Now in its 24th edition, the Outsider Art Fair has found a new home this year at the Metropolitan Pavilion, currently filled with the fair’s largest number of exhibitors yet. Of the 64 galleries participating from seven different countries, 24 are first-time exhibitors, with a large number of dealers who represent self-taught artists arriving from the nearby Lower East Side. The resulting presentation is incredibly diverse and sprawling. Most booths feature walls hung with artworks and shelves or pedestals covered with curios; you won’t find any sleek light boxes, digital screens, or colossal sculptures that make for easy Instagram fodder here. Rather, the fair is dominated by works that suggest a dedication to handicraft or an intimate fixation on a subject. This attention to detail — tantamount to a reverence — is what makes much of the fair’s art so intriguing and, simply, great.
The materials these artists use to realize their visions tend to be simple, mostly everyday items, manipulated and transformed with devotion. Many artists just engaged with what was available to them: pages ripped from notebooks, recycled paper, paper bags, fabric scraps, bits of wood, found objects. These materials suggest a shared disregard for glamour and an eagerness or need for personal expression.
Cardboard panels serve as the backing for two colorful paintings by the self-taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, on display at Andrew Edlin; what was once discarded is revived with dynamic, fluid landscapes. Wire-bound and taped sculptures stand like miniature industrial mummies at Fleisher/Ollman gallery, their unconventional bindings wound tight around items like coins and bolts, concealing the small objects like precious treasures. Made by an unknown artist dubbed “Philadelphia Wireman,” the group of six sculptures is part of about 1,200 in existence, abandoned and found in 1982 — a physical remnant attesting to a ritual of creation that was deeply significant to someone. I was reminded of these wrappings when I saw the colorful cocoon works of Tony Pedemonte, on view at Cavin-Morris, that are also made of whatever material he has available, from wood fragments to bicycle wheels. These sculptures by the Creative Growth artist are incredibly charged, disarming in their resemblance to a spider’s dying prey but beguiling in their suggested warmth and vibrancy. (Curiously, they also resemble very closely the works of the late Judith Scott, also represented by Creative Growth.)
More explicitly menacing is Galerie Anne de Villepoix’s series of drawings on tracing paper by Annette Barcelo, who has a story for those searching for the stereotypical narrative of the psychologically troubled outsider artist. A 73-year-old Swiss native, Barcelo claims to be haunted by demons and uses markers to draw vignettes of the peculiar beasts, each one carefully bordered by a thick line of color, as though she were attempting to contain these visions in her art. A series I found just as puzzling but much more compelling is a crowd of painted clay sculptures by Susan Gerard at Fred Giampietro Gallery. Easy to overlook because of their small scale, they stand as an expression of bizarre human interactions and deserve prolonged examination. The figurines — for whatever reason almost all male — are carrying out medical treatments, but others are also being harmed, forming an eerie collection. The self-taught Gerard is a physical therapist, and I wondered if her visualization of these themes was a way to find relief from constantly working with the pain of others.
One unique aspect of the Outsider Art Fair is that not all the art on view was initially intended as art. Perhaps the most delightful surprise is a series of largely anonymous 18th–21st-century drawings from India on view at newcomer Magic Markings. Likely created by monks or religious leaders who reused paper scraps such as old ledgers, the illustrations include diagrams of planetary positions and intricate patterns used as meditation devices. The inclusion of artifacts that showcase the spiritual beliefs of a non-Western community is refreshing, and also exemplifies the ever-broadening definition of outsider art.
Much more recently, the Memphis-born Hawkins Bolden, blind since the age of eight, constructed metal “scarecrows” out of objects he collected around his neighborhood, in an effort to keep birds away from his garden. Out of his practical pursuit emerged a group of whimsical metalworks tasked with keeping watch over and rejecting the outside world. Humanoid because of their strategically arranged holes that look like eyes, the sculptures occupy the entire space of Shrine’s booth, standing on and around a patch of grass. Facing these rusting sentries, one has a sense of Bolden’s resolve to bar unwanted visitors; stepping into the booth seems like it would be an act of transgression, of flouting one man’s fervent pursuit of his own secured space.
Many of these artists aren’t household names, but as figures like Henry Darger prove, outsider art isn’t always so “outsider.” This year marked the passing of two well-known artists of the genre: Paul Laffoley and Ionel Talpazan. While the former’s works are absent at the fair, organizers pay tribute to the latter, who died last September and was known for his long-term obsession with depicting UFOs. Near the fair’s entrance is a memorial exhibition that features an array of Talpazan’s enigmatic spaceship paintings and plaster sculptures that balance on their bases like enlarged children’s spinning tops. Seeing years of his cosmic art together underscores his relentless devotion to exploring unsolved mysteries of the universe. This gathering of Talpazan’s lifework nods to the personal nature of outsider art that makes it especially appealing and that shines at this fair: the need to create primarily for the self, no matter how otherworldly the focus.
Outsider Art Fair 2016 continues at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 24.