A view inside the San Angel Folk Art Gallery. (Photo by the author)

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — “Wow bizzarro!” I hear a visitor exclaim with a delighted grin as they walk out the front door of the San Angel Folk Art gallery. The venue is one of those quirky finds one relishes during an art tour in a new city. It offers a colorful breath of fresh air to a predominating white cube aesthetic, and a friendly alternative to the “take ourselves too seriously” attitude of many in the contemporary gallery world.

The entrance to the San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio, Texas (photo by author)

San Angel gallery has been in existence for 19 years and is a self described “Victorian curiosity shop.” As a gallery/shop hybrid, works are on display in every nook and cranny. The space easily mixes beaded earrings and “crafts” with paintings and sculptures. Art mediums fuse and colors battle for attention and I’m not sure whether I should stand back and observe respectfully or shuffle through the rows of cards to find quirky send outs. I like the playful tendencies this lack of exactitude extracts.

Although there is a definite aesthetic likeness in the work on display, the range of media and approach makes the artists and their origin appear diverse.

In fact, the artists originate from as far afield as Haiti, Africa, Europe and Latin America, and perhaps due to a large Mexican population that calls San Antonio home, it is dominated by artists from, or affiliated with, Mexico.

So what is encompassed by folk art exactly if it can be applied to such a wide geography?

According to Wikipedia:

In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic. It is characterized by a naive style, in which traditional rules of proportion and perspective are not employed. Closely related terms are Outsider Art, Self-Taught Art and Naive Art.

In short it has a use and defies many school taught art conventions.

This poses an interesting proposition to people in the contemporary commercial world. How does one equate concept to practical use without appearing patronizing? And moreover how does one place value on work when one cannot apply traditional paradigms of evaluation to an artists career, such as educational history?

A diorama Animasola by Claudia Vargas on display in the gallery (courtesy San Angel gallery)

San Angel gallery was founded by Richard “Hank” Lee who is an activist for folk art with the aim of “asserting its value in the global art market.” It seems then one form of evaluation is the artist’s acclaim within the global art arena, and this may explain why the gallery boasts that its artists have affiliations with the Venice Biennale, the Rome Prize and locally the San Antonio Museum of Art. The gallery materials state, “the juxtaposition of the historic and the contemporary allows the spectator to gain a greater sense of context and relevance of each work featured.”

On the other hand the galleries namesake San Ángel is a historic neighborhood southwest of Mexico City that is home to old and affluent money, steeped in tradition. It is perhaps this paradox of “folk art” that is on the one hand preserved in its geographical and cultural origins and on the other aspiring to be globally recognized as an art form of increasing value — that makes it hard to categorize and evaluate.

And it is also this paradox that makes it pleasing and refreshing and allows for some interpretation.

“The whole place is an assault on the senses, from the flurry of colors to the strange shapes and chirping of real parrots” is how Gerald McLeod from The Austin Chronicle explains his experience. Well put.

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...