by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 10, 2002
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The word "outsider" can be painful - maybe it's too close to the word "outcast" for comfort. Who among us, after all, doesn't want to feel connected or in some way, a part of things? So when it comes to the growing world of Outsider Art, many artists find the name insulting.
But the words used most often to define the artists in this movement - self-taught, visionary, and intuitive - resonate with me, and I find this work exciting, engaging and entertaining. In a corrupted world, sometimes this is the closest we can get to pure creativity, to seeing the imaginative inside of an artist's mind.
Outsider Art is devoted to finding, displaying and selling the work of "isolates," or artists who are driven to create far from the art world's schools, museums, studios, galleries, clubs and parties. The word "idiosyncratic" doesn't begin to describe these people or their art. Think of Grandma Moses, or the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and you begin to have an idea.
In the same way that in the 1930s, folklorists beat the bushes of the rural South looking for blues musicians, they now search for visual artists. You can find Outsider Art in Vermont, in Brattleboro, Bellows Falls and the Brimfield Flea Market, but the biggest show of the year is held every January in New York City, in the Puck Building on Houston Street. This year, the 10th Annual Outsider Art Fair will be held on the weekend of January 25-27.
Outsider Art is an American term; the concept goes back to "art brut," which means raw or uncooked art. The name was coined in France by the artist Jean Dubuffet, who was rebellion against what he considered a vapid post-World War II art scene. Looking for energy in art, he collected the work of insane asylum patients, spiritual mediums, drug addicts and others who lived outside of conventional society.
"It is anything produced by people unsmirched by artistic culture; works in which mimicry, contact to what occurs with intellectuals, has little or no part," Dubuffet said. "So that the makers .... draw entirely on their own resources rather than on the stereotypes of classical or fashionable art."
In the Puck Building last year, I found dreadful work, some of it scarily insane, and some that was only mildly disturbing. But I also found work that was inventive, colorful and beautiful.
Take Paul Lancaster, 71, who has a dreamy, impressionistic style and paints vague female forms and Rousseau-like, larger-than-life vegetation in a variety of rich blues and greens. When I asked about him, the gallery representative told me this classic story:
"He had never seen any paintings at all. Then he helped his brother drive a car from Tennessee to New York. His brother thought he would give him a treat and took him to the Metropolitan Museum. He disappeared. When his brother found him, he was standing in front of the Rousseaus with his mouth wide open. 'Look,' he said. 'He paints like me.'"
Outsider Art is visually accessible. Gregory Warnich makes glittery guitars and walking sticks out of bottle caps and sequins. Raymond Matterson, locked away in prison, makes miniature embroideries from the thread he collects by unraveling his socks. Years before he could afford house paint, Jimmie Lee Sudduth painted primarily with mud; he claims to have found at least 30 different colors of it.
Jessie Montes, who was reared in a rural village in Mexico, makes portraits of performers likeElvis Presley, Ricky Martin and Brad Pitt out of the sides of corrugatedcardboard.
"You don't need to have studied art history, or know the vagaries of the current art world, to understand their message," says Daniel Crotty, who has a good Website devoted to Outsider Art (www.alumni.caltech.edu/~dacrotty/advice.html). "Better yet, most of these artists are still living and creating. For me, meeting the artists and hearing their stories is as interesting and valuable as the art itself."
The art is also financially accessible. Most of it is sold for under $10,000, and many pieces go for less than $1,000.
"As someone on a limited budget, buying a piece of 'Fine Art' is way beyond my means," Crotty said. "This art, which touches a deep emotional nerve in me, is easily attainable, and at prices anyone can afford."
People disagree about the aesthetic standards of Outsider Art. "What began in France as an intellectual challenge to the mediocrity of the mainstream threatens, in America, to become a marketing idea celebrating the lowest common denominator," wrote Tessa DeCarlo in The New York Times last year.
Her point was best proven, I thought, by the activity last year outside of the fair on opening day. Artists who had been rejected by the galleries were standing across from the Puck Building, trying to sell their work and shouting, "Buy the real outsider art." For an artist, it must be a pretty low blow to be considered too far outside for a movement called Outsider Art.
Returning to the analogy of the old Southern bluesmen for a moment, most of them never made a dime out of their beautiful music. I sometimes wonder who gets the money from outsider art - the gallery owners, or the outsiders. It would be interesting to see some statistics.
The big question is whether Outsider Art will hold and hopefully increase in value over time. No one knows. Art patrons must buy these works today with the same kind of passion that the artists have when they make them. But it is easy to understand how, in a diffused and demented art climate such as ours, where anything and everything goes, why people crave authentic art and artists and the power of raw vision.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics, economics and travel.