Outside Looking In

The Marketing of Dysfunction

Do you paint with soot and spit? Are flying saucers part of your aesthetic program? Has Daddy Jesus been beaming messages through your fingers and onto unprimed fence planks? Have the loss and alienation you experienced as a child led you to invent a parallel existence documented in a 15,000-page typewritten book illustrated with panoramic watercolors of child slaves? Do you sometimes dream of cutting off your wife's head with a scimitar? Yes? Then you, too, may qualify as an Outsider artist.

Outsiders, it seems, currently hold the inside track in art. Whether illiterate, imprisoned, untutored, mentally ill, amateur, primitive, or at any rate beneath the critical regard of Artforum, this group of artists defying easy classification represents one of the strongest sectors in an otherwise weak market. Dozens of galleries, exhibitions, museum shows, and critical works now focus on this category of creative people once characterized as "by nature reclusive, marginal, off the map."

If the Outsider Art Fair is anything to go by, the genre map is overdue for some revisions. The imperative to challenge academic notions of what art should look like probably arose in the late 19th century with the brilliant customs inspector Henri Rousseau. It was surely formalized in the 1940s, when French artist Jean Dubuffet began collecting artworks by institutionalized patients—whose efforts he dubbed Art Brut. By now, the genre has broadened to the point of near-loony plurality.

Art from the "other side": Purvis Young with his paintings at the Outsider Art Fair
Sylvia Plachy
Art from the "other side": Purvis Young with his paintings at the Outsider Art Fair

Artists can hardly be too kitsch, too crazy, or too obsessive to be marketed as Outsiders. And the stranger the biographical particulars, it seems, the greater the interest. Or at least that's how things appeared at the fair's opening last Thursday, when mobs crammed into the Puck Building to glimpse works by such celebrated obscurities as the Rev. Howard Finster, Achilles Rizzoli, and Sister Gertrude Morgan, as well as art by authentic nobodies with some truly weird back-stories.

German dealer Suzanne Zander, for instance, had on exhibit a series of astonishingly perverse photo collages made by an anonymous 19th-century Frenchman and recently found in an attic. The works depict a sword-wielding man and his evidently willing companion—his wife?—in a series of bondage tableaux that inevitably culminate in her decapitation. "This was his idea, yes, to kill her," Zander said amiably. "In many of the photos, she was tied up, so it's obvious she liked the same game he did. That you can see."

A Lyonnais newspaper spotted in the corner of one photo permitted the dealer to date the 70 works to 1870, thus making them "antiques and absolutely so unusual." Age and rarity, she added, accounted for the $9000 to $25,000 tags. Zander's were by no means the only items being offered for prices that might cause sticker shock even in Chelsea. "Things are quite high in general, yes," the dealer said.

There were, for instance, $15,000 Sam Doyle paintings made in latex on corrugated-aluminum siding (a particularly droll picture of a half man/half woman was entitled BullDager). There were $20,000 drawings by the late Bill Traylor, whose coveted work is in so many museum collections it stretches the parameters of Outside. There were $11,000 paintings by Clementine Hunter, a "primitive" who spent most of her life as a cotton picker in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. There were $10,000 drawings by Jimmie Lee Sudduth, a brilliant Southern artist (and a conservator's nightmare) who painted his pictures on cardboard with mud. There were $5000 photographs by Morton Bartlett, an eccentric who constructed lifelike painted-plaster figures of children and then documented them in movielike photographic stills. It was Bartlett, an orphan who died in 1992, leaving his $300,000 estate to orphans, who once explained of his hobby that its purpose was "to let out urges which do not find expression in other channels."

It's a rare urge that doesn't find a channel at the Outsider Art Fair, where pathologies (monomania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, pedophilia) are prized, and where handicaps add extra cachet. The spit-and-soot drawings James Castle made with a pointed stick could probably hold their own in any art context. His hand-sewn constructions of cardboard and twine strike resonances with the work of artists from Thomas Schütte to Joseph Beuys. That Castle was deaf from birth, and never learned to speak, sign, read, write, or finger spell; that he refused all schooling and lived with his parents in a mountain town near Boise, Idaho, are "the most important facts of his life and artmaking," as one critic claims. These are certainly the first things you hear anyone talk about when they look at the work.

Outsider art is essentially narrative art. Often the pleasure of its images is that they tell great stories. If the stories appear to arise from a vast pool of tales—the collective unconscious—then that is also part of their appeal. To think of Outsider art as "naive," however, is to ignore the way pop culture has of seeping into even the most isolated of lives. "I see the problems of the world," painter Purvis Young said at the Outsider Art Fair on Thursday, as he stood before his picture of a giant alligator. "I look up to the Father and say, 'Help me show the people the other side."'

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