New York

Outsider Art Fair 2015

The 2015 Outsider Art Fair, held at Center 548 in the Chelsea gallery district of New York City, marked the twenty-third iteration of the event. It also occurred within a season of mainstream museums prominently featuring the work of so-called outsider artists in very high-profile, insider art spaces. Judith Scott: Bound and Unbound, the artist’s first retrospective, was held at the Brooklyn Museum in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, in a gallery next to the museum’s permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South at the Studio Museum in Harlem incorporated noted contemporary artists alongside artists often categorized under the labels folk, outsider, vernacular, or self-taught, all who shared an interest in the American South as a real or imagined location. The Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibited its new collection of James Castle’s work. The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it will be purchasing more than fifty works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a nonprofit committed to preserving the work of self-taught African American artists, and is organizing an exhibition around these planned acquisitions in 2016.

Galerie Bourbon-Lally, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

Galerie Bourbon-Lally, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

All of this is to say that the distinctions between the insider and outsider categories have become more blurred and seemingly arbitrary than ever. The growing fluidity between these two worlds is a welcome development to many, as policing the boundaries of outsider art has often contributed to a ghettoization of many artists’ practices, saddling them with assumptions of romanticized mental pathology and/or compulsive, naive, and unexamined modes of creating. Outsider art has always contained highly disparate formal and conceptual styles, as it is the artists’ biographies that determine their inclusion in the field. However, madness, marginalization, and compulsion are not the common denominators of outsider artists; the only commonality is self-education. Relabeling the whole field self-taught art, a much more accurate and expansive designation, is a tough sell particularly when the appetite for outsider art only continues to grow. Regardless of the semantic debate that has long complicated popular understanding of the category’s definition, the annual Outsider Art Fair provides an opportunity to see how its major galleries respond to the changes in the field, all while promoting both emerging and well-known artists to an eager marketplace.

Edward Deeds. Untitled, 1936–66; installed at Hirschl and Adler Modern, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

Edward Deeds. Untitled, 1936–66; installed at Hirschl and Adler Modern, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

There are plenty of big names in this genre, represented by respected galleries. Regular features of every fair, and often the highest-priced pieces on view, are works by Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, Adolf Wӧlfli, Grandma Moses, Joseph Yoakum, Judith Scott, and James Castle—all artists who are foundational to any sense of a canon the field can claim. One of the great appeals of the fair, however, is the presence of newly discovered talent. In 2009, works by an anonymous artist were exhibited for the first time to great acclaim. The colored-pencil drawings by this artist—nicknamed “The Electric Pencil” by a collector because one drawing featured the handwritten text ECTLECTRIC PENCIL—had all been made between 1936 and 1966 on ledger paper labeled “State Hospital No. 3,” an asylum in Nevada, and were found in a dumpster in 1970. After the media coverage of this unknown patient’s work peaked, family members recognized the imagery as that of Edward Deeds, who had been institutionalized for life and documented as receiving electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. Deeds’s work is now represented by the New York gallery Hirschl and Adler Modern and has been present at every Outsider Art Fair since. There is also a film documentary currently in production about his life and the discovery of his art.[1]

Philadelphia Wireman. Untitled; installation view, If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

Philadelphia Wireman. Untitled; installation view, If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

Another artist whose work was discovered in a trash pile is the Philadelphia Wireman, featured in the fair’s mini exhibition, If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day. Curated by Jay Gorney and Anne Doran, the exhibition claimed to feature artists whose work responds in some way to their paranoia, and it led to a panel discussion on the pathological sources of artistic inspiration. Little is known about the Philadelphia Wireman’s biography or the intentions behind his nearly twelve hundred pieces, but they have come to be regarded as vital discoveries in the field, analyzed and framed as talismans or shamanistic power objects. There is great seductive potency to the anonymous artist in this context, as it presents a ripe opportunity for projecting the mythologies of unfettered originality, visionary channeling, and creative madness that contribute to the allure of this genre and feed its marketplace.

Untitled mug shots; installed at Winter Works on Paper, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

Untitled mug shots; installed at Winter Works on Paper, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

Brooklyn’s Winter Works on Paper featured a series of mug shots, many of which bore wall labels naming the artist as “Chicago Police Department.” Here was a slippery instance of inclusion. How do we know there was no formal artistic training in this photographer’s background? Vernacular and found photography has an audience outside of outsider and folk art, so why do these works make the cut? Perhaps because the subject matter is incarcerated people, individuals ostensibly marginalized from the mainstream, the photos operate as documentation of cultural outsiders. The same booth featured historical photographs of freak-show inhabitants, furthering the theme of non-normative individuals isolated from conventional society.

Marginalization was in fact a founding criterion for the field. Outsider art is the common Anglicized term for the category art brut, founded by the artist Jean Dubuffet, whose earliest inductees were asylum patients, mediums, and visionaries who he praised for their “unselfconscious imagery born of pure, uninhibited expression.”[2] Despite this historical highlighting of artistic unselfconsciousness, the field of outsider art presently exhibits an intense self-consciousness about defining its roots and basic nature, as evidenced by the 2015 Outsider Art Fair’s published explanation of its origins:

The genesis of Outsider Art could well be traced to an imagined prehistoric cave wall, to the work of your favorite eccentric visionary (think William Blake), or to the mythic artist-genius dreamed up by Romantic philosophers and poets. Outsider Artists began to emerge as a force to be reckoned with during the early 1920’s, with the publication of two pioneering studies of art made on asylum inmates, conducted by European psychiatrists in search of universal truths about human creativity.[3]

Here the genre’s commercial advocate is claiming a lineage that begins with Paleolithic cave paintings like those in Lascaux, France, and continues by tracing a line from the visionary genius archetype of the Romantic period to the creative products of mental patients during the period following World War I. Any art historical category claiming direct connection to the earliest known evidence of artistic impulse is overreaching, to say the least. Also, many mainstream artists refer to Romantic philosophy or create art while institutionalized or being treated for mental illnesses. Chris Ofili recently exhibited paintings at the New Museum that drew from William Blake. Yayoi Kusama—whose experience with psychiatric institutionalization is well documented [4]—had one of the largest turnouts of 2013 at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, with lines for her installation titled I, Who Have Arrived in Heaven snaking around the block. Artists’ relationships with creative inspiration or mental health are highly individual and cannot be claimed or contained within any field. Not to mention that great strides have been made in both advocating for and treating the mentally ill since Dubuffet coined art brut. Perpetuating the glamorized narrative of the artistic benefits of culturally isolated madness feels both outdated and detrimental to living outsider artists whose practices can in fact provide a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of mental disability.

An asset of the Outsider Art Fair continues to be the promotion of lesser-known artists next to major players, like Judith Scott and James Castle, who exhibit on both sides of the insider/outsider divide. This platform won’t be lost if we do away with tropes of madness and claims of exclusive connection to fundamental human creativity. Faith in the work also means faith that an individualized approach to the work of self-taught artists won’t kill the market.

The Outsider Art Fair was on view at Center 548, New York City, through February 1, 2015.

[1] “About the Documentary Film ‘The Mystery of the Electric Pencil,’” Electric Pencil Productions, http://electricpencilproductions.org.

[2] Katherine M. Murrell, “Art Brut: Origins and Interpretations,” The Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art, http://www.petulloartcollection.org/history/article.cfm?n_id=18.

[3] “What is Outsider Art?” Outsider Art Fair 2015, http://outsiderartfair.com/outsider_art.

[4] “Whimsy or Dark Psychosis? Tate Modern Yayoi Kusama Retrospective—Review Round-up,” Art Radar, June 13, 2012, http://artradarjournal.com/2012/06/13/whimsy-or-dark-psychosis-tate-modern-yayoi-kusama-retrospective-review-round-up/.

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