outsider art • back

I.

 

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 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.

Modern art was going through growing pains.  There was a focus on what Duchamp would call anti-art, a rejection of traditional modes of seeing and creating art.  Artists globally were interested in finding new sources of inspiration away from traditionalism.  One can see Art Brut in the influence of many different art movements of the day.  There would be no Cubism without Art Brut's influences.  There would not be the Klee we all know and love.

In 1972 and English author transposed the movement’s name 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).

 

Outsider art is perhaps the most argued about Movement since it entered mainstream popularity.  Mainly I am here to write about my own involvement in the movement and how it came to pass.  

 

II.

 

I am known as an Outsider artist, and supposedly on the top tier of the movement.  My connection to the movement is through my lack of traditional education, I am self taught, which is one of the categories of Outsider Art.  However this idea that I am not traditionally educated is not exactly correct.  I studied under a master for five years, although I was never taught how to paint, I was taught the workshop practices of an artist such as how to stretch canvas and the like.  The main part of my education was art history.  

 

My association with Outsider art came by accident in 1996 or 1997.  An extremely famous poet bought some of my work and was explaining how she collected folk art.  It took me awhile to realise she was talking about my work.  I wasn’t very happy to hear my work associated with folk art, having visions of Barbie dolls wearing dresses made of doilies that covered toilet paper rolls.  She explained to me a bit about Outsider art, and once I understood she was speaking about Art Brut, it all came together.  I decided to buy a book on Outsider art to further educate myself.  

I had accepted that I might be an Outsider artist, but trying the association with others involved with the art world seemed to have a negative effect.  There seemed to be a very negative reaction in NYC towards Outsider art at that time.  

Nonetheless I went with it.  1997-8, getting ready for another show in the city I was walking around the various art districts, passing around my post cards, talking to people, and going into galleries and saying I am an Outsider artist when someone asked.  That got me into an argument with a gallery, one that was selling Man Ray, Francis Bacon, all these artists I love.  I mean… I had to just stop and gape at the work they were representing.  The gallery was very rude about Outsider art, while I explained that these isms are not really things artists invite, but rather get placed in it whether we wish to or not.  But I had done this to myself, I was the one calling myself an Outsider artist without really known much about the movement other than what I read recently and from my education on Art Brut and DuBuffet with my mentor.  Maybe there was something I wasn’t understanding?  I decided that it is silly to call myself something and to invite an ism that I am not really too sure I belonged with.  In hindsight, academia seems to be threatened by Outsider art, or seem to view it as art's little side show.  

 

III.

It wasn’t until somewhere around 2000-1 that Outsider art reappeared in my life, where once my association was a mere trickle of water, when it reappeared, it came as a wave.  The main reason for this was due to a mother of a famous Outsider artist, Jonathan Lerman, who championed my work, trying to create the same recognition her autistic son received.  Through her recommendation, there was a time period where I was bombarded by dealers, gallery owners all trying to get work for very cheap.  I even received attention from the academic world based upon the writing that used to underpin many of my earlier paintings, or their interest in me as being self taught.

One gallery began using my work for their advertisements used in the international art magazine Raw Vision, while others simply wanted cheap work they could resale at higher prices.  One well known gallery in NYC was asking me whats wrong with me.  I really didn’t understand.  “I mean, do you have autism or are mentally ill?”  He asked.  I told him I was handing the phone to my wife who could tell him all the things wrong with me better than I could.  It felt a bit exploitative.  

There was rumbles of a couple of top dealers coming to visit me.  I even had a conversation with the legendary art dealer Henry Boxer from England, who felt I should contact him when my work was more finished (at this point I had many works in progress and very few finished pieces).  From my original book I bought to educated myself on the movement, there were artists I had liked allot, and when a dealer who represented some of these artists, artists who are modern masters of the movement, wanted to come up and visit me, I jumped at the chance, working very hard to get work ready for his visit.  We signed a contract of exclusive representation rights, and I would be represented by this dealer, Grey Carter for 17 years.

Instantly my career took off, at first with many shows (most of my shows I have no record of where they were held, only through researching the web have I found a couple of these past shows), and being involved in the invitation only big event for Outsider art in NYC, the Outsider Art Fair (OAF) where at first around 7,000-8,000 a day would see my work, and would eventually double in number, forcing the event to move to a lager space.  It was a show where 90% of my sales would come from.  Soon I was having museums shows.

VI.

To be perfectly honest, while I have had a wonderful and fruitful run with Outsider art, I've never been sure about my place in the movement.  One magazine called me the hero of the movement, others have mentioned me as a leader of the movement, a dealer as the best kept secret of the movement.  There were times when if twenty paintings were up for sale, 16 would sale.  For a period of time, each year I would make a good number of sales.  Although I was getting recognition, it never felt as widespread as it appeared to be.  In part it is because Outsider art has become very saturated.  There's simply allot of artists and allot of marketeers, dealers or galleries who have lots of product to sell.  

 

There are so many camps and so many ideas of what constitutes Outsider art, that to some Outsider art galleries, I simply didn't fit into their criteria of an Outsider Artist.  When I first began as an Outsider artist, there was no aesthetic one could point to as a typical look of Outsider Artist, like one could do with a Surrealist painting.  But now I have noticed that there is a look that is being copied by many new Outsider artists, a look that in their mind is the aesthetic.  Back in the day, it was always so amazing that one could walk into an Outsider art gallery and see various examples of art from people who all had different ideas of what constitutes beauty and expression.  

I was also noticing a negative trend in Outsider art, where "Outsider art" meant "cheap art."  It is not that it is cheap to the consumer who is paying retail, but rather it is the marketplace that wants to get the rock bottom prices from their artists and not fair value.  If I made $1600 off the sale of a painting in an Outsider art gallery, I would make $2800 from the same piece from a gallery not associated with OA.  I know this because I began to favour galleries outside of the movement, and still do if I wish to get a fair pay check. When I seek representation or to have shows, I no longer approach Outsider art galleries.  I have had Outsider galleries or dealers offer huge discounts that I never authorised.  This included one establishment selling three paintings for the price of one painting.  To be clear, the market is used to artists who sell wonderful pieces for under 100$, where it can be marked up for huge profits.  But there is worse....

 

I also witnessed a very underhanded trick one marketplace pulled on me when a dispute arose over the prices I was willing to let my work go for.  Being used to better prices in traditional galleries, I was unwilling to allow the Outsider Art market to undervalue my paintings as they have in the past.  Instead of respecting my wishes or declining to show my work, this place had sent one of the paintings they bought from me (for probably $1400) to an auction house where it sold for $200-300.  What this did is attached my name online to a fake sales price, to where this seller could say "why should I give you X, when your painting sold for only a few hundred dollars?"  The sale is still listed whenever someone searched on my name online.  I was warned about this trick from my former dealer, but was floored to see I became a victim of such practise.  If I have been the victim of this, I am sure others have too as a way to check an artist's expectations and desire for fair growth in their prices.

This isn't to say that it is a marketplace filled with unethical people.  From what I have experienced, those involved in the market are passionate about the work and the artists, often treating them with fairness.  

There is power in an art movement that we are still analysing, defining, progressing, over 110 years after its first use and recognition as important art.  I am proud of my contribution to the movement, and my involvement.  And perhaps my criticisms about the movement might only be a sign of its success in the mainstream art world.

Currently there are many artists in the Outsider genre who technically do not fall into the criteria of the movement.  There have been well publicised artists who have degrees in art, who like Paul Klee, simply mastered the look of the movement. As such, what the movement is now certainly is not the same movement I first began my career in.  Ultimately it is a movement that respects the human will to create and express, a movement that has always held an aesthetic beyond what most in traditional fields of art are willing to extend.  Those who love Outsider art as collectors and marketeers are as visionary as the artists who make the work.