After this year’s Outsider Art Fair, a Frieze Week corollary held at 548 West 22nd Street in Chelsea, closed on Sunday, the artist Mark Flood began taking over the space for an “Insider Art Fair” that opens today. A sarcastic conceptualist and the subject of an exhibition next door at the Zach Feuer gallery called Available NASDAQ Symbol, Flood announced his fair with a parodic press release naming “10 trending artists” that lists him 10 times. Flood’s work itself — like a very large piece replacing the original Curtiss biplane in the highly collectible 1918 “Inverted Jenny” postage stamp with a Predator drone — speaks, in its anti-sincerity, to the brittle taxonomies of contemporary art.
This anxiety of exclusion is the defining feature of so-called “outsider art,” a genre in which there has been a resurgence of interest in recent years, from institutional platforms such as The Encyclopedic Palace exhibition at the Venice Biennale and the Hayward Gallery’s Alternate Guide to the Universe to roving affairs like the Museum of Everything and the Outsider Art Fair, which is staged annually in New York and Paris. Though outsider art’s claim to being is grounded in a theoretical rejection of art-historical power structures, those artists canonized as outsiders by major institutions remain suspiciously homogenous — of the Hayward exhibition’s 23 artists, two were women, for example. But the Outsider Art Fair, coinciding with Frieze for the first time in its 22-year history, nonetheless delivered an interesting-enough antidote to the “insider” work on view elsewhere during Frieze Week. Which, I guess, is the consolation (or inoculation) that outsider art is meant to provide.
Spread out across three floors, usual suspects like Henry Darger, William Scott, A.G. Rizzoli, Thornton Dial, Marcel Storr, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, and so on were interspersed with a healthy international mix of lesser-known folk and outsider practitioners. The minimalism of Asian meditative art in particular — from the Greenbergian reverie of Tantric Indian paintings from Rajasthan at Galerie Hervé Pedriolle to the organic simplicity of a Suiseki stone at Yukiko Koide Presents — offered a welcome relief from the frequently encountered narrative of the clinically insane, often white, often male outsider as solitary art genius.
This story was perhaps most fetishistically reproduced and redeemed at Hirschl & Adler Modern’s single-artist presentation of James Edward Deeds. The artist’s small and pale color drawings of humans and animals with unsettling eyes, completed over three decades of his institutionalization from 1936 to the 1960s, reveal why this ubiquitous outsider formula still works: the pictures are captivating, even if the gaze that directs us toward them is more than a little problematic. (A large poster explaining the artist’s life story was of course prominently stationed in the booth.)
Four works by William Scott, the Bay Area artist whose bold paintings evince a friendly yet cryptic communitarianism, were presented by the Creative Growth Art Center. The center also showed him at NADA in Miami last year, where a representative told me that Scott’s work had been selling particularly well. There were other NADA Miami reruns: Fleisher/Ollman showed Emery Blagdon’s “Untitled (EMB 9)” (c. 1955–86), which had appeared in Florida alongside works by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein with the gallery’s Portland affiliate. These pieces benefited from the open context of NADA; the ghettoizing effect of the Outsider Art Fair means that the cerebral draughtsmanship of A.G. Rizzoli or the sober abstraction of Emery Blagdon has to contend with, for example, a booth selling a “vernacular” sign that says “Everybody smokes” recovered from Kentucky by a gallerist.
Despite the global reach of the works on view, the dominant flavor was decidedly Anglo-European, while the mix of styles remained decently heterogenous. The thematic mélange of traditions was best represented by Galeria Estação, which paired earthy, pseudo-indigenous totems carved from tree trunks by an artist-farmer named Véio with the exuberant paintings of the late Alcides Pereira dos Santos. Born a cobbler, Pereira dos Santos made work that’s startling in its seeming learnedness — of color, of composition — and its traditional choice of subject — various air, land, and sea vehicles. With the right access at the right time, the artist could easily have become a canonized exemplar of midcentury Pop art. Such thoughts bring one back to the arbitrary construction of the art-historical milieu and the partial corrective that bringing such art to a major commercial confab as Frieze Week represents.
As the moral philosopher John Rawls has written of natural talent and the lottery of birth, “those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.” Viewed without cynicism, the resurgent institutional and commercial interest in outsider art endeavors in this spirit.
The Outsider Art Fair, of which Hyperallergic was a media sponsor, took place at 548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan from May 8–11.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.