One of the most marvelous aspects of the Outsider Art Fair is the way in which much the work displayed is steeped in stories. In asking about one of the very first drawings I encountered (at the stand for the gallery Yukiko Koide Presents) I learned that the artist Yuichiro Ukai is 23 years old, on the autism spectrum, and meshes Manga cartoons he loves to watch with traditional Japanese figurative representation. The scenes Ukai present are chaotic and churning, the life of a town decocted into one varicolored image in which everything is happening at once. A little later in my exploration I happened on a wood panel piece that immediately made me smile — because a goggly set of eyes with two small dots for nostrils set above two wood planks joined together where their gaps correspond so that they create a silly but charming doofus-like grin. The resulting face the gallerist at Wilsonville told me was made by a Mexican man who is 73 and only started making visual art a few years ago because his daughter had asked for an image that resembled David Bowie. The fair is replete with stories like these in which the character and circumstances of the artist makes the art richer with the accompanying narrative embroidery.
Among the images shown here are works whose stories I never discovered, and am still wondering about — for example, the anonymous Boro garments displayed at Yukiko Koide. A jacket, “leggings” and “Tabi” socks are displayed on a wall and look very much like modern denim clothing, though they are evidently preserved from the late Meiji or early Showa periods and are actually made of cotton and hemp. I’m mystified why worn clothing of this style, which seems like it would have been worn by common people would be presented as art objects, and I noticed this clothing or its like displayed by a few galleries.
Another innovative presentation was made by James Barron Art which displayed Ashley Shapiro’s paintings next to the work of her grandmother, Janet Sobel, with whom Shapiro feels she shares a deep spiritual connection. On an adjacent wall the gallery has printed a transcribed excerpt of an interview with Shapiro in which she describes this connection and talks about how Sobel inspired her practice — a rarity in art fair display schemes.
One of the stories I discovered for myself later after leaving the gallery concerns the work of 77-year-old artist Helen Rae whose graphite and colored pencil image of a woman with dark hair, a white dress and matching white boots is curious because the figure is doing something with her leg that no matter how long I gaze at it, I can’t quite figure out. It turns out that Rae who was born deaf and totally nonverbal was enrolled at age 50 in a program for adults with disabilities at First Street Gallery in Claremont. It turns out that Rae is having a bit of a star turn having had solo shows at very respectable galleries in both Los Angeles and New York, and even had a small feature in Vogue magazine.
There were other celebrities represented at the fair — Jim Carrey’s overheated and underwhelming caricatures of despicable people has garnered a good deal of attention though they utterly lack nuance. (For Christ’s sake, Jared Kushner’s pupils are replaced with US dollar signs.) Featuring Carrey’s work in the particularly prominent way it is featured with its stand-alone space on Maccarone gallery’s walls is a slyly Machiavellian maneuver by the fair’s organizers. While Carrey is said to be a self-taught artist and thus, at least initially, began working on the periphery of the mainstream art system, his work hardly deserves to be shown alongside much of the other work here and certainly doesn’t merit the distinction its given. Nevertheless, much the work I saw at the fair was surprising and ingenious and reinforces my conviction that brilliant art can come from any person at any time in their lives when they happen to be ready to make it.
The Outsider Art Fair took place at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W. 18th Street) between January 17 and 20.
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.