New York’s 27th Annual Outsider Art Fair offers consolation from the cold as it kicks off a new season of art fairs in the city. I love it: The Outsider Art Fair is a festival of the bizarre, the obsessive, the unexpected and the just plain compelling. I think I remember seeing many years ago, a Madonna made from bottle caps, and that sticks in my head as the stereotypical piece of outsider art. This year, though, I saw something even better along the same lines: a miniature
Outsider Art comes from many quarters these days. Originally, it was the art emerging from mental institutions and prisons, but today it includes works by untutored, self-taught artists as well as vernacular (“home-made”) art whose creators are often unknown. An example of the latter was the “Memory Jugs (Pots and Vessels)” from the late 19 Century, that the Hill Gallery of Birmingham, Michigan, displayed. These were often found buried like personal time capsules, over a century later, in various parts of the country.
There’s often a satirical theme to this art, which is obvious in Mosely’s Last McSupper, but sometimes appears more subtly in the style itself, as in the paintings by autistic Japanese artist Yuichiro Ukai at Yokiko Koide Presents out of Tokyo. Ukai overfills his canvases with Samurai warriors and and other Japanese historical classics, along with dragons and various of fanciful beasts. Appreciation requires focused study, but this is amply rewarded by his humorous takes on these pompous characters.
Many works in the show reveal the amateur status of their creators. But some show such masterful execution of form and idea that it’s easy to forget that they were created by entirely self-taught artists. A series of pieces by Angus Warren at Wilsonville gallery stand could easily have been mistaken by works of late surrealists, such as this one, Rose Garden #2:
As sophisticated as that work is, the same stand also featured three “found” images in symmetrically split wood grain (with added details), for example, this faintly erotic torso in wood and paint by Francisco Zapeta:
A very different kind of outsider art comes from works created out of materials that have rich historical resonance, such as these composite fabrics (quilts?) made from work garments worked nearly threadbare by Japanese farmers over 100 years ago during the Edo period, called Boro Textiles. They were on display at the Atsouko Barouh gallery stand (Tokyo & Paris). The imperfections are their source of beauty of course. Apparently, they were sewn together by their anonymous owners and recovered in recent times.
Outsider Art has a number of well-known stars who are perennials at the Fair: Henry Darger (1892–1973), who early in the 20th Century made endless watercolors of armies of little blond girls with penises in confrontation with evil masked soldiers; Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), Swiss outsider artist noted for his complex, meticulous, and colorful geometrical drawings; and Howard Finster (1916–2001) naïve American artist who realized his spiritual visions in paint. All were represented at this year’s fair. But another artist seems to be on the verge of being accepted into this exclusive canon: Robert Kipper (1944–2017) New York bus driver by day, he painted his violent, sexually soaked nightmares in garish colors on huge canvases on his own time, which he never showed during his lifetime. His work was only discovered when the city inventoried his residence and discovered this amazing cache. Humbaba Fine Art has been showing them only since 2017, but the fascination of a posthumous discovery, his reputed temper and reclusiveness, the thematic violence, strong colors, huge canvases, and not unsophisticated technique have combined to attract enormous attention.
I’m always fascinated at the obsessiveness of much of the art one sees in the outsider, naïve, and visionary categories. These artists were pursuing visions, not careers or financial success. They don’t necessarily have an audience in mind, so we’re often looking over their shoulder at work they do for simply their own satisfaction. Sometimes, however, untrained, self-taught artists can rise to levels of great acclaim—yet they don’t lose their quality of obsessiveness. They still seem to pack far more than necessary in their works, demanding intense attention on the part of the viewer. But this is exactly what delights their admirers.
Two such examples at this year’s show were Joe Coleman (b. 1955) and Anne Marie Grgich. Coleman, who is also a performance artist and idiosyncratic collector, plunges headlong into the dark side of Americana with an archaic tinge: carney culture, sensational journalism, a range of oddities, and he crowds his artistic space with an overflow of images, large and small. There is no negative space. His composite works flood the eye and often benefit from a magnifying glass.
Anne Marie Grgich, on the other hand, combines illustration with collage to create art books of her work, one-offs that often reference classic art, but spend most of their pages in her fantastic creations.
This is only a sample of the amazing variety of works shown by the 65 exhibitors at this year’s Outsider Art Fair. It’s not a large fair, but the pleasures are rich and filled with the unexpected. Outsider are, sometimes called visionary art, and overlapping with folk art, can be seen in galleries and sometimes fairs all around the country and around the world. If you’re not already a fan, I hope this excursion whets your appetite for this category of art—and who knows? if you’re not already an artist, you might pick up a paintbrush or a piece of clay and do something bizarre or profound yourself.