2000-02-05 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance

From the Outsider Fair 2000--Edmund Monsiel (untitled, 1943, pencil). Courtesy of Henry Boxer Gallery and Sanford L. Smith an Associates, Ltd.

From the Outsider Fair 2000--Denise Allen, "Harriet Tubman at Work in her Kitchen", 1998. Mixed media wall hanging courtesy of Frank J. Miele Gallery and Sanford L. Smoth and Associates, Ltd.

By Susan Hartenstein

What is "outsider art"? It is a controversial term, the very use of which is subject to debate. Coined more than 25 years ago by a British art critic, the term was meant to be the English equivalent of the French term "art brut"(raw art). This latter term was first used by artist Jean Dubuffet to designate artwork done by mental patients. In the United States the boundaries for outsider art have broadened. As defined by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, intuitive and outsider art is "work by artists who demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world, and who instead seem motivated by their unique personal visions. This definition includes art brut, non-traditional folk art, self-taught art and visionary art." Some seem to use "self-taught" as the primary criterion. As with any definition, however, lines can be blurred. What constitutes training? Does it necessarily have to be in an art school to be training? Aren’t all artists intuitive to one extent or another? How do you define "intuitive"? Last weekend I attended the Outsider Art Fair at the Puck Building, which is billed as the only art fair in the world devoted to outsider, self-taught, intuitive, art brut and visionary art. The fair displayed works from 34 international dealers. In speaking with certain dealers, I discovered that some within the field itself object to the use of the term "outsider art". Academic debates regarding precise lines of demarcation, while intellectually stimulating, can eventually become tiresome and even irrelevant. From my point of view, I found most of the work at the fair to be fresh, stimulating and quite enjoyable. Whatever imprecise verbal symbols are used to describe it, I am already looking forward to next year’s fair.

For the most part, there was a sense of exuberance about this art, a sense of abandon. There is something to be said for not training the originality out of an artist. Some of the artwork was quite disturbing, including that of mental patients. Indeed, what was so stimulating about this show was the sense that the art was "bursting out" of the artists as though it couldn’t be contained inside for another moment. This eye-opening exhibit included works of enormous originality and a full range of impulses, materials, themes and images. In evidence were conventional art materials used in unconventional ways, as well as non traditional materials, such as unraveled socks, used to create artwork. Mary Whitfield, born in Alabama, was influenced by her grandmother’s stories. She began by using house paint and plywood, but now portrays the plight of modern African-American women using rich, thick watercolor on canvas. Ed Johnson, Cooperstown real estate broker by day and painter by night, is a self-taught folk painter. In subject and style, he reminds one of Grandma Moses. For all of that, however, his work contains a certain sophistication of view. Many paintings at the exhibit had the quality of beadwork in their technique and density. Some beadwork pieces were as rich as paintings. One found examples of both these at the booth of Haitian gallery, Galerie Bourbon-Lally. These works, as was true of so much of the work at this show, used fresh, pure, bright colors. All around, one was gloriously accosted by complex patterns, images and symbols. Some of the images had a magical or religious quality. England’s Henry Boxer Gallery displayed hypnotic, disturbing "obsessive art" by artists, such as Nick Blinko, who have spent time in mental hospitals. Much of this work was marked by repeated patterns and fanatical detail. Some of the pieces at the fair exhibited a child-like simplicity yet a visual and emotional power, such as those of Freddie Brice. Brice is 80 years old, a laborer and a schizophrenic. Very impressive was the work of Denise Allen. She began doing needlework as a spiritual link to her mother, a great seamstress and practitioner of needlework, as well as a strong and loving woman. Allen’s narrative wall hangings are full of the strength and spirituality of black women like her mother. Her paintings, like her tapestries, are richly packed with figures and objects, telling her story and that of her people. Allen’s unique work contains an exciting variety of textures, colors and materials. She also makes dolls. An exhibition of her artistry can be seen at the Frank J. Miele Gallery, 1086 Madison avenue, from February 29 through March 25.

Paintings, needlework, dolls, masks, photographs, carvings, collages, reliefs, etc., etc. The annual Outsider Fair boasts a wide variety of exciting work worth seeing, no matter what the verbal designation may be.

Enjoy, and return here next week to celebrate Valentine’s Day with us.

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