A common misconception about so-called “outsider art” is that all of the people who make it are either cut off from the world (because they’re crazy) or dead. And so, a common concern in discussions of the outsider art market is exploitation. Are dealers taking advantage of artists who are alive but disabled or exploiting the estates of those who were once mentally ill and are now deceased? “Today’s new art market stars are either dead, mentally impaired, or can barely speak for themselves,” critic Christian Viveros-Faune once wrote in the Village Voice.
There is some truth in this, but it’s far from a universal dictum. Determining who qualifies as an “outsider” artist has become increasingly hazy in recent years. This may be due to the market’s unyielding appetite for more art to sell, which means it’s a phenomenon not without its problems, but the stretching of the definition of “outsider artist” is unequivocally a good thing: it moves us closer to erasing a distinction that many find to be a ghettoization.
Nowhere can you feel the silliness (and yet cloying realness) of the term “outsider art” more distinctly than at the Outsider Art Fair, which, by its very nature, is an insiders’ affair. Visiting the preview of the 2015 New York edition yesterday, I was struck by just how fluid a category it’s become. An example: At the booth of Dutch foundation Een Nieuwe Wind I saw a woman sitting in a wheelchair, Marianne Schipaanboord, lost in contemplation of the artwork — her artwork — lining the walls. Schipaanboord is deaf and cannot speak; another woman was trying to ask her a question or two on camera, and while Schipaanboord had been given a laminated sheet with the letters of the alphabet on it, for spelling out answers, she did not respond. Ten minutes later and I was down a flight of stairs, talking at length to artist John Brill about his piece “Every Boy’s Dream” (2013), at the booth of New York’s Kent Fine Art. Brill is an eccentric, affable man who refers to himself as “textbook anal-retentive” and simply taught himself photography. He speaks excitedly and smartly about his own work.
At first the contrast between these two struck me as a glitch, a discrepancy, but the longer I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed that outsider art should encompass both. And that both of them should be present at the fair. The biographies of artists are overwhelmingly central to the frame of outsider art, to the point where it can be problematic (they’re ripe for co-opting and historicizing), not to mention exhausting (after a certain number of wall texts that all sound the same, you start to assume mental illness and ignore them). But at the fair yesterday, I sensed an emphasis on living artists and contemporary art that, even if it was market-driven, was welcome.
This isn’t to discount the historical presentations — some galleries, many of them heavy hitters, had excellent displays and stunning artworks in this vein, including a dazzling grid of pieces by Constantine Karron at Ricco/Maresca, fantastically cheeky collages by Felipe Jesus Consalvos at Fleisher/Ollman, and compelling groupings of work by Minnie Evans and Clementine Hunter at Arte del Pueblo and Gilley’s Gallery, respectively. But it was art made in the last 10 years or so that drew me in most — proof that while the term “outsider art” may be ready for retirement, what it represents is far from dead.
The Outsider Art Fair 2015, of which Hyperallergic is a media sponsor, continues at Center 548 (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 1.