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Outsider Art Fair Preview: Discoveries, Surprises, and an Expanded Vision

Daniel Swanigan Snow, “Totem III” (2010), mixed media, variable dimensions (photo courtesy of Cathouse FUNeral)

The 24th annual Outsider Art Fair opens in New York on January 21, and never before has the scope of what might qualify as — or, more precisely, of what is being called — outsider art seemed so diverse or vast.

For those in need of a brief primer: Outsider art, which refers to works made by self-taught art-makers situated geographically or conceptually outside the social-cultural mainstream, producing their creations mainly for themselves, evolved out of art brut. That earlier designation, meaning “raw art,” was coined by the French modern artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s and came to refer primarily to the singular, technically innovative visions of talented European autodidacts, works that could not easily be classified according to existing labels.

Anna Zemánková, “Untitled” (circa 1970s), pastel, ink and embroidery on paper, 24.61 x 17.72 inches (photo courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Later, the term “outsider art” became more common in the United Kingdom and the United States; it was applied to an array of visionaries on the margins of mainstream society who were not academically trained, “professional” artists. If, in Europe, such art-makers were often discovered by trained artists or by psychiatrists with an interest in what was once called “psychotic art” or even “the art of the insane,” in the U.S., many a notable collector of outsider art came to it from a background in or passion for folk art.

This year’s Outsider Art Fair is the fourth to be presented by Wide Open Arts, a company spearheaded by the New York dealer Andrew Edlin, which has rebranded the fair, moved it to Chelsea and given it a facelift with up-to-date graphics and more of a contemporary-art vibe. That formula has helped boost attendance and attract a more diverse and often younger audience.

Becca Hoffman, the fair’s director, said, “It is growing and becoming more involved in the broader art-world dialog.” She cites a Christie’s sale in New York last September, in which numerous outsider art works were offered, observing, “Now, with auction sales like these, record-establishing prices will serve as benchmarks in a field in which, until now, final sale prices have been known primarily by dealers and collectors.” As for the scope of the fair itself, Hoffman added, “Eventually, we hope we’ll begin to see more exhibitors from Africa, Asia and other parts of the world that traditionally have not been well-represented.”

William Edmondson, “Boxer” (circa 1936), carved limestone, 17 x 7.25 x 9.25 inches. A highlight of Christie’s January 22 sale in New York of outsider art, this piece’s price estimate is in the $150,000-to-$250,000 range. (photo courtesy of Christie’s) (click to enlarge)

Notably this year, on the margins of the fair, Christie’s New York will present a sale of outsider art on January 22. Featuring works from three private collections and one estate, its fifty lots will include, among other high-quality items, a totem-like, 19th-century, carved-wood nutcracker; a late 19th-century/early 20th-century, swordfish-shaped weathervane as sleek as a Brancusi sculpture; limestone carvings by the African-American sculptor William Edmondson (1874-1951); and a double-sided, mixed-media drawing by Charles A.A. Dellschau (1830-1923) of one of his fantasy airships.

Like all art-market sectors, from those that focus on ancient antiquities to those that purport to offer the most cutting-edge contemporary “material,” to use the jargon of the trade, outsider art’s insiders are always on the lookout for exciting discoveries and dream of uncovering the Next Big Thing. Are there still treasures to be found in dusty attics or rescued from dumpsters? A sneak peek at this year’s fair shows that, despite the feeling in some quarters that the field’s best, most definitive bodies of work already have entered its canon, some remarkable finds are still emerging.

Among the fair’s longtime, New York-based participants, Ricco/Maresca will show meticulously carved ostrich eggs made by 53-year-old Gil Batle, a son of Filipino immigrants who spent many years in California prisons. There, his fellow inmates admired his artistic talents, and the tattooing skills he provided helped to protect him from their bullying. With baroque opulence, each of Batle’s elegant eggs tells the story of one of his violent, former jailhouse neighbors. Think Fabergé crossed with scrimshaw — on steroids.

Gil Batle, “Tattoo” (2015), carved ostrich-egg shell, 6.5 x 5 x 5 inches (photo courtesy of Ricco/Maresca)

Cavin-Morris Gallery, which is now featuring, through February 13, a superb survey of drawings by the Czech-born art brut master Anna Zemánková (1908-1986), will bring a selection of these fantastic-organic images to the fair, as well as works on paper and mixed-media creations by such artists as the Indonesian Noviadi Angkasapura, the Japanese Monma, the Belgian Joseph Lambert, and the Americans Melvin Edward Nelson and Tony Pedemonte. A supernatural, spiritual air wafts through all of their works. Don’t miss the formal qualities in Lambert’s striations of color and the expressive line in Zemánková’s abstractions, which share affinities with textbook modernism’s celebration of pure form.

Michel Nedjar, “Untitled (Double portrait, with birds)” (1997), mixed media on cardboard, 41.75 x 30 inches (photo courtesy of Luise Ross Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Among others, the veteran New York dealer Luise Ross will showcase works by Bill Traylor, Minnie Evans and the French artist Michel Nedjar, a maker of paintings, mixed-media drawings and mysterious dolls resembling talismanic, fetish objects, which he fashions out of fabric scraps, twigs and debris. The son of an Algerian-Jewish tailor, Nedjar began making his strange dolls when he was a child. Ross will show a Nedjar double portrait, within whose bright, red lines the profiles of birds meld with human faces.

Other galleries that have regularly participated in the fair and which, incidentally, have also played significant roles over the years in helping to develop a market for outsider art, include Fleisher/Ollman (Philadelphia), Carl Hammer (Chicago) and American Primitive (New York).

John Bates, “Untitled (Landscape)” (2009), acrylic on paper, 13.75 x 19.5 inches (photo courtesy of Fleisher/Ollman)

Through its director, Alex Baker, who has strong personal ties to Australia, Fleisher/Ollman has discovered the work of that country’s John Bates, a painter of reductivist, abstract landscapes, whose compositions are made up of thick patches of bright color. Bates is associated with Arts Project Australia, an art-therapy program in Melbourne. Baker notes that, when Bates works on his acrylic-on-paper pictures, “he spends considerable time building up the surfaces of his images with numerous layers” of color. One of the artists whose works Carl Hammer will showcase is Misleidys Pedroso, a 30-year-old woman who lives in a small town near Havana, Cuba. Pedroso, who cannot hear or speak, tapes her poster-paint-on-paper images of pop-flavored, boldly outlined musclemen to her bedroom walls.

Untitled drawings (circa 2014) by the Cuban artist Misleidys Pedroso, poster paint on paper; large work: roughly 65 x 36 inches; smaller works: variable dimensions (photo courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Dealer Aarne Anton of American Primitive, reflecting on the recent showing of emblematic works from the holdings of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Switzerland — the world’s most authoritative museum in its field — at the American Folk Art Museum, noted “how full of mysteries they were.” That’s a quality he appreciates in self-taught artists’ works. Anton will feature a carved-stone triptych — its theme: the Garden of Eden — by a Philadelphia artist of the 1930s known only as “HD”; only about twenty-five works by this artist are known to exist. Anton will also show what looks like otherworldly clothing made by Robert Adale Davis, a Texas-based artist in his early sixties who spins thick webs of string around jeans, jackets and other garments. (Marginal note to David Bowie fans: For a reference point, recall the dancers’ net-like costumes in “The 1980 Floor Show,” which NBC broadcast in the U.S. in 1973.)

Recent, undated, mixed-media work by Robert Adale Davis, made with string and cloth jacket, variable dimensions (photo courtesy of American Primitive Gallery)

Speaking of Bowie, among first-timers at and relative newcomers to the Outsider Art Fair is Brooklyn’s Life on Mars (whose name echoes the title of one of the rock legend’s early songs), which will feature drawings by the Alabama-based, master assemblage maker and draftsman, Thornton Dial; watercolors by Agatha Wojciechowsky (1896-1986), a German-born spiritualist medium; and mixed-media, abstract paintings by Karen Schwartz, in which human figures sometimes drowsily appear. Also from Brooklyn, Cathouse FUNeral will show mixed-media works by Daniel Swanigan Snow, a former actor in B movies and Shakespeare plays who is in his mid-sixties and began making art a decade ago. A Christmas-tree stand, a baby’s photo, metal grilles — they’re all raw materials for his psychologically charged concoctions.

Hawkins Bolden, “Untitled (Scarecrow)” (circa 1980s), mixed media, 25 x 24 x 8 inches (photo by Cary Whittier, courtesy of Shrine) (click to enlarge)

Tomorrow, Shrine, whose director, Scott Ogden, took part in last year’s fair as an independent dealer, will inaugurate a new storefront space at 191 Henry Street at the southern end of the Lower East Side, where other galleries are also popping up. Both there and at the fair, Shrine will feature scarecrows made with found materials by the blind, Memphis-based artist Hawkins Bolden (1914-2005). Like Dial, Bolden occupies an important place in the canon of America’s most innovative, black self-taught artists of the Deep South. Rooted in generations-old African spiritual traditions, Bolden’s sculptures are talismans that both kept the birds away and imbued his home garden with a sacred air. At the fair, Ogden, an artist and collector himself, will recreate a portion of Bolden’s actual yard, in which his scarecrows once stood.

From Texas, J. Compton Gallery will show a mixed-media drawing by Consuelo (“Chelo”) González Amezcua (1903-1975), a Mexican-born artist who moved with her family to the Texas border town of Del Río when she was a young girl. Amezcua’s art of intricately patterned, semi-abstract compositions is long overdue for comprehensive, museum-show attention. Dealer Jean Compton will also exhibit hard-edged abstractions on found paper — a pizza box, printed brochures — by Larry John Palsson (1948-2010), who spent his life in Seattle and possibly was autistic. Palsson loved cats and geometry. Viewers who are cocksure of their interest in anatomy may be intrigued by Palsson’s Space Needle-like tower (or is it a phallus?) rising into a sky framed by geometric forms — or is it a wide-open skirt?

Larry John Palsson, “Untitled” (no date), acrylic on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches (photo courtesy of J. Compton Gallery)

Dealer Beate Echols of Manhattan’s Mariposa Arts has spent much time in Brazil and Latin America. Among other artists’ works from those regions, Echols will show sculptures by the Brazilian Francisco Moraes da Silva (1936-2007), a grandson of slaves who was known as “Chico Tabibuia.” (The last name is that of the wood he used.) Evoking African wood-carving traditions, Tabibuia believed he was inspired by God through his dreams to make art, including depictions of cocks (that is, roosters) and men whose endowments protrude like baseball bats.

Marlon Mullen, “Untitled (the new art LA),” acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 inches (photo courtesy of Adams and Ollman Gallery and JTT) (click to enlarge)

Together, Adams and Ollman, of Portland, Oregon, and JTT, from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, will offer acrylic paintings — with paint as bright and thick as cake frosting — by the California-based autodidact Marlon Mullen, who paints image and text fragments lifted from magazines. They float, suggesting ambiguous meanings or none at all, in seas of luscious color. From Tokyo, dealer Yukiko Koide will display drawings in pencil and colored pencil on paper by Yasuyuki Ueno. Born in 1973 and based in Osaka, where he attends a small art-therapy workshop, Ueno finds inspiration in fashion magazines for his contemporary takes on Japan’s traditional bijin-ga, or pictures of beautiful women, which are probably best known to Westerners in the form of centuries-old woodblock prints. Ueno’s models — including Minnie Mouse — are expressive and chic. Look for his precise rendering of details, including shoe straps, knee caps and fingernails.

Yasuyuki Ueno, “Summer High Fashion” (2010), pencil and colored pencil on paper, 15 x 21.25 inches (photo courtesy of Yukiko Koide Presents)

From Waxahachie, Texas, near Dallas, the Webb Gallery, run by dealers Bruce Lee Webb and Julie Webb, will also show Robert Adale Davis’s unusual garments. Long interested in art and artifacts related to fraternal associations, the Webbs will present some of this material, too, in a tie-in with a new book by Bruce Lee Webb and Lynne Adele, As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930 (University of Texas Press). For more art related to these quizzical private clubs, see the American Folk Art Museum’s new exhibition, Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection, which will open on January 21.

Consuelo (“Chelo”) González Amezcua, “My Dream” (no date), mixed media, India ink and crayon on poster board, 22.5 x 28 inches (photo courtesy of J. Compton Gallery)

Alas, secret handshakes might grant access to certain precincts of the art world, but only time will yield answers to some of the questions now swirling inside the outsider art sector’s crystal ball. Among them: How can outsider art’s merchants and custodians inculcate newcomers from the contemporary-art side with a sense of what makes this kind of art unique and special? Should they? In a media-saturated era in which it can be very hard to live in isolation from the so-called mainstream, just how broadly or strictly should the “outsider” label be applied?

Noviadi Angkasapura, “Untitled” (2015), ballpoint pen and graphite on paper, 24.61 x 17.72 inches (photo courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Specialists in outsider art are keenly aware of how the field has been evolving. John Maizels is the founder and editor-in-chief of the London-based Raw Vision, the world’s leading magazine in the related fields of art brut, outsider art, visionary art and self-taught art (no one label adequately captures the spirit and character of the overall genre), which began publishing in 1989 (and of which I am the senior editor).

Maizels observed, “In the last few years, outsider art has burst out of its niche and forced its way into the mainstream. In the past, it may have been ignored or even scorned, but now it is acknowledged as a vital part of the contemporary-art scene and a big influence on many artists working today.”

The 2016 Outsider Art Fair will take place at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan), from January 21 through January 24.

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