•outsider art •
What is Outsider art? The simple definition is, Outsider Art is art made outside of academic circles.
Art Brut (Raw Art) is the name given to the movement originally in the 1940’s by the French Artist Jean DuBuffet, although the first noted time fine artists recognise it’s significance was in 1912 with the Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group. Later, between 1921 and 1922 there were two books that spread the importance of what would be the foundation of Art Brut to a wider audience. Both books dealt with art made by mentally ill patients.
During the Post Impressionist period (1886-1905), and from the examples given to artists from the Theatre of the Absurd (particularly the play "Ubu Roi") there was a need to find a new way to express one's self, what Duchamp would call anti-art to liberate the arts. One source of inspiration was in art that did not come from artists with academic or fine art pretences, a type of art that was created far from the traditional world of art. This far sighted vision sought to incorporate the work of so called primitives and naive artists into the work of serious artists, much in the same way Japanese Prints helped inspired Impressionism and Post Impressionism.
“Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.” Wrote DuBuffet
In 1972 and English author transposed the movement’s name from Art Brut to Outsider Art, perhaps to soften the original name. For a long time the two names meant the same art movement, but after a certain point there was a divergence in particulars about the two names and might connote two branches of the movement (depending upon who one asks).
To quote Raw Vision (the largest magazine about the Outsider Art Movement).
“The controversy surrounding the exact definition of Outsider Art and allied fields has been going on ever since awareness of the phenomenon began…”
Outsider art is perhaps one of the most argued art movement, especially since it entered mainstream popularity. I hesitate to weigh in on any of the controversy because it is more of a distraction, moving the topic away from my own participation in the movement.
My involvement with Outsider art movement began somewhere after the mid 1990’s when a famous poet told me she bought one of my pieces and she collected folk art. That threw me since I never associated my art with folk art. When she saw the confusion she mentioned that she meant Outsider Art, which I had no idea what that meant. In my lessons about art it was a term I'd never heard. When she mention Art Brut, it was a topic of several conversation I had with my mentor years ago. The movement struck me in the way art was being defined. Instead of being made by people who went to art school or having some pedigree or genius, art was the product of being a human, belonging to all of us. And that whatever we humans made was art.
When she described Outsider art as the punk rock of art, or as the only genre really saying anything anymore, I was sold, I must be an Outsider artist! I went out and bought a book on Outsider art, and discovered that I resonated with very little of the art in the book, but those I did, I certainly found inspiring. This caused a pause in my mind, making me wonder if I resonated enough with the movement to call myself an Outsider Artist. Regardless, I went with it as the name for the type of art I was making.
In some ways it was apt to call the work I made and brought to NYC from New Mexico "Outsider art." In truth, I had lost faith in much of my first two bodies of work made in NM, however it did manage to sell, which beguiled me. In 1997 I began to work hard to redefine my work and would eventually develop a style that is my own. What I focused the most on what composition, whereas the work I brought from New Mexico seemed very naive. In hindsight, that is what Outsider Art thrives on, a naive like vision. Even thirty years later the only remaining piece of art I have from that time period hangs on my wall and quickly drew the attention of the photographer from Raw Vision magazine when he visited my studio.
Months later after the conversation with the poet I was getting prepared for another show in NYC, I would often pass out postcards of my work to people walking around the art districts on 57th street and in Soho. Chelsea didn’t exist as an art district back then. I made it a habit of handing out my postcards to the galleries since you never know. Maybe the work would strike a gallery enough to give me a show. Trying on my new association with Outsider art, when asked what sort of art I am doing it caused a slight burst of frustration from one of the gallery representatives that was beyond negative towards Outsider art. I got an impression that perhaps the hostility was more about what the movement stands for, as it is often seen as anti-academic which can threaten traditional ideas that an artist belongs to an exclusive club.
I have pondered this moment over the years just because it is rare for art to provoke an extreme reaction. The outcome made me think that perhaps I was somehow insulting and isolating those in the industry of selling art, which was the last think I wanted to do. During the show where I was passing out cards for, there was no mention of me being an Outsider artist. Nor was there any mention of me being an Outsider artist for another four or five years afterwards.
In either 2002 or 2003 the mother of a very famous Outsider Artist named Jonathan Lerman began to champion my work. She turned the larger Outsider art movement onto my work. This led to a world of selling art, of being used as a gallery’s advertisement in Raw Vision Magazine, and I began to get shows. It was also an introduction to others in the business. I even got to talk to Henry Boxer, a well known art dealer in the UK with great taste. Most of the people who came through my door pressured me to sell my unfinished pieces as they were, he was the only one to recognise and respect that I am still working on the pieces and asked me to speak to him when the work was done. (I never did).
Another well known art dealer from D.C. traveled the 300 hundred miles to my studio to see my work, it happened to be the art dealer who represented many of those artists whom I resonated with in the book I had bought in NYC on Outsider art so many years ago. With his pending visit I worked extra hard to finish some of my artwork, and it paid off, he took 30 pieces with him. This would begin a 17 year journey with Grey Carter that was often fruitful in terms of sales and exposure to my work. Hundreds of thousands of people saw my work. And often times he would sell at least 90-80% of my work he showed for a period of time. He would facilitate shows in museums and include me in shows across the USA. I have no idea how many shows I have had or where they were located.
Outsider art is not like many art movements throughout history, like Surrealism, where all the artists subscribe to a specific aesthetic, or where there is a goal to create art in the spirit of this aesthetic. Outsider art was well known for the diversity of aesthetics. This has changed over time, to where there seems to be a trend in what Outsider artists produce, many of them are very consciously creating art with a specific feel and look. It has by now become saturated with artists who have mastered the look of Outsider Art instead of being a unique voice within the movement, defining aesthetics on their own terms.
Going back to Dubuffet’s words, “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”
The movement has changed since I first got involved. Clearly there are some Outsider artists that are actually trying to be professional artists, I would include myself. I never became an artist to fit into a criteria, but rather to express myself in the most authentic way possible. It is through my vision and its uniqueness that I was invited into the movement. My work has been lauded as a genuine voice, but as the public is exposed to more of the “Outsider aesthetic” as translated by a newer generation of artist, they will take away from the experience a singular vision instead of the diverse voices and vision that has traditionally created the cannons of the movement.
There is something to be said of an art movement that is still being debated, still analysed over 100 years since its recognition. It is a movement that inspired and enabled many of the artist in the Post Impressionist years and beyond to discover what anti-art could look like and in what spirit it is created. There is a long list of masterful works and artists of the last 100 years or more who have taken directions from Outsider artists, who simply expressed themselves without any concern with other people’s tastes, trends, or prospects of a retail value.
What is considered the first modernist art movements (in terms of foundation), Impressionism and Symbolism expressed something completely different than before. With the fairly recent invention of the camera (1840-1880's), artists were no longer concerned with preserving history and telling someone else's stories, a new reality opened up. Instead of painting a record what we see with our eyes, artists began to record what they saw without eyes. To make the emphasis on how our intellect, imagination and emotion viewed our world.
Outsider Art has the potential to be equally revolutionary to the artists. Indeed it already has for over 100 years. For me, in my own philosophy of art, it freed me from the thought process of making art and replaced it with an intuitive process that is built on being human, and not an artist . As I have always described what I do as being an erudite caveman and nothing more. Forced to use both nature and an acculturated nature as an artist, I am always reaching beyond by learning.
Outsider Art has been a democratising force in the art world, giving art lovers the world wide an alternative to the work shown in contemporary art galleries that can often be staid or confusing. What I always appreciated about Outsider art is it hits you all at once. There might be subtly and covertness in the work, but you feel about the piece the moment you see it. Hate or love, beguiled or resonating, it is work that doesn't beat around the bush.
Thank you for reading,