If there was one constant at the Outsider Art Fair this past weekend, it would be individuality: behind each work was a personal tale to tell, and it was inextricable from the art.
There were wire sculptures dangling from the ceiling and tiny people painted on matchsticks you needed a magnifying glass to see. There were fantastical neon fishes, spiders and dragons, and bleak mug shots, a taxidermy deer covered in beads and a bright diagram explaining “the form of the universe.”
“What’s really interesting about outsider artists and their stories is the fact that the stories inform the work,” said Rebecca Hoffman, director of the fair.
About fifty exhibitors from around the world spanned three floors of a building in Chelsea to showcase all manner of painting, sculpture, drawing, photography and collage, as diverse and as compelling as the artists’ lives.
There were artists of great stature and some whose work had rarely, if ever, been seen in public. Many spun challenging or unconventional experiences into prized, inimitable creations, channeling their unique world-views into images that defied conventional imagination.
The fair’s sole themed exhibition “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” curated by Jay Gorney and Ann Doran, featured art that was created in response to feelings of paranoia. Its title came from a song by Robert Johnson.
“We felt that these works were all talismanic in nature in that they’re created to ward off ill health, death, government evils,” said Gorney. “They have healing properties.”
One key figure featured was the Philadelphia Wireman, whose small statues of wire-wrapped objects from a reflector attached to an antenna to a Bic pen were discovered in an alleyway in the 1970s after his death.
Working with similar materials was Emery Blagdon, whose work was found in a barn in Nebraska, and who believed properly arranged metals had electromagnetic energy capable of warding off illness and suffering. A wire mobile of his hung above drawings and paintings of the other artists in the exhibit, its intricate constellations of coppery circles, diamonds and cylinders echoing the wrapping lines of the Wireman’s sculptures.
Also included was Melvin Way, a musician-turned-visual-artist who drew diagrams and formulas, in a vein not unlike Mark Lombardi, who created mapping systems that visually represented subjects such as global crime networks.
“What became very clear to us is that there’s a kind of consistency of line,” said Gorney. “We thought that the relationships of formal properties were fascinating.”
In and outside the curated exhibition, another key thread between the artists was that they seemed to create art as a vital means of communication.
The Good Luck Gallery in Los Angeles put the spotlight on work by Andrew Frieder. His mythology-inspired artworks elaborated on primitive-looking figures by filling in their outlines with veins of slightly bleached-looking primary colors – light red, yellow and blue swirls.
Some were gleeful, like a dancing man; others had ghoulish undertones, like a man clutching at his stomach and another raising a skull in one hand.
Frieder suffered from schizophrenia and destroyed volumes of his own work but was stable for the final two decades of his life, something he attributed in part to making art. The rest of his oeuvre was only discovered and displayed posthumously, as is common among outsider artists.
The Gallery at HAI (Healing Arts Initiative) in Long Island City, NY, which works with artists who have chronic mental illness or disabilities, showed one work that seemed to demonstrate directly the impact that creating can have on outsider artists.
Derrick Alexis Coard’s painting “The Vision of Healing” contained his regular motif of an African-American man with a long, thick beard. In this case, he had a garland of lush, waxy green leaves strung through his hair, with one yellow flower. Shown in profile, his gaze was intense, and a triangular beam of red emerged from between his focused eyes, as though the depicting a fiery will to cure oneself.
Among the more famous figures at the fair were folk artist Grandma Moses, who started her career at 78, and reclusive hospital custodian Henry Darger, both shown by Galerie St. Etienne of New York. Clementine Hunter, who painted scenes of African-American life on a Louisiana plantation was shown by Gilley’s Gallery of Baton Rouge, LA.
Others had a more cultish kind of fame springing from their unusual experiences.
A stone carved into a dragon-like shape with deeply grooved eyes, nostrils, mouth and textured skin represented the artist known as Jerry the Marble Faun, whose work was shown by the Brooklyn-based Jackie Klempay Gallery.
He is known as the gardener in the documentary “Grey Gardens,” and he also worked for the royal family in Saudi Arabia and drove a taxi for 20 years, said Hoffman.
Also among the more remarkable was New Zealand native Susan Te Kahurangi King, who stopped speaking at age 4 and whose work often shows vividly colored cartoonish figures in wild contortions. According to Hoffman, most of the works shown (by Chris Byrne of Dallas) were created when she was between the ages of 9 and 16.
In addition to showing the New Zealand native, the fair included works from galleries based in Haiti, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Japan and Italy.
“We’ve been looking to increase the global focus,” said Hoffman. “Each year we want to keep the big names but add excitement and newness.”
Among the artists exhibited by Galeria Estaçao in Brazil was Cicero Alves dos Santos, also known as Véio.
His work consists largely of slender statues made of trunks. In one it looked like a red man was dangling from the mouth of a black totem, either being swallowed up or spat out. Or, it could simply have been a large tongue, befitting the attitude of his creature, which was wearing red sunglasses.
While some works at the fair were highly personal and inward-looking, others drew on social issues and popular culture, with Martin Luther King Jr., suffering in Darfur and the O.J. Simpson among the references.
“I think what’s nice about the artists involved is it’s a different authenticity that comes from this world,” Hoffman said, as compared with those who follow an academic path.
“I think it comes from the differentiation in terms of the desire to create art,” she adds, citing the artist James Castle, whose works were created out of “soot and spit and found materials.”
There were some commonalities in the wide variety of works. Several drawings contained intricate patterns within forms that could be easily recognizable – such as a castle – or more surprising, like a drawing of heads nestled inside one another like Russian dolls at strange angles.
Nancy Josephson, a former professional musician who draws on Haitian themes and Vodou exhibited by the Chicago-based Judy A. Saslow Gallery, offered another one of the more unexpected works with “Push/Pull,” in which taxidermy deer forms covered in beads flank either side of a vase filled with flowers.
Among the blooms were pussy willows made to look lit up like Christmas lights – illuminating, as were the many visions of Outsider Art displayed over the three floors.
“What we look for in selecting galleries and artists each year is opening up the field,” said Hoffman. “We strive to make every year better than the last, to continue the dialogue and break down the boundaries.”