CHICAGO — Outsider art is an overused, perhaps even misused, term. By a strict definition it refers to someone who makes art outside the official and even unofficial milieu in which artists get training, education, and exhibitions. The ‘insider’ artist is someone who has either gone to art college, or comes to fruition within a circle of artists (like Van Gogh or Gauguin), or who gets work shown at commercial galleries or museums. The outsider artist is more often someone who makes work completely isolated from this contact and exposure, such as Chicagoan Henry Darger and Prague photographer Miroslav Tichy. In the last few years, though, it seems that ‘outsider art’ is a term used by people very much on the inside that means “somewhat naïve-looking but generally pretty cool.”
So I was skeptical about what I would see when I saw the exhibition Outsider at Degenerate Art Gallery, a recently-opened space in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. It’s a group show for which artist/owner Nicholas Zahn asked artists to explore what the term means to them. Apart from one notable exception, I don’t think there is any real Outsider Art on display, at least according to the dictionary definition. But there is some good art, made by artists who both have and haven’t followed the well-trodden contemporary path of ‘art-school to job-that-pays-the-studio-rent to regular exhibitions.’
Kevin Swallow’s mixed media pieces on panels strike a nice balance between spray-painted graffiti-style mark making and a designer’s flair for organizing shapes. Kathryn Fimreite contributed a delicate ink, graphite, and colored pencil drawing on Duralar filled with words and images that seem to be autobiographical. The circular rhythm of Richard Shipps’ incised paper caught my attention whenever I turned in its direction. The only thing that these works have in common is that they are individually well made by artists who, if they are not exactly Art World Insiders, are clearly aware of contemporary currents in art.
The most eye-catching works are two big oil paintings by Brenton Holliday. This is partly because they are both more than seven square feet, installed in a relatively small room. But they are also full of real painterly power—thick oil paint that’s smeared and plastered across the surface, standing out nearly an inch from the canvas in places, depicting looping patterns of skeletal limbs and grinning skulls, interspersed with words and phrases related to genocides and the Holocaust.
The title of the larger painting, “The Chaos in Sudan,” clues us in on the subject matter. It’s the sort of painting a callow art school student might make if they wanted to Tackle A Serious Subject, except there seems to be something sincere about this work, something committed in every part of the picture. It turns out that the artist is an African-American man living on Chicago’s south side, who appears to be dealing with some health problems, including deafness from a childhood illness. Degenerate Art Gallery’s Nicholas Zahn told me that Holliday’s work has never been exhibited before, which is further evidence that Holliday may be the real article: an undiscovered Outsider Artist.
Putting labels aside, Holliday’s paintings have immense energy, and whether it’s instinct or something more learned, or a combination of both, he seems to me to be an artist of genuine expressive power. Inside or outside, in the end that’s all that matters.
Outsider continues at Degenerate Art Gallery (5554 North Winthrop, Chicago) through April 6.