Sunday, January 29, 2017

25 Years of the Outsider Art Fair

I need to start out with a correction.  Last week spell checker changed the spelling of  Valentin de Boulogne in every one of my uses and though corrected later should not have escaped me in the first place.  Profuse apologies to all.

Now to the subject at hand, the Outsider Art Fair that I saw recently in New York. What is Outsider Art?  It is still a strange term to many and difficult to translate.  The simplest definition is that it is work by non-formally trained artists, ones untainted by a formal arts education. This definition allows for a great deal of latitude in the choices and it is up to a dealer, or better yet an art fair, to convince collectors that they should be interested.

An old line among dealers is that their clients buy with their ears not with their eyes but I choose to believe that it is a combination of both.  For instance, one image that grabbed me as soon as I came into the Fair was a message printed on a number of grids:“The Next 100 Years Enough for All…  RENEWABLE  There Are Disasters Every Day, Don’t Worry You Will Find Your Day. Keep the Faith. Change Come so Pick a Day”.  The grids are like tiny calendars and the big disaster is a drawing of a ship with more verbiage in part “Titanic Fate Just Ain’t Goinna to Wait”.   The work is by George Widener, not surprisingly called “Renewable”, and was created last year exhibited by the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York.  I was startled by the relatively high price on the piece and decided to take a look on line.   What a fascinating story.   

It is not that unusual to find some of your best outsider artists among the mentally ill as in this case where Widener has autistic issues.  Sometimes when the artist is in a mental institution it is their doctors who keep track of their work and date the pieces they create.


Fred Giampietro Gallery of New Haven, Connecticut showed a picture by a Tattoo Artist working like crazy on this woman’s body leaving no stone unturned.  It was a trade sign for the Orsini Long Beach Tattoo Shop.  Al Orsini was also the creator of this work that he painted in 1960.  The sign shows many of the choices you could pick from for your tattoo.  It was clearly produced by an artist of a different sort who knew how to express the possibilities of his day job.


Gerlerie HervĂ© Perdriolle from Paris did a small show, “Website: India 20 Years of Passion”.  The Warli Tribe located near Bombay use a very simple artistic vocabulary and describe themselves as Farmers and Painters.  This is one of my problems with the nomenclature of Outsider Art because by this definition I see no difference between the Warli Tribe or the Hopi Tribe in Northern Arizona who are Native American artists and farmers but they would not consider their work “outsider” because it is within their own tradition.  However while the Warli have a  far more limited artistic vocabulary, the Hopi create their art in many media with varied subject matter.

Terry Turrell is a self taught artist.  He was a junkman and often uses found materials in his art.  He is in his mid 60’s and lives in Idaho with many animals.  In the booth of American Primitive from New York there were many animal pictures by the artist but this one had a very Edward Hicks “Peaceable Kingdom” quality to it, American primitive, if you will.


There was one Outsider exhibit devoted to a group that you may be more familiar with. It is the Quilt Makers of Gee Bend, a community of about 700 on a small piece of land surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River.  They hold a prominent role in African American art history having created these quilts since the beginning of the 20th century and many of them being descendants of slaves.  There have been exhibitions of there work at a number of major museums. 

Though Outsider Art is an amorphous term that catches a lot of art in its net, it is a fascinating field that captures the imagination.

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