Forget bananas stuck to walls with duct tape and the would-be subversiveness of such now-tired, postmodernist gestures. Memo to those who are still worshipping at the altar of St. Marcel: It’s over. Irony and cool detachment died a long time ago. The planet’s literally on fire, fascism’s on the rise — including in the war-obsessed, gun-lovin’ USA — and sincerity has never looked or felt more appealing, especially when informed by a combination of wisdom and humanity earned through tough lessons in the School of Life. Today, nothing is sexier than being fully, passionately engaged.
With such real-world concerns in mind, for those who are looking for art that’s echt, the 2020 Outsider Art Fair, which will open in Manhattan next Thursday, January 16, is one event on the art-fair circuit that routinely serves up not merely art products but artistic expressions distinguished by a sense of urgency, authenticity, and resonance to spare. That’s probably due to the fact that genuine creators of art brut and outsider art produce their works not because they want to but because they have to; for such visionaries, making art is as essential as breathing.
This year’s 28th edition of the fair, featuring nearly 70 exhibitors from the United States, South America, Europe, and East Asia, reflects the spread of research activity and ever-broadening interest in the outsider-art field. Fresh discoveries drive its specialized market, and its most serious collectors relish every newly unearthed biographical detail about the self-taught makers who are its focus.
Recognizing the need for ever-newer “material,” as dealers say, the fair’s director, Becca Hoffman, noted in a recent e-mail chat, “Since Wide Open Arts took over the fair several years ago, we’ve expanded it by thinking more globally; we’ve had galleries from Brazil, South Korea, China, Japan, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and India. From Africa, too. Including our sister fair in Paris, whose seventh edition took place last October, the total number of exhibitors in the two fairs has almost tripled.”
This year’s OAF New York participants offered Hyperallergic an exclusive preview of some of the newest finds they will feature at the fair. Among them, works marked by a certain psychological intensity will be hard to miss, including the ink-on-paper drawings at Hirschl & Adler Modern by Maine-based Jeanne Brousseau (born 1943), a livestock farmer and craftswoman whose stringy human figures and menacing snakes, crabs, alligators, and birds allude to the painful, long-suppressed memories of an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Brousseau began making her drawings when she was in her 40s.
Galerie Robert Poulin of Montreal, making its OAF debut, will feature works on paper or cardboard by Daniel Erban (1951–2017), an Israeli-born artist who spent his life in Canada, where he taught mathematics. Referring to sexual violence and humanity’s dark side — with toothy heads devouring legs, and unidentifiable bodies cavorting with orgiastic abandon — Erban’s art gives visible form to convulsions of existential dread.
By contrast, the Japanese painter-draftsman Issei Nishimura (born 1978), whose works Cavin-Morris Gallery will present both at the fair and in a concurrent solo show at its Chelsea space (through February 15), mines art brut’s holy grail — that reservoir of unbridled creative energy buried somewhere in the psyche. Nishimura digs up expressionistic images from a more personal phantasmagoria, like a red octopus hugging someone’s beanie-topped head or human bodies stretched out like taffy.
For sheer audacity and bizarreness, at least in comparison with the cliché-ridden religiosity that characterizes some other American outsiders’ Christian-themed imagery, the late Norbert Kox’s “Adam and Eve” (acrylic and oil on canvas), from Milwaukee’s Portrait Society Gallery, offers a shot of otherworldly-psychological intensity of its own. This is one deliciously strange tableau that some museum should immediately scoop up and hang next to its Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo paintings. ¡Adelante!
Human forms will turn up in numerous doll-like — or oddly dolled-up — variations, too. The New York-based, West Virginia native Angela Rogers (born 1963) is an experienced tarot-card reader whose yarn-and-mixed-media confections (Fountain House Gallery) represent some of her mystical deck’s well-known female archetypes, plus some of her own, including mermaids and a tooth fairy. From England, Jennifer Lauren Gallery will show hand-crafted, wool-felt dolls by the late Makoto Okawa (1976–2016), a Japanese artist; the dealer Jennifer Gilbert noted in a written statement that the artist used them to depict “happiness, anger, sadness, and pleasure.”
Dealer Aarne Anton (American Primitive) will show a one-of-a-kind, mixed-media sculpture, “Goddess of Liberty” (c. 1930–40) that, over the years, made its way from Michigan to Tennessee and, finally, to upstate New York, where he found it. Carved from a tree trunk, with an American-flag base, its curvaceous, nude subject boasts a working automobile headlight embedded in her belly.
From Austria, Galerie Gugging will offer collages by Johannes Lechner (born 1964). Known as “Lejo,” he uses photos from old family albums as his raw material, cutting them up, combining them, and sometimes embellishing them with pencil-drawn designs. At his home in Vienna, he works with his blinds drawn, bright lights switched on, and jazz music blaring. Meanwhile, the outsider-art field might have a lot to learn if some revealing light could be shed on the biographical details of “Mrs. George Dunham,” a pastor’s wife who, presumably in the 1940s, created more than 100 black-ink-on-paper drawings whose images are all variations on the shape of the cross (Steven S. Powers). The air of classic modernism’s fascination with pure form wafts through this graphically potent series.
More from overseas: the works of aboriginal art-makers associated with Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, a facility in Western Australia serving the region’s indigenous population, will be shown by Creative Growth Art Center of Oakland, California, a studio-agllery for persons with developmental disabilities. Creative Growth, which will present the creations of some of its own artists alongside those of the Australians, has successfully shown its regular participants’ works in broader, contemporary-art settings.
Meanwhile, New York dealer Beate Echols, a veteran explorer of South America and the Caribbean, will feature some of the printing plates the artist José Costa Leite (born 1927 in northeastern Brazil) made to create woodblock prints; his art is closely linked to the tradition of literatura de cordel, or handmade pamphlets hung from string (cordel) by itinerant vendors. (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, owns a suite of the artist’s prints.)
Newcomer Kushino Terrace from Western Japan, a gallery headed by Nobumasa Kushino, a leading Japanese outsider-art researcher/promoter, will show the detailed, illustrated pop-up books of former restaurant worker Itsuo Kobayashi (born 1962), who meticulously documents every meal he consumes. (He’s big on takeout.) Also from Japan, OAF regular Yukiko Koide will offer Yuki Fujioka’s delicate, supremely simple, surprisingly voluminous sculptures — or are they a genre of their own? — made of thinly sliced, crayon-colored paper.
From Marseille, France, Galerie Polysémie will celebrate one of owner François Vertadier’s favorite artists, the Russian Vasily Romanenkov (1953–2013), a woodworker who turned to making richly patterned compositions in colored pencil and ink depicting baptisms, weddings, and funerals. His images evoke a sense of the mystical as well as, simultaneously, the past and the future. “Our home is in the other world,” he once said.
New York’s Shrine will present emblematic works by such African American artists of the Deep South as Mary T. Smith, Hawkins Bolden, and the blues musician James “Son Ford” Thomas; these remarkable creators, now deceased, have all secured their places in American outsider art’s canon. Connecticut’s James Barron Art will debut paintings by Reza Shafahi, an Iranian and former wrestler who began making art at the age of 72; look for his portrait of a woman with one head — and two faces. From Ohio, Lindsay Gallery’s big find is the work of the Ethiopian-born artist Morris Ben Newman (1883–1980), an immigrant to the US who claimed to have been of royal birth, as well as a rabbi, a medical doctor, and a world traveler. His landscapes, which evoke his native land, are often titled “New Flowers,” alluding to the meaning of the name of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
In Austin, Texas, SAGE Studio is a workshop-gallery for disabled persons; it is housed in a refurbished shipping container. Its offerings will include Rick Fleming’s paintings of rock stars on their own old, vinyl LPs. Then there are those artists who look to the astronomical stars, such as the Paris-based vagabond Eugène Lambourdière (born 1948), who is known as “Maurice.” Fascinated by the Bermuda Triangle and the fourth dimension, he makes collage diagrams of spacecraft packed with Masonic and other symbols (Galerie du Moineau Écarlate).
Ricco/Maresca will showcase the latest creations of outsider art’s longtime master stargazer, the Connecticut-based artist Ken Grimes (born 1947), who, through stark, text-and-image, black-and-white paintings, has spent his career documenting his in-depth study of what he claims are extraterrestrials’ efforts to communicate with humans on Earth.
Now employing ink on paper, his newest works boast the primary colors in addition to black and white. In them, the artist also includes the numerals 0 and 1, or, as Grimes points out, “the same binary code that was used to send an interstellar message to the globular star cluster M13 [Messier 13, in the constellation of Hercules] in 1974.” In a recent e-mail interview, he added, “I’ve always felt more connected to aliens in a metaphysical/psychic sense than in a ‘mathematical’ or scientific sense. I think there is an archetypal language that we might share [through] symbols like stars (represented as dots on a star map), satellite dishes, and signals.”
The Outsider Art Fair is coming, with all its quirks, peculiarities, and passion flowing from art-makers like Grimes.
Go and let yourself be abducted.
The 2020 Outsider Art Fair will take place at Metropolitan Pavilion (125 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) from January 16 through January 19.