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Bringing the Outside In: Artists Outside the Mainstream Move to Center Stage

March 20, 2014
by Oliver Guy
image of an artist

Every two years the Venetian canals echo to the sound of art world back-slapping, chin-stroking, and partying. But the Venice Biennale 2013 was a very different beast. The curator even called it “a rapture.” For a moment, it seemed, the art world got off the merry-go-round and acknowledged the “outsiders” in its midst.

For the first time, the work of those operating outside the structure of the traditional art mainstream—suffering from mental illness, living with learning difficulties, or just self-taught hobbyists—were front and center at the biggest and most prestigious gathering of the contemporary art world. A once-small tributary of curious artists and curiouser collectors had swelled to a torrent, thanks to progressive programs, adventurous dealers, and welcoming shows.

Frankenstein on a runway

“Outsider art” is a clunky term even at the best of times, and the art itself has been through many incarnations over the decades. From artists in asylums, through art brut and the surrealists’ experiments in sub-conscious art, all the way through to folk art and the amateurs beyond. In the crucible of the 1960s Bay Area, psychologist Elias Katz and his wife, artist and educator Florence Ludens-Katz, took the idea to a new level by establishing studios where people with developmental challenges would be mentored by artists with a background in human services. The first of these, Oakland’s Creative Growth, is celebrating its 40th birthday in April with a fashion show at the Berkeley Art Museum.

After decades of rumbling appreciation, the artwork of the untrained and self-taught has arrived—witness its inclusion in and admiration by 2013’s Venice Biennale. This was no longer a freak show, nor was it tucked into a dimly lit corner—it was the crowning glory. Curator Massimiliano Gioni’s vision for the central exhibition drew heavily from the work of car mechanic and hobby architect Marino Auriti, who envisioned a 136-floor museum, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), where all worldly knowledge and culture could be assembled and displayed. Gioni explains, “Auriti’s plan was never carried out, of course, but the dream of universal, all-embracing knowledge crops up throughout the history of art and humanity.” It is the outsiders and eccentrics who, Gioni continues, “have tried to fashion an image of the world that will capture its infinite variety and richness.”

Gioni’s realization of Auriti’s dream was like a modern-day cabinet of curiosities where magic, science, and man-made and natural wonders sit next to works by artists with little or no academic background. “By blurring the line between professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders, the exhibition takes an anthropological approach to the study of images.”

It’s fairly recent that the level of critical acclaim and public engagement has been so sustained (though the Outsider Art Fair has been running since 1993). Like all battles for equality or credibility, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

One pacemaker of note is The Museum of Everything, which describes itself as “a world-famous wandering space for unintentional, untrained, undiscovered, unclassifiable, unknowable, undeniable, and unforgettable artists of modern times.” The emergence of The Museum of Everything has probably been the most groundbreaking proponent of late, laying firm foundations for the Venice “moment.” Indeed, the museum was invited by Gioni to show the work of the late Italian recluse Carlo Zinelli in one of the pavilions, cheekily called Il Palazzo di Everything.

Started in 2009, The Museum of Everything has no base, takes no government funding, and has toured its ever-mutating exhibitions throughout Europe. It acquires works as it goes, showing them in a seemingly chaotic fashion that mirrors the circus-like temporary setting (past venues have included disused libraries and former dairies). This whimsicality has won over the wider public and provides an antidote to the white-walled sterility of many contemporary galleries, which often only welcome the knowledgeable or the moneyed.

The work in the shows ranges from homemade seashell grottos to Walter Potter’s anthropomorphized stuffed animals. Some works are touching and have an obsessive streak, not uncommon in the greater art world—for example, the work of Muscovite Victor Beraksky, who has drawn the same gardens and trees every day for the last 15 years, documenting the subtle shifts in light, weather, and season. Not unlike Frank Auerbach’s Mornington Crescent pictures, Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, or David Hockney’s recent East Yorkshire set, A Bigger Picture.

Roger Ricco, the director of Ricco Maresca gallery in New York, agrees that blurring the line between the classically trained and the supposed outsiders is the way forward. A dealer and champion of self-taught art since the late 1970s, he explains, “We try to mix it up at every opportunity we get now. Whether we’re doing a contemporary art fair like Armory or Art Basel, we will take a bunch of contemporary artists like Milton Avery and place it next to work from Creative Growth. “

Emily Duffy, who earned a fine arts degree from Berkeley in 1993, is both advocate and exemplum of this cross-pollination between trained and untrained artists. She highlights the work being done by Rebecca Hoffberger at The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, where visionary works by amateurs and professionals sit happily side by side, including Duffy’s own work, BraBall. “Someone like myself,” she says, “with training but with work that’s outside the commercial art world, even perhaps poking at it, can fit in with their eclectic holdings. Of that I’m extremely grateful.” The BraBall is an 1,800-pound ball made of brassieres—a collaboration between Duffy and hundreds of bra donors. Duffy describes the work as “whimsical and weird, yet it deals with some very emotional and difficult issues. Few other American museums would have the courage to show such a piece and I’m very happy Rebecca felt BraBall would fit into their permanent collection.”

So with all this line-blurring and cross-pollinating, what’s behind the uptick in sales and industry fervor? Aside from the critical acclaim of recent shows in Europe and the high-profile programs in the United States, is something else afoot?

British contemporary artist Neal Jones believes that there might be a cultural dynamic at play. “A good collector will have noticed that industrial life and the 20th-century platitudes are truly ‘primitive,’ just as insider culture is now predictable and grim. ‘Outsider’ art has come to be a last wilderness, as ‘exotic’ as Africa, but more trashy and ‘mad.’ It’s a wild zone of contemporary detritus and misinterpretation, a kind of Wild West—still open and free. So perhaps it’s not a fad or fetish after all—it’s just sensible.”

Hoffberger sounded a note of caution, though. “The work wasn’t made with the intention of, ‘Will it get in the Biennale?’ It’s very nice that it’s in there, but at the same time, I don’t think it should be part of that ‘Oh what’s the market doing?’ because then it’s like financial stocks. You should love it because it inspires you, not because someone says it’s OK to love it now because it’s selling big!”

“Every­body has a men­tal health is­sue—it’s a ques­tion of de­gree. Once you un­der­stand that, you take a step back in­to cre­ativ­ity and reas­ons for mak­ing.”

And indeed, the auction houses are struggling with this emboldened market. As Robert Manley of Christie’s New York auction house revealed, “A while ago we were going to create a whole new auction category for outsider art. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough investors or speculators willing to fuel the market by reselling. The collectors are almost as obsessive as the artists they collect. They love the work they have and they keep it.”

But whichever way the market goes post-Venice, one thing seems certain: the debunking of the “madness myth.” The seemingly inextricable link between back-stories filled with mental torment, and the art of the “outsider,” has been severed.

Even that misbegotten word outsider is being openly challenged. Peter Cavagnaro is the media relations manager of BAM, which will host a Forrest Bess exhibition in June. He points out, “Some might consider Bess and Creative Growth outsider art, while others would not. Many disavow the term altogether. It’s not something [show organizer] the Menil Collection or we would put in our materials, so you’ll have to make your own interpretation about what is and what isn’t.”

James Brett, of The Museum of Everything, admitted, “I loved the word outsider at the beginning, because I associated it with me as I can be weird. I like that weirdness, but the more I looked into it, the more I thought this can’t be correct.”

“The key issue,” he continued, “is to say, look, who’s crazy? Who’s disabled? Who’s able? Why do we think if someone has a mental health issue that it’s a cut and dry thing? Everybody has a mental health issue—it’s a question of degree. Once you understand that, you take a step back into creativity and reasons for making.”

However, Neal Jones believes acceptance is still a way off. “We haven’t even got to grips with cubism yet, never mind the shamanism and tactile poetry of people who lead real lives and feel things.”

Ultimately it is this unbridled urgency, this ability to surprise and transport, that people find so affecting about the work of those not on the beaten art track. Whether it’s made in isolation deep in the mountains or in a supportive urban center, this work is finally widening the scope of the public perception of art.

Oliver Guy is our man in London.

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