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As the Outsider Art Fair ⎯ which opens next Thursday, January 18, and runs through Sunday, January 21 ⎯ rolls into town, the specialized sector it celebrates has plenty to crow about, even as debates about certain provocative aesthetic issues course through it, some at a simmer and some, typically, at a raging boil.
Not the least of these discussions, even after many decades, concerns exactly what to call the kind of art that is its focus: it is made by autodidacts situated, by choice or circumstance, on the margins of mainstream culture and society. Art brut, outsider art, visionary art, intuitive art — each of these terms has been used to label it but each one is nuanced. As a result, the awkward-sounding “self-taught art” has become a catch-all label, mostly in the US (it is less often used in Europe). So, too, has “outsider art,” although it does evoke a more substantive history of pioneering research and aesthetic delectation.
This 26th edition of the OAF, which serves as the leading annual, international forum for the exchange of information and the sharing of discoveries of previously unknown works comes on the heels of the very successful 2017 Outsider Art Fair Paris, which marked its fifth anniversary this past October. Smaller than its American sister and produced by the same New York-based company, Wide Open Arts, the Paris foire has effectively extended OAF’s brand and provided a focal commercial event for “the field” in Europe, where its historical roots run deep.
In recent years, a lot has been made of the fact that outsider art has “crossed over,” winning increasing attention from the contemporary-art side of the broader market.
Media reports have implied that, somehow, such recognition has validated outsider art; among some contemporary-art museum curators, showing self-taught artists’ works alongside those of the art world’s schooled, “professional” darlings appears to have become a trend.
Veteran dealer Randall Morris, the co-director, with Shari Cavin, of New York’s Cavin-Morris Gallery and a well-known commentator on outsider-art aesthetics, said that, now more than ever, serious collectors have certain “golden” criteria in mind when evaluating artworks, including their “authenticity, originality, visual power, and in most cases a sense of timelessness; they want to a work to be as relevant 50 years from now as it is today.”
Some visitors may find such qualities among works at the 2018 OAF depicting the human figure, a prevalent theme in the work of many self-taught artists. From Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, watercolor-and-ink portraits by Latefa Noorzai, who was born in Afghanistan in 1960, are charming and forthright in their boldly colored images of bearded faces or stippled-paint fashion plates. Noorzai’s English is limited to “Good morning!” and “I like it,” the art center’s staffers say, but they recognize her pictures as an ebullient form of self-expression.
New York dealer Beate Echols of Mariposa Arts, who is known for her long, deep ties to South America, will show a recent discovery, the paintings of the Cuban Carlos Javier García Huergo, who was born in 1967.
Trained as a mathematician in Cuba and the Czech Republic, “Carlitos” was treated for paranoid schizophrenia back in his homeland following his mother’s death. Now associated with Art Brut Project Cuba, a Havana gallery, he paints, perforates and fills his cardboard surfaces with faces, words, and numbers.
More peculiar are the semi-abstract pictures and sculptures of the 58-year-old Briton Stephen Goddard, from the London-based gallery Sardac, a newcomer to the fair. Goddard’s works, which sometimes include collage, evoke his Foster’s-drinking grandmother’s stories with a freaky-artifact vibe. Think big dust balls and curiosities dug up in Salvador Dalí’s attic.
Sculpture-loving Aarne Anton of American Primitive Gallery will show pieces by Raymond Coins and a rare female-figure sculpture from Possum Trot, an art environment the now-deceased artists Calvin and Ruby Black constructed in the California Mojave Desert (it was dismantled years ago), filling it with dolls made from found materials, and small-scale carousels and windmills. Anton’s standing figure sports a multi-layered, multi-colored frock.
First-time exhibitor Jennifer Lauren Gallery, an Internet-based enterprise that mounts pop-up shows in London, will present works by the Japanese artists Masao Obata (colored-pencil drawings on corrugated cardboard) and Shinichi Sawada (odd ceramic creatures with spiky skins and horns). Sawada is based in Shiga Prefecture, in south-central Japan, a region famous for ceramic art. His works, which were shown in the 2013 Venice Biennale’s main exhibition, have been coveted by collectors and hitherto not easily available.
The Tokyo-based Yukiko Koide Presents, a gallery whose director is a recognized authority in Japan’s small but fast-evolving art brut/outsider field, will show drawings by Yuichiro Ukai, a young artist who packs his dense compositions with dinosaurs, skeletons, giant spiders, samurai, and some rather lost-looking Buddhist deities. His complex images bring to mind centuries-old emaki, or illustrated scrolls. Koide said, “They’re also very contemporary, filled with the action-packed energy of Japanese manga [comics].” She will also show abstract, unglazed-ceramic works by Hideaki Yoshikawa. He covers them with tiny dots, which are, in fact, the eyes of miniscule faces. Both Ukai and Yoshikawa are associated with Yamanami Kobo, an innovative art-therapy workshop in Shiga.
Inventive draftsmanship is also in evidence in the work of the New Zealander Susan Te Kahurangi King (born 1951), which the dealer Chris Byrne has shown here before; King started making drawings as a child and, between the ages of four and nine, stopped speaking. When she was in her 30s, she ceased making art, but she resumed drawing in 2008. Byrne will show works produced after that long hiatus, along with childhood objects — toys, a cereal box, bathing caps — whose forms, colors, and aura may have influenced King’s art of shape-shifting fish, imaginary creatures, and familiar cartoon characters in vibrant pictorial space. Her work has notably crossed over into the broader contemporary-art market; it will be featured at Marlborough Contemporary, in London, in June.
Other superb drawings to watch out for include “Moro Rock and Morrow Bay Near San-Luis Obispo California” (ink and colored pencil on paper, circa 1965), by Joseph E. Yoakum, a favorite artist of the Chicago Imagists of the 1960s-70s (Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago), and, from New York’s Ricco/Maresca Gallery, a recently surfaced, rare work from Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Landscape with Arched Tree)” (graphite, tempera, and crayon on paper, 1953), in which the Mexican-born artist used one of his familiar, proscenium-like forms to frame a patch of a verdant, almost Hockneyesque landscape.
Ricco/Maresca’s booth will be conjoined with that of Galerie Gugging, a part of the Art Brut Center Gugging, near Vienna, which will feature small works by its various artists. The drawings in pencil and colored pencil on paper by the Austrian Leopold Strobl, a longtime participant in Gugging’s “open atelier,” can sometimes read visually as abstract or semi-abstract. Some feature Sisyphean rocks that function as principal graphic elements in his green-hued compositions. More abstraction: Look for the Australian Julian Martin’s large-format pastel drawings, with their velvety surfaces, that dramatically transform the animals or objects that are their thematic starting points (Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia); mixed-media (including tar) drawings by the British artist David Puttick, who, dealer Norman Brosterman says, “sees faces in the pavement, in trees, everywhere”; and the bizarre, techno-baroque, oil-on-canvas landscapes of the visionary painter Valton Tyler, who died in Dallas at the age of 73 last September (Hirschl & Adler). Tyler called his otherworldly, mechanical-vegetal subjects “my shapes” and said, “I believe they have feelings and communicate with each other.”
Cavin-Morris will introduce the abstract drawings in pencil, ballpoint pen, and India ink of the French artist Henriette Zéphir (1920-2012), which were the subject of an exhibition at the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, last year. Zéphir believed that her art-making was propelled by a “guiding” hand; her lush compositions share formal affinities with everything from early-modernist abstraction to Elizabeth Murray’s rollicking, shaped canvases. Cavin-Morris will also show the tempera-on-paper pictures of the Italian Tarcisio Merati, who died in 1995. There is some Philip Guston funk in Merati’s renderings of cars and buildings; they also recall similar images by the Jamaican Intuitive artist, Ras Dizzy (c. 1932-2008).
OAF newcomer Jacqueline Bishop of Antillean, will show work by the Jamaicans Sane Mae “Mama Laine” Dunkley, who makes richly textured mats and tapestries, and Kemel Leeford Rankine, whose enamel-on-sheet-metal signs record local proverbs and parables, and depict Jamaica’s national heroes.
The Manhattan dealer Marion Harris, who has long had an eye for the edgy and well-crafted, will show ceramic works by the Toronto-based artist Jordan Maclachlan. The sculptural pieces in her new “Unexpected Subway Living Series” portray humans and beasts in strange encounters underground, including a man-sized rat attacking a passerby. Symbolic scenarios mirroring what’s going on in the stress-filled world above? Maclachlan notes that, in her work, she makes “a conscious effort to clearly and respectfully reflect the way I see life unfolding all around me.”
Some dealers will present special installations: The Webb Gallery, from Waxahacie, Texas, will offer a yellow-walled Wunderkammer with vintage tattoo-motif drawings; paintings by the Rev. Johnnie Swearingen (1908-1993); psychologically charged drawings by the elderly, Colorado-based artist Moshe Baronestrevnakowske; and a tiki bar. Shrine, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, will recreate the art-filled bedroom of the Alabaman artist Mose Tolliver (1898-2006), and Brooklyn’s Cathouse Proper will again showcase mixed-media works by Daniel Swanigan Snow, which take on, with irascible charm, everything from the current political moment (“Sign of the Times,” 2017, declares, “GET HIM OUT OF OFFICE”) to the nature of art-making itself.
Just how might the designation of art and artists as “outsider” be evolving today? Dealer Randall Morris of Cavin-Morris, alluding to the history of a field that was largely driven by researcher-collectors before a specialized market emerged, observed that “the nature of the collectors themselves has shifted over time”; in the US, they first came from folk art to art brut and outsider art, and now “crossover collectors” are coming from contemporary art to “self-taught art.”
“Each group has made different demands on the work,” he said, noting that “folk art collectors were more interested in narratives, art brut collectors wanted personal mythologies, and now contemporary-art collectors appreciate abstractions” — broader thematic contexts in which to situate self-taught artists’ creations.
Webb Gallery co-founder Julie Webb said, “The field is not nearly as competitive as it was in previous years, when the ‘I’ve-got-to-have-one’ mentality tended to guide many collectors.” They were all chasing, she said, after the same artists’ works on some imaginary master checklist.
Aarne Anton referred to an emotional connection to outsider art that many of its admirers seem to share. “As opposed to auctions at which the über-rich compete for high-priced trophies, collectors here are passionate in a different way,” he said. “They want to know about the artists and are viscerally attracted to their works.” For all the effervescence of the OAF, many of its participants struggle to survive in a marketplace in which hype often triumphs over quality. Still, Anton, sounding optimistic, noted, “Each year there are new viewers and buyers, and the young couple that makes their first art purchase. That has tremendous meaning for the future.”
The 2018 Outsider Art Fair will take place from Thursday, January 18, through Sunday, January 21, at Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan; telephone: 212-337-3338.