Published: February 13, 2001
Fun and a Good Histoire at the Outsider Art Fair
NEW YORK CITY – It’s hard not to have fun at the Outsider Art Fair. Maybe it’s the excrdf_Descriptionent of the crowd on opening night, which brought out hundreds of supporters for the Museum of American Folk Art and the Contemporary Center. Drinks flowed as the effusive audience snapped up choice pieces of art and hors d’oeuvre to the clackety-clack of rapping spoons and strumming instruments. About 600 guests attended the preview party on Thursday, January 25. The show ran through January 28.
Perhaps the reason the fair is so much fun is that it is so full of narrative. There is never a dull moment with so many stories about so many artists. While it is possible to disassociate the artists’ work from the artists’ life stories, most dealers love a good histoire, and so do the collectors. Sure, the art is interesting on its own, but it takes on a whole new glow when coupled with the powerful attraction we have for discoveries, oddities, and revelations. We also understand the work better in context.
The show had some basic looks woven throughout. Much of the work showed a fascination for edge to edge patterning. Some would call it elaborate and inspired doodling. In this category, the artist intensely works every inch of the surface quite obsessively. Martin Ramirez, Henry Ray Clark, Adolf Wolfli, Augustin Lesage, and many others all lavish(ed) their art with detailed and decorative surfaces.
Another major thread of the show was American folk art. Galerie St Etienne was the first gallery to discover Mary Ann Robertson (Grandma) Moses. They had a beautiful Moses painting at their booth. Other examples would be Clementine Hunter, a former field worker in Louisiana who took up painting when a guest at the plantation left behind a set of paints. Several excellent examples of her work could be found at Gilley’s Gallery of Baton Rouge, La. Shelby Gilley has written an important book on Hunter that was available at the show. Aldo Piacenza’s carved and painted wood figures were represented by Judy A. Saslow Gallery of Chicago, Ill. Folk art paintings by Mary Whitfield were shown by Galerie Bonheur of St Louis, Mo.
Art with a specific ethnic origin came on strong this year. It tends to lean toward the folk end of the scale. There were Navajo woodcarvings from Leslie Muth Gallery; Venezuelan art, drawings by expatriated Tibetan children (heart-wrenching), Lithuanian Christian shrine pieces of the Nineteenth Century, all from Galerie Bonheur; Haitian art from Galerie St Etienne, Galerie Bonheur, and Bourbon Lally. Boubon-Lally also sells voodoo rdf_Descriptions and Cuban art.
Haitian artist Pierrot Barra took plastic and rubber doll heads and attached them to handmade bodies of varying sizes, positions, and characters. All are brightly colored, some with paint, others with sequins. One could almost feel the Haitian heat and mystique radiating from these dolls. Barra died in 1999. Adjacent to his work was the nearly identical work of his wife, Marie. Art dealer Reynald Lally of Galerie Boubon-Lally, Petionville, Haiti, explained that she is carrying on the tradition, in spite of a brief year in prison. It seems she sold deadly illicit rum to a few people. Later it made me wonder… mmm… did Mr Barra ever drink the homemade hooch?
European dealers were eager participants in this year’s fair. One of the fair’s directors, Caroline Kerrigan, worked hard to bring in the Europeans. There was Wasserwerk/Galerie Lange from Siegburg, Germany; Henry Boxer of Richmond, England; and Galerie des 4 Coins, Hauterives, France. New this year were Galerie Susanne Zander of Cologne, Germany, and J.P. Ritsch-Fisch Galerie of Strasbourg, France.
Monsieur Ritsch-Fisch brought with him ”masterpieces in outsider art” from Europe, including a fine 1974 gouache on wood cutout of fantastic creatures by Jean Chatelain (d. 1988). In his booth was a magnificent Edmondson-like stone carving, circa 1986, by Joseph Barbiero. Passionate about the art he represents, Ritsch-Fisch is writing a 400-page book on French outsider art.
This brings us to yet another type of outsider art at the fair, the lone visionary whose work is entirely different than anyone else’s. Generally speaking this applies to all artists, but let’s get specific. These are the artists who are hardest to classify and easiest to spot. Henry Darger (pronounced with a hard ”g” by gallery staff) definitely fits the lone visionary mold. So does Morton Bartlett. Their work is singular.
Carl Hammer Gallery of Chicago, Ill., always has a good selection of Darger’s imaginary naked toddler girl/evil adult male soldier war scenes. They had their best fair in five years.
Marion Harris of Simsbury, Conn., made her booth into a Morton Bartlett showcase. Bartlett has been recognized as a top outsider artist within just seven years of Harris’ discovery of his work at an antiques show in New York City. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum purchased several of Bartlett’s photographs picturing his own meticulously handcrafted preadolescent dolls. Major private collectors are actively acquiring Bartlett’s figures.
The exhibition of outsider art from a single group or organization, such as the patients of the Gugging, might be a coming trend. Other programs, organizations, or institutions are likely to appear on the horizon. The Gugging is a psychiatric hospital near Vienna that has an organized arts program founded by Leo Navratil in 1981. Upon his retirement in 1986, the program was adopted by Dr Johann Feilacher. Feilacher plans to create an independent museum for the artists of the Gugging. Wasserwerk/Galerie Lange and Galerie St Etienne both brought Gugging art to the fair.
Vermont’s GRACE, active since 1975, is an American source of outsider art. The Grass Roots Art and Community Effort holds weekly art workshops, mostly for the elderly, but also for people with various mental illnesses or physical disabilities. Don Sunseri, an artist originally from New York City, started the program at the St Johnsbury Convalescent Center. GRACE provides the volunteer staff, materials, and enthusiasm to empower self-taught artists with a venue of self-expression. Margaret Bodell Gallery of New York City represented their work.
Sherry Pardee of The Pardee Collection had one of her best shows ever. The Iowa City gallery featured the mixed-media assemblages of Jim Work, a mentally disabled artist of the Midwest who cuts up his father’s junk mail and pastes the crayon-colored strips together into orderly buildings and bridges. Pardee is convinced that collectors’ taste has changed. ”Many collectors new to the field begin with folk art. Then they get more adventurous and sophisticated in what they appreciate and collect.” This was her seventh year at the fair.
Another gallery that did better than ever was Ricco Maresca of New York City. ”We have never not done well at that show [the Outsider Art Fair] and the Fall Antiques Show. If we didn’t do well then there would be something drastically wrong.” They sold three William Hawkins paintings. Two were acquired by a collector who was new to the gallery. ”This is a very encouraging thing. The fair is doing its job. The field is an expanding field.” Maresca thought the overall look of the show was improved over last year. ”Every year it gets a little better. There is less superficial material.”
Maresca sees contemporary dealers and collectors showing a new awareness of outsider art. He went on to observe that the new location of the Museum of American Folk Art which is scheduled to open December of 2001 will be at the heart of the Museum of Modern Art.
Barbara Archer, of Barbara Archer Gallery, Atlanta, Ga., also said that they had their best show ever. Art with folk allure sold very well. They sold out of Canadian artist Scott Griffin’s torched metal pieces using found metal. Archer spotted his work at Folk Fest in Atlanta. Archer noted that there was a return to older material this year, which is one of her specialties. She had one of the ”lowest priced Doyles on the floor” as well as Nellie Mae Rowe and Howard Finster. ”There was more emphasis on traditional material, David Butler, old Howard Finster, Sam Doyle. People were running thin on new material. We were going back to where we started – to what got us excited about the work in the first place.”
There was some exciting new material at the fair nonetheless. Jake Harwell made his New York City debut at the booth of Sailor’s Valentine Gallery, Nantucket, Mass. Carolyn Walsh, gallery owner, was driving on an obscure rural road in New Mexico when she saw Harwell’s sculpture and collection of machinery parts and tools carefully arranged in his outdoor constructed environment. Her booth was dominated by Harwell’s fetishes, crucifixes, wrapped and tied mummy-like figures, and masks. He takes animal hide, sticks, and bones as his raw material. Sometimes this is combined with found objects. Pale curly strips of sun-bleached hide take on new life in the way that they catch the light. It is a powerful contrast – the morbid subject and materials play against the liveliness of the sculptures themselves.
Aarne Anton of American Primitive Gallery, New York City, also brought along a new artist from New Mexico, Charles Benefiel. The normally reclusive artist was prodded by his girlfriend to take his paintings out from underneath his bed and get them to New York. Anton was floored by the work and had a sell-out show for the artist two months later. At the Outsider Art Fair, the large Benefiel paintings commanded curiosity. One painting grafted the head of an executed prisoner onto the body of a discarded doll. Another showed the artist’s body with someone else’s head. Each enormous painting was obsessively dotted out over five or six months.
While some of Benefiel’s pieces sold, American Primitive did even better with Terry Turell’s paintings, and Raymond Materson’s sewn miniatures. Turell, a self-taught artist from Seattle, used to make a living by selling his own hand-painted t-shirts. Now he is known for well-composed but still raw-looking figurative paintings that have multiple layers of paint, sometimes scraped and incised with a screwdriver.
Materson’s story is intriguing. In prison for seven years, he taught himself to sew, starting with sports team patches for his fellow prisoners. Unraveled sock yarn was readily available. Now out of prison for five years, Materson still prefers to use sock yarn. His 2 by 3-inch images are so intricate that collectors have been known to scrutinize them with a magnifying glass to get the full detail. According to Anton, there are about 1,200 stitches per inch.
Sanford Smith of Sanford Smith and Associates, originator of the Outsider Art Fair, said that attendance was up for every single day of the fair, including Friday. People were still streaming in on Friday at a half-hour to closing time. Saturday and Sunday were absolutely packed. Smith was pleased with the art that the dealers brought to the fair. ”It was the best quality overall that we have had in the nine years of the show,” said Smith. ”The fair is maturing.”
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