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Alfred Jensen, “Twelve Events in a Dual Universe” (all images courtesy Hayward Gallery)

LONDON — A major survey of outsider art, Hayward Gallery’s Alternative Guide to the Universe closed two weeks ago, on August 26. It was a show featuring many of outsider art’s most prolific practitioners of the last several decades, all under the aegis of providing institutional space for “alternative” modes of knowledge. Yet of the Alternative Guide‘s 23 artists, only two were female — making the exhibition minimally alternative, if not regressive. When a museum exhibition is 91.3% male people tend to notice (the two female artists were Lee Godie and Guo Fengyi), and the Hayward was no exception here. In their review, the Guardian noted the fact and quoted a bizarre comment by way of explanation from the museum’s curator, Ralph Rugoff, that “maybe women are more down to earth.”

Reached by Hyperallergic in the days following the conclusion of Alternative Guide to the Universe, Ralph Rugoff provided some additional explanation for the gender imbalance in his show, which included a condemnation of the Guardian’s quote. “That was an out of context quote in the Guardian. It was asked as a question, not asserted as a statement. I researched many artists for AGU over an 18 month period and in the process encountered few women artists who fit within the exhibition’s brief — e.g. artists who were proposing alternative versions of existing cultural systems of knowledge,” he said in an emailed response.

Paul Laffoley, “The World Self”

Rugoff, an American, had earlier this summer made something of a splash when he told the Telegraph that the Tate Modern was like a “shopping center,” its experience a stultifying lurch “from one more or less identical neutral room to another.” This sort of grandstanding is to be expected from a rival curator, but it is perhaps better taken as a generalized condemnation of the limitations of large, institutional museums. Sure, the Hayward might be playing second fiddle to the Tate Modern on London’s South Bank, but its survey of outsider artists was animated by no less a conservative outlook on the process by which outsider artists have been lionized in recent decades. And the timing of the show coincided with what many have seen as the increasingly troubling fetish for outsider art that seems to have developed in earnest within rarified curatorial circles. The Village Voice‘s Christian Viveros-Faune crystallized the sentiment in his July review of the Llyn Foulkes retrospective at the New Museum, writing that “Outsider art is the new blue-chip art.”

Unlike the context for the Guerilla Girls’ historic condemnations of overwhelmingly male curatorial skews at the likes of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, the premise of outsider art hinges upon an ostensibly ungendered status of marginalization. Though it’s impossible to fully diagnose here the condition that has guaranteed institutional and commercial recognition for an almost exclusively male cadre of “outsiders,” the modern conception of productive madness is one overwhelmingly dominated by the narrative of the male madman whose insanity is not rudely clinical but intellectual, essential, and artistically or aesthetically liberated.

One could also reasonably suggest that the suppression of gender from modern discourses on the nature of insanity is traceable in the 20th century to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which negates the dimension of gender entirely in its historiographic project of critiquing the marginalization of the insane. Which isn’t to say that contemporary scholarship has ignored the question entirely (see, for example, Carol Thomas Neely’s 2004 Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture), but these gender-oriented reactions to Foucault’s thought and its heirs seems completely absent from curatorial perspectives on outsider art, and the Hayward’s Alternative Guide provided as good a showcase as any of this omission.

Emery Blagdon, “Healing Machine”

But in his responses to our line of questioning, Rugoff skirted the structural exclusion of women from the “canon” of outsider art, instead suggesting that the skew was merely intrinsic to the premise of his exhibition. “Obviously there are many great women artists who are categorized as outsiders. So I don’t think the genre is structurally geared to men. I have to conclude that the low percentage of women in AGU [Alternative Guide to the Universe] somehow reflects the exhibition’s brief. Yet I also don’t think the exhibition is a large sampling to suggest that male artists are (for whatever reasons) more inclined to re-imagine technology, architecture, physics, and systems of measuring time,” he writes.

Taken with the allegedly decontextualized “down to earth” comment made to the Guardian, it’s a familiar refrain that echoes similar sentiments on the subject of the exclusion of women in fields as diverse as science, mathematics, and the high technology industry. One recognizes the reflexive shrug that accompanies the words of such men as Larry Summers, who in 2005, as president of Harvard University, drew a firestorm of criticism when he suggested that women are inherently less able to succeed in science and mathematics. His defense, at this point a trope of such discussions, was that he was merely raising the possibility of an inferiority, not quite stating a conclusion. He also eventually apologized.

Rammellzee, “Color Letter Racer Set and White Letter Racer Set”

Such retrograde tactics are predictable in the annals of the establishment, but if the purpose of a contemporary arts center such as the Hayward is, as Rugoff himself told the Telegraph, to offer a rejoinder to calcified thought, it seems unusual to at the very least not make the exclusion of female outsider artists a focal point of the exhibition itself. “Yet if there is more outstanding work by women outsiders that does this, unfortunately I couldn’t find it,” he told us.

How should the the dialogue on gender equality in outsider art shows be constructively advanced by curators, critics, and artists? Probably not unlike how the broader conversation about gender equality in art institutions has been debated by innumerable and highly visible feminist actions since the 1970s. “[A]s a curator,” Rugoff writes, “I would say that the issue could be addressed by openly acknowledging it whenever and however it comes up. In the case of AGU, we could have had a wall text addressing the fact that there were only two women artists in the show and that this did not reflect a lack of effort to find more suitable women artists. Discussion could follow as to whether this implied that the concept of the show was skewed towards concerns that are more generally explored by male artists. In which case, a curator or institution should also address how this situation is going to be dealt with in future to balance out the gender representation.”

Consider the discussion started.

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

14 replies on “Why Was a Major Outsider Art Survey 91.3% Male?”

  1. Perhaps if the priority was to have a more equal balance of male/female ratio in any exhibition ( let alone this one)… the curator could have kept this in mind when putting together the exhibition. There are and have been many great female outsider artists as in all of the arts…

  2. I am also disappointed to see yet another show that justifies its failure to include women as structural to its subject (somehow subjects that are “structurally female” either don’t exist or are not deemed important). However I wonder if the message that every show should be broadly representative of gender and race diversity is the right one? What is the overall spread of exhibitions featuring women in the Hayward’s program? How does it shake up against other institutions? As a curator I fear that mandating ideal ratios for every group show could have a negative effect on intellectual freedom.

    1. Your point is well taken, and important. The kind of unsophisticated numerical takedown you describe *can* take on a totalitarian dimension, but I will note two important things. The first is that this is the only piece of this kind I have written, and I wrote it not because I think every show should reflect the gender distribution or other attributes of the general population, but rather that survey shows have a certain responsibility to address the nature of their constituents. Second, my criticism is actually very specific to the way “outsider” status has been constructed at large, with this show being a symptom of a much broader problem — I’m not the first person to point out that “outsider art” as we know it is largely problematic.

      The reason why I waited nearly two weeks to hear back from Rugoff before doing the piece was to actually have a fair engagement with the curator and let him speak for the show, and not to flash some kind of crass trump card. I also think the job of art journalism is, in part, to raise unpleasant questions in a way that could be perceived as irritating. So maybe this makes curators a little nervous, but I don’t think that it should, or that people should be afraid of the responsibility to produce intellectually defensible work (the horror!). I obviously don’t think Rugoff is a sexist or even a bad curator, he just left some major skews and assumptions unexamined in a way that left a glaring problem — which he concedes is a problem — unaddressed in the show, and so the exhibition did very little to contribute to our understanding of outsider art, and quite possibly made it worse.

      Thanks for raising the issue.

      1. It’s a necessary article and I confess to a bit of devil’s advocating. I’m not clear on how the concept of “outsider artist” is any more gendered than the idea of “artist” though? What I hear is that Rugoff chose a topic based on his own, possibly gendered interests, and didn’t find many women who fit that theme according to his vision. Not sexism by intent, but possibly so by omission. What does this one topic-based survey prove one way or another about the gender of outsider artists that goes beyond “most artists who gain recognition are men,” trained or untrained? What of notable outsider artists such as Judith Scott, Sister Corita Kent, or Grandma Moses?

        I’m not trying to suggest there’s no problem here, but more that there are two issues being conflated. One is, too many survey shows are organized around themes that prioritize the perspectives of male artists as “universal” (again, trained or untrained). The other is, the category of “outsider artist” is fundamentally problematic in the way that it romanticizes marginality, celebrating the mentally ill, uneducated, or otherwise disenfranchised as closer to the “natural” mental state of the artist; and even more so because even while appearing to celebrate marginality it makes clear that some artists (ie women and minorities) remain unfashionably marginal.

  3. I think one key thing that is often overlooked is the process of networking. How is the curator finding the artists? In his excellent essay “White Wall/Glass Ceiling,” (published in 9.5 Theses on Art & Class, Haymarket, 2013) Ben Davis addresses this issue of networking by giving a great example of a show at Deitch where the curator (a female) spells out the story of the connections between the 90%male show and reveals that the show basically came together because the men all lived together, played in bands together, were studio mates, and collaborated artistically.” There is nothing wrong with that fact, but it points to the limited male network that the curator tapped into in the first place. Finding similar networks of women artists is not hard, but they do not carry the historical romance of the mythical genius and his tribe and I do think curators and collectors are often wooed by this romance with the “cultural image” of the artist we are brought up on through the media, history, magazines features etc….

    1. Yes — that is a strong essay, one of the best in 9.5 Theses. And, for anyone curious, that person at Deitch was Kathy Grayson. Though I would say that “outsider” artists don’t really network with curators, in fact, the whole reason outsider art is appealing to consummate art insiders is that these people are somehow unsullied by the whole game, plucked from some mythologically hermetic existence. So I don’t think the phenomenon is fully analogous to what’s discussed in that essay.

  4. There are 4 images included with this article and none of them feature the 2 female artists that were included in the show. Why not?

    1. No photography was permitted, and these were the press images we got. It’s too bad, because Lee Godie’s self portrait series was one of my favorite things in the show.

  5. hey, just cause he couldn’t find it don’t mean it ain’t there, do it. he ain’t know where to find them reeeal outside the art world women…thas okay

  6. I have wondered if there are more recognized, male artists in the outsider art area because they have had more elite and pedigreed academic backgrounds. This article illustrated the work of Paul Lafolley, a Yale University trained, Guggenheim fellow. Other outsider artists like Alex Grey were trained at Harvard University as was Frank Bruno, who attended Harvard’s Design School. Joe Coleman, a widely touted outside artistr, received his formal art training at the highly regarded School of the Visual Arts in NYC. Norbert Kox, recognized as a folk artist/outsider, earned his BFA degree at the University of Wisconsin, also well regarded for its formal art training. Many women artists have not attended Yale or Harvard or SVA in NYC like these trained, male outsider artists. Perhaps all women artists, who don’t have the Harvard, Yale or SVA pedigrees that these male, outsider/self-taught artists can claim, are at a distinct disadvantage against their male counterparts, who have ivy league and often prestigious, academic credentials for their outsider and self-taught, folk art.

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