Sunday, January 31, 2016

Is Outsider Art In?

What is Outsider Art?  Jean Dubuffet the well-known French Artist coined the term “Art Brut”, the precursor of Outsider Art.  in his words "We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part (contrary to the activities of intellectuals). These artists derive everything...from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art."  Putting that simply it is an artist who has had no formal training.  In 1972 the art critic Roger Cardinal wrote the first book in English championing Art Brut and titled it, “Outsider Art”.

I wrote a Missive in 2013 about the Outsider Art Fair. The fair was started 24 years ago and it seems to have become more insider than outsider.  The recent New York Times Review of the Fair by Ken Johnson brings up a good question of whether Outsider Art has gone, or should go, mainstream.   I believe just asking the question demonstrates that it already has.  If that is not enough one of the world’s major auction houses, Christie’s, just held an auction of Outsider Art showing that there is a significant audience that people might bid against each other to acquire a piece!

Christie’s called its sale in New York Liberation Through Expression: Outsider and Vernacular Art and their website even had an article and “hot list” ... dealers are not the only ones who hype their art!  But part of hype, like lobbying, is educational as well.  Going to a fair and then seeing what you like at auction gives you a chance to educate your eye.  For the most part Outsider Art will be less expensive than the established masters but, since art is not necessarily a good investment, as always you should buy only what you like.

Looking into this subject I found, books, blogs, websites, museums and galleries that focus on Outsider Art.  Sometimes these are combined with Folk Art, art of the people and usually by not formally trained artists.  To put a fine point on this, Barbara Hoffman’s headline in the New York Post for her article on the Outsider Art Fair this past month read, “The Artists at this Amazing Fair are Prisoners, Janitors and Mental Patients.”  We all try to pigeonhole everything so our brains can simplify and cope with a subject.  In my opinion, that just doesn’t work for art.  You need to take it for what it is and then you can try to define it later.

As you probably know by now over the past decades my wife and I have been collecting Native American Art.  Is it folk art? or outsider art?  Many of the artists particularly of earlier generations did not have formal art school training yet they had the best training as the old masters did as apprentices to their mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles as well as grandparents.  We have a simple definition for them… they are artists.

I did not go to the Outsider Art Fair in New York and as it turned out with their 3 feet of snow I probably would not have made it anyway but here are a few images that I found intriguing on line.  Alanna Martinez covered the fair for the  One of the pieces she featured was by Charles Vincent Sabba, a former New Jersey police officer who is best known for a series of fingerprint drawings known as “The Wall of Resistance”.  He used the same ink that he had used on duty to take fingerprints and the images relate to his cases.  Part of his series can be seen here with more of his biography. In the fair the Y Gallery also exhibited a full-fledged painting by Sabba, “After Frida: La Fuga di Actaeon e Frida”.   I find a primitive strength in it like Henri (Le Duanier) Rousseau.

Andrew Edlin took over the Outsider Art Fair from it’s founder Sanford Smith 4 years ago.  He is also an art dealer and he exhibited a sculpture by the proprietor of a New Jersey junkyard, Albert Hoffman,  a prolific wood sculptor. It is a scaly, winged “Dragon,” carved in 1976 from a piece of spruce more than four feet long.  It looks as though it’s about to leap off its pedestal.

AndrĂ© Robillard, is a French artist who because of mental problems was put in an institution.  He also had an outside job and would visit local junkyards where he collected guns and other found objects Thierry Goldberg Gallery exhibited Robillard’s “Pistolet” of 2012.

Obviously you cannot judge art on the basis of the training an artist has had.  Having gone to Harvard does not guarantee success any more than having gone to the Rhode Island School of Design.  What makes these artists special is that their art speaks to us no matter their training.

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