Published: February 4, 2003
By Carol Sims
NEW YORK CITY — Now in its eleventh year, , January 22-26, offered up what may now be called the crème de la crème of outsider art alongside unknown artists who are just being introduced to collectors.
This dichotomy of established and unknown, expensive and inexpensive, museum quality presentation of art and informal stick-it-on-the-wall simplicity — is what keeps the fair interesting. It is a show of contrasts that inspires a whole generation of speculative theory. Where is this going, and who will be the next generation of museum-quality outsiders be?
Heralded by show directors Caroline Kerrigan and Colin Lynch Smith of Sanford L. Smith & Associates, Ltd, as their most international of fairs to date, there were 32 dealers from six countries this year. Large booth spaces made for luxuriant gallery exhibitions.
Gallery Herenplaats of Rotterdam was a first-time exhibitor at the fair. The gallery brought several pieces by a painter named Jaco Kranendonk. His painterly cityscapes were expressionistic without losing their imagery entirely. Hovering between freedom and restraint, the colorful paintings of Rotterdam all depicted real views of bridges, roads, ships, buildings…
Kranendonk paintings were a good value. “Lijn 10 op de Blaak” measured 50 by 65 centimeters and was priced at $1,200. His work did not need “a story” to sell, but as with many artists represented at the fair, Kranendonk has had a history of mental illness. When he began painting at Atelier Herenplaats in 1991 a new life of productive creativity opened up for him. His work stands up well no matter what yardstick is used.
Incarcerated in a Russian mental health institution, Alexandre Lobanov conjures up self portraits that picture him holding fantastic guns. His intent stare and armed posture intrigued and threatened simultaneously. His elaborate paintings were presented by Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne, Germany.
Berenberg Gallery, Boston, brought several of Canadian artist Scott Griffin’s “welded” drawings of planes, swimmers, a school bus and other themes. The artist burns his drawings with a welder onto found painted pieces of scrap metal. The drawing was simple and powerful and as art objects, Griffin’s work had great appeal.
Art + Community sells art from several New England and Northeastern studio art/social programs that are designed to make life better for people. With an activist’s zeal, dealer Margaret Bodell exclaimed, “We are all contributing, productive, living in the moment. Dayhab is dead.” This was a good place for beginning collectors to get their feet wet. Among dozens of other artists, she offered paintings with text on the back by Jean Gawleen, an elderly artist with an extended family that exists only in her mind and art.
Jennifer Pinto Safian of New York City specializes in top tier European outsiders such as Adolf Wolfli who was one of the institutionalized artists promoted by Jean Dubuffet. It was French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), a revolutionary thinker, who recognized that quality art could be produced in the most adverse conditions, and come from the most unlikely sources. He saw things that others overlooked and was inspired by the intrinsic value of a piece of art.
Gallery owner Jennifer Safian remembers meeting Dubuffet as a teenager in France because her parents were collectors in the 1950s and 60s. “He scared me. He had piercing eyes,” recalled Safian. It was Dubuffet who first introduced her to the concept of Art Brut. Along with Andre Breton, Dubuffet had formed La Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1945 to promote self-taught artists who were isolated from the mainstream for one reason or another.
In the midst of writing her thesis on Dubuffet’s Art Brut, Safian vowed to herself, “One day I will own a Wolfli.” That came true in the mid 80s. Besides having Wolflis at her booth, Safian had three large rare Aloise Corbaz paintings, “one of the most important artists discovered by Dubuffet.”
Unconventional materials and quirky techniques are an important aspect to the art at this fair, exemplified by Raymond Materson’s embroidered miniatures at American Primitive. First he unravels socks, then, he sews the sock yarn into minute images that have a soft clarity. The technique does not get in the way of the poignancy of the images themselves. American Primitive Gallery also brought several pieces by Terry Turrell and Larry Calkins. Fascinated with the elevated status and rare usage of christening dresses, Calkins’s elongated garment emulations are instantly recognizable.
Much of has the comfortable allure of familiarity — dealers taking up their customary positions, bringing the artists for whom they are known, building on relationships (with artists and collectors) that have evolved over the years. Most people attending the fair will easily identify the stunning Henry Darger paintings at Carl Hammer Gallery and scattered throughout the show. (Galerie St Etienne also had a huge Darger piece that leaned toward innocent pictorial beauty). Other big names such as Bill Traylor, William Hawkins, William Edmondson were beacons of familiarity.
Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York City, presented several William Edmondson limestone sculptures, strong pieces with a solid, honest presence. Frank Maresca’s favorite piece at his booth was Edmondson’s “Three Birds” circa 1932-40. “You can’t keep the best and sell next to the best. I don’t think you can be both a dealer and a collector,” said Maresca. At $225,000 “Three Birds” was one of the more valuable pieces on the floor.
Many of the dealers at the fair, like Maresca, are in close contact with the some of the artists they represent. Ken Grimes, represented by Ricco/Maresca for 12 years, calls the gallery daily — sometimes three or four times a day. Grimes is a well-known fixture at the Yale library and always has some new bit of information to share. He is a staunch believer in extraterrestrials, and his large, untitled binary painting of 2002 reflects his talent for graphic mathematics.
While at present a relatively small segment of the art market, the dealers and collectors of self-taught, visionary, outsider art are as passionate about the art as the artists themselves. What started in the 1940s is gathering momentum. Frank Maresca likened collecting outsider art to trying an oyster for the first time. “You want to try it again, and pretty soon you can’t get enough.”
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