What is Outsider Art? This is a question that I posed to many of the galleries and even founding director Sanford Smith of The Outsider Art Fair as it celebrates its 20th Year. This past Friday evening, I ran around the venue of 7 West 34th Street, soon to be home of Volta, with Art Advisor and visionary Rakien Nomura and found myself ruminating over this question. Outsider art also known as Art Brut, was first coined by artist Jean Dubuffet and isn’t necessarily my favorite genre, however I know some artists who identify with this title and I have always had a penchant for the quirky and beautifully disturbing drawings of Henry Darger. Darger, I learned, is somewhat of a pop icon within the outsider art movement. But first things first, if there are outsider artists, this means of course that there are insiders, those who either have set a certain standard or are members of a club that many can’t join. Is this what outsider means? All art is contemporary as it comes to fruition, however there are categories that define art into various systematic realms which fall between high-brow and low-brow. Outsider art is ostensibly low-brow.
Walking around the fair I couldn’t help but notice the stylistic differences varying from booth to booth. Most of the artwork has a certain naïveté that comes with being untrained. It is an unbridled innocence that unlike an artist such as Picasso, doesn’t come from years of training and following in the deconstruction of ones practice. There is a purity in the work that the art community at large might not necessarily equate with being good, but that is entirely another conversation. When it comes down to it, people like to buy art and most buy whatever it is they find appealing. Collectors come in all different shapes and sizes as do their tastes and from what I heard while walking around the fair, work is selling.
Some of the featured artwork felt much more realized than others. Such is the case with the dapper gents who sat representing the Red Truck Gallery based in New Orleans. The painting shown above, is a surrealistic narrative love affair between an astronaut and a mermaid. The artist has obviously honed in on his craft and the style of the piece resonates visually and thematically with tattoo culture. It is here, hidden in the term “narrative” where my conversation with Dealer Stephen Romano comes into play. When asked to define outsider art, we started to have what could have been quite a long conversation. Something that I latched on to, was his determining that the narrative is more important than the execution or the piece itself. In this day and age, most contemporary artists shiver at the use of the term narrative, so it makes sense that an outsider artist would embrace it. Several of the galleries present, including the booth of RHD (Resources for Human Development), whom Mr. Nomura represented and assisted in facilitating their presence at the fair, featured artists with severe mental and physical disabilities. A woman whom I spoke with who is the director of Oasis Art Center in Philadelphia and associated with RHD, Pat Lyons, said that she has been present for much of the art making process and that for her outsider art is “the authenticity of tapping into a joyous simplicity”. For many individuals who remain outside of society either due to physical and mental restraints, or even incarceration, the act of making something regardless of skill level or background lends itself to a form of communication even in the most rudimentary terms. For the general public, social networking is a tool that once unlocked opens the door leading to possibilities in a world ripe with global communication. According to Stephan Romano, this social skill is a continuum that is taught to young artists with fervor in an academic setting however outsider artists never have this chance and instead of discovering an asset, are faced with challenges and obstacles, which for the average person are not far out of reach. In the end, a determination can be surmised that art is going to be executed, it will be made and sold, regardless of labels, educational training and social status everyone has a chance to find his/her own niche whether you land outside or inside the box.