Articles

When Outsider Art and Christmas Collide

by Allison Meier on December 23, 2013

Kenny Irwin Jr.'s "Robotmas" installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)

Kenny Irwin Jr.’s “Robotmas” installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)

It’s easy to get obsessive around the holidays, what with the frantic shopping and cheerful imbibing and decorations to be placed. But some take it a long step further.

Outsider art — or folk art or vernacular building if you prefer — with its already obsessive nature with self-taught artists driven to incredible creation, is a particularly potent match. Here are three collisions of this visionary art with the holidays.

Robotmas!

Kenny Irwin Jr. at "Robotmas" (photograph by Shawn Levin/courtesy AVAM)

Kenny Irwin Jr. at “Robotmas” (photograph by Shawn Levin/courtesy AVAM)

Kenny Irwin Jr.’s incredible “Robo Lights” display at his home in Palm Springs in Southern California is visible year round with its giant pink robots and post-apocalyptic reindeer constructed from found materials. But it’s around Christmas when it all really springs to life. This year at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore he’s exhibiting ”Have Yourself a Happy Little Robotmas” as part of the Human, Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity! exhibition on view until August 31, 2014. Irwin is a practicing Muslim himself, but one-eyed snowmen from some Lovecraftian future are pretty nondenominational. The installation also features fanged reindeer emerging from toilets, lines of pink skulls, a tree decorated with microwaved electronics (he already zapped his own copies of the top pricey toys of the season), a cyclops santa, and other trappings of a holiday of futuristic horror.

Kenny Irwin Jr.'s "Robotmas" installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)

Kenny Irwin Jr.’s “Robotmas” installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)

Kenny Irwin Jr.'s "Robotmas" installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)

Kenny Irwin Jr.’s “Robotmas” installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)

The Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa

Nativity scene at the Owl House (photograph by  Paul Perton/Flickr user)

Nativity scene at the Owl House (photograph by Paul Perton/Flickr user)

With the religious tone of many vernacular environments, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of outsider art nativity scenes. The Owl House by self-taught creator Helen Martins in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, is particularly fascinating. Her small nativity is just a part of the hundreds of sculptures she started building at the age of 50 from concrete and glass. There are camels, owls (her totem animal), and other humans that wander in the tableau. She was reportedly inspired by William Blake, the Bible, and Omar Khayyam’s poetry, as well as a personal enchantment with pilgrimages to the east, which is the direction all the figures face with the nativity at the edge where some stop and others file by.

Bird sculptures at the Owl House (photograph by Kim Stevens, via Wikimedia)

Bird sculptures at the Owl House (photograph by Kim Stevens, via Wikimedia)

Sculptures at the Owl House (photograph by Kim Stevens, via Wikimedia)

Sculptures at the Owl House (photograph by Kim Stevens, via Wikimedia)

Pilgrims at the Owl House (photograph by  Pedro Buccellato/Flickr user)

Pilgrims at the Owl House (photograph by Pedro Buccellato/Flickr user)

The Hill of Lights in Manarola, Italy

Hill of lights in Manarola (photograph by  Stefano Dellepiane/Flickr user)

Hill of lights in Manarola (photograph by Stefano Dellepiane/Flickr user)

Over in Manarola, Italy, each November, Mario Andreoli’s ”La collina delle luci“ (“Hill of Lights”) returns. The retired railway man started in 1961 transforming a former vineyard into an illuminated nativity scene for the holidays. The environment is built from thousands of lights and recycled materials like signs, old cans, and iron rods. However, his creations embrace the waterfront setting with dolphins flitting among the sheep and shepherds. Some of the hundreds of figures traveled to the Liguria Brut! exhibition in 2011 in the Rizomi Art Brut gallery in Turin, but the easiest way to see them is in their annual temporary environment.

Detail of the hill of lights (photograph by Stefano Dellepiane/Flickr user)

Detail of the hill of lights (photograph by Stefano Dellepiane/Flickr user)

Hill of lights in Manarola (photograph by  Elena Giglia/Flickr user)

Hill of lights in Manarola (photograph by Elena Giglia/Flickr user)

The hill of lights in daylight (photograph by shineon-it/Flickr user)

The hill of lights in daylight (photograph by shineon-it/Flickr user)

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  • Francis Thiebaud Winters

    Unfortunately, Kenny Irwin is a total art-school kid. i.e. NOT AN OUTSIDER!!! http://kennyirwinartist.com/about-kenny-irwin.html
    TOTAL INSIDER….it’s right on his site….Cal. College of Art (and Craft)….

    • Francis Thiebaud Winters

      Another shining moment in editorial fact-checking….ever think of hiring an Editor?

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        Considering he is exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum, which is a museum of self-taught artists, maybe your gripe is with them and how they define that. Also, the definition of outsider artists has evolved (as it always has) so perhaps you can talk to the AVAM and see how they define the term. Also, judging by the tone of your comment, I’m guessing you might have a personal vendetta against the institution or the artist … or perhaps against anyone who falls into the category of “outsider” artist.

        • Francis Thiebaud Winters

          Actually no, I am entirely ignorant of the artist, previously. It just smacked of non-outsider to me, so I googled, and….anyway.
          Also no gripe w/ the museum (also with which I am only nominally familiar). AND definitely no beef w/ ‘outsider art/artists’. It’s a clumsy term, arguably, but I love that stuff. Knocks the socks off of the vast majority of the credentialed work I see on a given visit to Chelsea, that’s for sure. “Visionary” and “Outsider” have some overlap, as far as descriptors of artists go, but that are hardly synonymous and/or universally interchangeable, so no my gripe is not w/ the museum. I don’t deny the work is arguably “Visionary”, it’s just clearly NOT the work of an outsider. Sloppy reporting and/or editing is my only gripe. I find the posts on here to often warrant further fact-checking, unfortunately. That would be the purview of the editor….you, right?

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I’m sorry you feel that way, and I think we do a great job. Actually, the museum’s tagline is “America’s official national museum and education center for intuitive, self-taught artistry,” so your understanding of visionary and theirs does appear to be different, but you didn’t seem to fact check that.

            Judging by your commenting history, you are a negative person. If you dislike the site, nothing is keeping you here. We do out best with our resources and we expect our commenters to contribute to the conversation and not be nasty.

          • Shawn Chapman

            Ouch! Now Francis is Outside(r).

  • Jeffrey Turner

    someone’s picking nits here and I’d just like to say what a joyful feeling I got looking at the photos.
    The human spirit is alive and well and the sheer joy of creativity is just wonderful.
    The smile on Kenny Irwin’s face says it all.
    Who cares if he’s an art school kid, he’s having fun, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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