What Is “Outsider” in Unthinkable Times?

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Art’s uplifting power is unmistakably real; today, the works of the most original autodidacts feel more compelling than ever.

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It’s that time of year again, when the annual Outsider Art Fair pitches its big tent in downtown Manhattan, and its exhibitors roll out multicolored welcome mats, throwing open treasure chests filled with their latest discoveries from around the world: paintings, drawings, carvings, sculptures, and peculiar whatchamacallits in an array of forms and media.

Each arrival of this fair inevitably stokes the fires of now-familiar — and sometimes tired-sounding — debates surrounding which hard-to-classify concoctions from self-taught art-makers, situated by choice or circumstances on the margins of mainstream society and culture, can rightly be labeled “outsider art.” Get ready, too, for the usual gabfests around such perennial bugaboos as the notion that the “outsider” label is inherently derogatory, or that even the most reputable dealers are unethical exploiters of naïf art-makers whose works they bring to market.

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But forget the squabbling about who or what might rightly be considered “outside.” Outside what? Much more interesting now, in a world in which fascism is on the rise, including in the United States, where a would-be president-king exemplifies the textbook definition of corrupt, autocratic, lawless rule, is the question of just where the “mainstream” is to be found. For, more and more, what was once edgy, out there, or unthinkable, from S&M to routine mass shootings, has become the stuff of sitcoms and ho-hum headlines.

Against this backdrop, the best outsider artworks offer not just an escape from the darkness of a soul-crushing moment, but also the solace (or deliverance) that emerges from this kind of art’s inherent truths. To discover — and seize upon — them is to find anchors in a storm.

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Hassan, “Untitled” (ca. 2010–11), mixed media on wood, 8.5 x 12 inches (photo courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery)

Such compelling emotional power is particularly evident in the fair’s array of drawings — a mainstay of the art brut and outsider art genres. New York dealer Julie Saul will feature some in ballpoint-pen and marker inks by the Mexico City resident Mario Mendoza Alpizar, who, from the 1930s through the 1980s, made caricatures of celebrities and urban characters, as well as images of animals. Mendoza’s work was discovered by the American art historian James Oles, a specialist in Mexican modern art who teaches at Wellesley College. In a gallery handout, Oles has written a summary of what is known of Mendoza’s life, noting that the artist once “self-deprecatingly identifie[d] himself as a ‘bungling amateur draughtsman with pretensions of being an artist.’”

Dealer Scott Ogden of the Lower East Side’s Shrine recently found a cache of never-before-seen drawings and paintings by patients at northern London’s now-defunct Friern Hospital (formerly known as the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, its buildings have been transformed into housing). Produced between 1930 and 1960, these works caught the attention of the hospital’s head psychiatrist, Alec C. Dalzell, who had been influenced by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Shrine’s offerings include pictures in various media, including Lily Gibeon’s almost psychedelic cats in gouache on paper.

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Issei Nishimura, “Copy” (2013), acrylic, colored gesso, and linen on plywood, 28.74 x 20.87 inches (photo courtesy Cavin-Morris Gallery)

Northern California’s Creative Growth Art Center, which introduced such crossover outsider-to-contemporary-art-market stars as Dan Miller and the late Judith Scott, will show drawings and totem-shaped ceramics by Dinah Shapiro, works whose compositions seem to emerge organically and construct themselves. From Paris, dealer Hervé Perdriolle will showcase boldly colored, oil-on-wood nature scenes by the Moroccan Ali Maimoune, which bring to mind the earth-honoring spiritualism of the paintings of the late Jamaican Intuitive Everald Brown (1917-2003). Perdriolle will also feature meditative, pencil-on-paper drawings by the singer Paban Das Baul, a mystic minstrel from the Indian state of West Bengal.

Bold, too, are the pictures of flat-topped, neatly rectangular houses or studiously perspectival pieces of modernist furniture created by Ousseynou Gassama, an itinerant Senegalese artist known as “Hassan,” who was last spotted around the port of Barcelona; his exact whereabouts are still unknown. New York’s Ricco/Maresca Gallery will present his mixed-media-on-wood paintings, which share some affinities with the ink-on-paper architectural drawings of the contemporary British self-taught artist Albert, who uses only one name, and whose works are represented by Henry Boxer, a London-based dealer and longtime OAF exhibitor.

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Angelika, “Toy for Big and Small Children” (ca. 1940s), pencil on found paper, 4.50 x 4.25 inches (photo courtesy Henry Boxer Gallery)

Like many of his colleagues in the field, Boxer delights in — and counts on being able to deliver — surprises, and this year he will show, among other offerings, detailed drawings in pencil on found scraps of paper by a mediumistic artist known as “Angelika,” who resided at a psychiatric hospital in Potsdam in the 1940s. Her undated “Double Self-driving Lamp with Clock” and “Toy for Big and Small Children” depict just two of the contraptions she conjured up while the spirit moved her.

Over in the extra-bold category, look for the psychologically charged, drippy-trippy, semi-abstract tableaux in various media of the Japanese artist Issei Nishimura, a reclusive painter and prolific maker of drawings who lives in Nagoya, the center of Japan’s automotive industry. Sometimes inspired by American blues music, each of Nishimura’s images (a ribbon-like tongue dangling from a face or what appears to be the back of a head covered with eyeballs) is more unusual than the next. Cavin-Morris Gallery will be showing them at the fair for the first time, along with tempera-on-paper paintings by Tarcisio Merati (1934–1995), a technical draftsman and schizophrenic from the Bergamo area of northern Italy, whose mysterious, mechanical-architectural forms seem to hover in pictorial space like big balloons above unknown landscapes. Another Italian, Elisabetta Zangrandi (James Barron Art) from Verona, comes from a background as an embroiderer and nature lover — she sometimes paints rocks that she finds while hiking — to make big-eyed, acrylic-on-wood fantasy portraits set against multicolored backgrounds.

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Elisabetta Zangrandi, “Regine dell’oceano” (undated), acrylic on wood, 15 x 29 inches (photo courtesy James Barron Art)

Sharing the spirit of these artists’ electric palettes are the exuberant abstractions in ink, gouache, and acrylic on paper of Queen Nancy Bell, a Philadelphia-based artist whose business card reads, “Done by the fingertips of Jesus, the fingertips of Jehovah, and the gospel of the Holy Spirit, amen. Master artist ordained by the churches.” Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman will bring them to the fair, while Galerie Gugging, part of the Art Brut Center Gugging, near Vienna, will highlight the work of the Austrian Heinrich Reisenbauer, whose Pop-flavored drawings in pencil and colored pencil on paper, or in Sharpie pen and acrylic on canvas, depict neat, repeated rows of drums, pears, apples, and other everyday subjects.

Among sculptural works, the independent dealer Chris Byrne will show those of Kambel Smith, who uses found cardboard, Foamcore, and other materials to make small-scale replicas of Philadelphia’s historical buildings. Byrne says that he “literally stumbled upon” Smith’s creations in the yard of the young artist’s home in Germantown, a neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Veteran New York dealer Aarne Anton’s American Primitive Gallery will show mixed-media objects by Zebedee B. Armstrong (1911-1993), an artist who lived in Georgia and became known for making various forms of doomsday calendars. Norman Brosterman, a dealer from Long Island, will present recently discovered assemblages made with assorted found materials, including action figures and other toys, by the Staten Island resident John Foxell (1944-2016), who suffered from PTSD after witnessing up close the September 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center.

With a large exhibition now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and a new monograph from 5 Continents, a Milan-based art-books publisher, the definitive American outsider artist Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949) is enjoying a critical lovefest; the California gallery Just Folk, fresh from its acquisition of a private collection of Traylor drawings, will be featuring them at the fair. Look for Traylor’s pig on brown cardboard, whose tar-black, squarish form could hold its own next to a modernist, abstract drawing by, say, Richard Serra or Al Held. For admirers of other American classics, Chicago’s Carl Hammer will bring a selection of Joseph Yoakum’s landscape drawings, in which the earth undulates and swirls.

Last year, the Tokyo dealer Yukiko Koide introduced the drawings of Yuichiro Ukai, whose compositions are densely packed with historical figures, insects, and strange animals. This time she will bring his newest pictures, along with, for reference, a rare Yoshitora Utagawa ukiyo-e woodblock print, whose centuries-old monsters serve as inspiration for Ukai’s spooky-weird confections.

Late last September, Phyllis Kind, a doyenne of the outsider art field in the United States, died at the age of 85. Kind, who operated galleries in Chicago and New York, was the first dealer to show self-taught artists’ works alongside those of their cutting-edge, school-trained contemporary peers.

For this year’s fair, as a specialist in the field who knew Kind and was familiar with her archive, I was asked to organize a small exhibition looking back on her long, influential career. It will feature works by some of the artists she represented or collected, in particular those

that informed her understanding of art brut and outsider art. Out of the vaults will come rarely seen works by Howard Finster, Ray Yoshida, and Roger Brown. (The latter two Chicago artists were major collectors of self-taught artists’ works, folk art, objects from indigenous cultures, and offbeat, pop-cultural stuff.)

Kind, who closed her New York gallery in 2009 (she had shuttered her Chicago venue earlier), perhaps unwittingly helped pave the way for what is recognized today as the more intentional “crossover” between the marketing of outsider or self-taught artists’ works and those of modern and contemporary artists. While she celebrated wide-ranging, catholic tastes, she also routinely warned against losing what makes art brut and outsider art special as a result of well-meaning boundary-blurring. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” she often said.

Offering his take on the pulse of outsider art’s specialized market — its trends and concerns — the longtime New York dealer Randall Morris, a co-director of Cavin-Morris Gallery who is now considered a doyen of the field, observed, “I feel that the time has come to stop buying artists by name and instead to look at the work and buy the best examples from each artist. The field seems to have grown on generalities of definition, but looking closely and carefully at galleries tells you which dealers are just generic merchandisers, and which ones have an agenda of connoisseurship.”

In addition, co-director Shari Cavin pointed out that “shoving art brut/self-taught art/outsider art into the contemporary-art department shuts the door on the identities of these artists and ultimately on our understanding of their creations. Their art is just as good as contemporary art, but its wellspring is different.”

Apparently, as the OAF’s growing popularity demonstrates, so is its impact. Now, at a time when so much seems to be fleeting or already lost, or at best feels uncertain and vulnerable, outsider art’s vivid evocation of humanity’s abiding creative impulse may largely help explain its enduring — and increasing — allure.

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The Outsider Art Fair takes place at Metropolitan Pavilion (125 West 18th Street, Manhattan) from January 17-20.