EssaysWeekend

Outsider Art: Window to the Soul

The Gnostics believed that a demiurge, a being violently hostile to all things spiritual, rules the material world. Its control of things is now nearly absolute.

Professor A.W. Gimbi, carved peach stone (ca 1900) (courtesy Marion Harris Gallery, New York)

Small purple dots and squares coalesce into wild patterns branching in every direction, organizing themselves around a grid that expands beyond the edges of the paper containing them. They seem to come from everywhere at once. And nowhere. Vertiginous. It’s just ink on graph paper.

The scale of everything has shrunk. A barber carves peach stones with jackknives far larger than the pits themselves — a tiny world of wishbones, buttons, shells, keys and others that defy swift classification.

Another man paints colorful landscapes full of yearning on Polaroid cartridges, their dark frames surrounding the luminous terrain.

There are many small abstract tantric paintings here as well. Tantra is the movement of an image from two to three dimensions, the transference of energy from the realm of psyche into the world of things. Energy becomes manifest in the world through Tantra, the root of animistic beliefs. Here, it is occurring everywhere, the utilitarian objects of everyday life blest by images.

This is a description of the 2017 Outsider Art Fair; I wonder: does this fair exist as a window to give us savvy Westerners a view of the soul we’ve left behind? Have we caged out soul like Rilke’s panther so that it has become fantastical and foreign to us — something categorized as other?

There is much documentation of psychic disturbance and illnesses, mental and physical, at the fair. But the imagination is in far greater evidence. The imagination is a faculty for generating fantastical images, images for tantric transformation. We all have one. We know — if we believe what the mystics, neoplatonists and depth psychologists (among others) tell us — that the imagination is the mechanism by which the soul comes to know itself in a process known as reflection. The soul becomes visible in the images the imagination produces.

Frank Walter, “Distant Black Cliffs with Purple Sky” (1970s), watercolor and oil on paper (Polaroid box cover), with metal cartridge, 3 7/8 x 3 1/4 inches (courtesy the Estate of Frank Walter and Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York, photograph © Eric W. Baumgartner)

Here, at the Outsider Art Fair, everyone’s soul is visible, like trees growing out of their heads, waving in the wind. It should be like this everywhere. It makes it so much easier to see and to move.

In fact, it is like this everywhere. But we don’t tend to look at it. So we need a window through the walls of our house to see the trees outside.

The Gnostics believed that a demiurge, a being violently hostile to all things spiritual, rules the material world. Its control of things is now nearly absolute. There is no need to be a Gnostic to see the materialism that dominates our priorities.

These “outsiders” are getting down into the stuff of everyday life with their million knick-knacks, their junk collecting, their use of whatever happens to be lying around. They animate the things of this world and arrange them such that soul can be seen through them, allowing the infinite to become visible via the finite, a path through the material to the divine.

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