was placed front and center in the Venice Biennale, and it continues to be more prominent in the US. Even defining “outsider art” was tricky for the panelists, one of whom likened them to punk musicians, basically self-taught artists working outside conventional channels. Another noted that institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem and MOMA were founded to show art that was considered outside the cannon either because of the artists’ race or the type of art they created. I don’t know that anyone would disagree that these are now mainstream institutions. That raised the question of how important the artist’s biography is to understanding the work; if an artist has struggled, does their work automatically demand that we give it a closer look? Does it make that work (more) valuable? Or should it stand on its own? And how should art be displayed – does it need a cultural context as in an ethnographic museum? While there was no resolution to these issues, there seemed to be a general consensus among the panelists that the boundaries of “inside’ need to be expanded and include marginalized artists.
With this discussion in my head, two days later I visited the Outsider Art Fair. (Thank goodness I changed my visit from Saturday to Friday!) I’ve always enjoyed this show, as it’s not too big, and the dealers are friendly and willing to talk to you about an artist’s work. While most of the participating galleries are based in New York, a number are from other cities in the US, as well as Haiti, Italy, France, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK and Japan. Here are some of the standouts for me:
The show opened with a memorial exhibition of works by Ionel Talpazan, a Romanian immigrant who sold his paintings and drawings of UFO’s and outer space on the sidewalks of Manhattan. His works were later acquired by collectors and museums, as well as being profiled in ArtForum, Frieze and other publications. I especially like his use of blues and gold, and the way his paintings make you wonder if outer space and the deep sea are mirror images of each other.
Daniel Swanigan Snow (Cathouse FUNeral gallery) made a career shift to art in his mid-50’s. Employing found items such as clocks, stools, dolls and metal shards, he crafts 3-D collages, some of which are quite delicate, others quite solid. While some also take on social issues such as civil rights or the environment, they all are suffused with a certain joy.
Charles Vincent Sabba (Y gallery) a New Jersey cop, uses police fingerprint forms as his canvas, covering them with portraits of artists, criminals who have stolen art, and references to stolen works of art. I also liked the way he refashioned bullets into bees.
Frank Jones (Dutton Gallery) began drawing in prison while serving a life sentence for murder (he maintained his innocence). Using just red and blue pencils, he created drawings which, from a distance, look like early American stencil work; up closer, you see that he’s drawn intricate images of little ghosts and devils, waiting outside “devil houses” to collect souls.
Anna Zemankova’s (Cavin-Morris Gallery ), delicate, complex floral ink collages caught my eye, and close up, you see the fine embroidery she’s employed in her work. As a needleworker myself, I viscerally appreciate the effort and skill. I’d like to see more.
Cai Dongdong (Klein Sun Gallery ) showed what I can only describe as black and white “happy peasant” photos. Some had cutouts, revealing a mirrored surface underneath; others had objects attached to them, such as the photo of a group of archery students, with a very large arrow affixed to the right of the target. I’m not sure if the intent was humor or irony, but I liked it.
The intricate, elaborate pen and inks by Jean-Pierre Nadau and Evelyne Postic at Polysémie Gallery were marvelous; fairly large with fine, dense, repetitive lines, they burst with intensity and insistence.
Finally, I’d like to give a shout-out to Fountain House Gallery, which represents artists with mental illness. If you didn’t know the backstory, you’d still stop at their booth. I especially liked the black and white cartoons by Anthony Ballard; Robin Taylor’s paintings of Jenny, whose flaming orange spiky hair made me think of a punk Raggedy Anne; and the fibre art pieces by Alyson Vega.
There were lots more artists whose works I enjoyed. I say, put this fair on your list for next year.