The interior of Chelsea’s Center 548 was abuzz with activity for the second day of the annual Outsider Art Fair, an event that is increasingly on the inside of must-see status in the NYC spring fair season. As guests wove through 3 floors of booths, passing through a maze of white walls lined with everything from hand-made parking meter sculptures to miniature Haitian dolls in pink crocheted skull dresses, they became just as essential to the “outsider” movement as the pieces they looked upon, not just because of their taste, but due to their collective support for a fair that embraces the variety of sources art can come from.
The fair-goers were from all walks of life; young and old mingled with the hip and couldn’t-care-less to admire the wide array of work from galleries across the country and world.
For the smattering of galleries that specialize in the genre, the Outsider Art Fair represents an opportunity to expose their artists to a wider audience¬–last year over 10,000 people attended the fair. And this year, that number was expected to increase, as the fair date shifted to May to coincide with Frieze.
Although the “outsider” label does cast a wide net, there is no shortage of trends; this year had several, one of which was certainly an obsessive attention to detail and repetition.
This rings particularly true for Susan Brown of Pure Vision Arts. Her most popular subject is her mother, whom she paints in rectangular boxes side-by-side in hundreds of different outfits, all catalogued by memory. Brown’s paintings were echoed in the encyclopedic illustrations of Seattle artist, Gregory Blackstock of Garde Rail Gallery, whose “collections” feature birds, insects, trains, and an assortment of other seemingly random items, laid out in neat rows and columns with corresponding annotations. The similarities between both artists are almost eerie when given their parallel histories; both are savants, both spent years working as dishwashers, and both, too, have an encyclopedic ability to categorize and remember with photographic accuracy. The works, seen together, yet apart, satisfy the mind’s craving for thorough organization, with a twist of eccentricity.
Also at Garde Rail were Holly Farrel’s vintage, de-saturated paintings of everyday objects; the artist was bestowed with “outsider” status because her talent was entirely self-taught. And across the wall, Rebecca Shapiro’s delicate embroidered portraits echoed the sentiment of post-war America. Both inhabit the exhibition space as collections of mundane everyday oddities, a haven for stepping out of the contemporary art jungle into simpler times.
Oscar Azmitia’s presence at the fair was of particular note, thriving via his talent for appropriating found objects as a tool for satire. His opus is a collection of pennies, upon which Lincoln is painted over and over again as an extensive variety of characters from pop culture, i.e. miniature Fred Flinstone and Batman Lincolns, peeking out at passersby ever so slightly as if to say, get me? Self-referential puns run rampant throughout Azmitia’s work.
Martha Cruz of HAI also made good use of found objects¬– she uses books that are dear to her as her canvas and the results are strikingly sincere, like the religious diaries of a God-fearing youth. Illustrations wrap around the text, with hollow wide-eyed creatures peaking out from the pages. The title, “Battle of the Mind” seems to hint that the fervor of faith may be riddled with doubt, but driven by fear.
Some of the most heartfelt work in the labyrinth of galleries was drawn from those who never considered themselves artists, not even in the folk sense. Institute 193 of Kentucky featured a charming collection of pocket-sized photographs from the Massengill Family, a husband and wife who took portraits of locals in their rural Southern town, often painting them by hand and selling them for a dime. The images have American nostalgia written all over them, but there is a genuine realness in the posed smiles; it is nearly impossible not to thumb through the book without wondering who those people were and what life circumstances brought them in front of that camera.
The same sincerity makes Craig Norton’s illustrations of the people in his town so likeable, as if they emerged straight out of a bizarre children’s book or set of archival periodical illustrations. His characters come alive with their wallpaper clothes; you almost expect them to mutter to themselves from their mountings.
As visitors passed through the fair, stopping at booths and inquiring about the artists, a collector could be spotted, buying a piece within minutes, without having any prior knowledge of the gallery or artist. In contrast to the majority of sales in Chelsea, his purchase was purely instinctual– “I had a gut reaction,” he explained, looking at the work, “I just immediately liked it.” And with that, he was off.
That interaction seemed symbolic of the Outsider Art movement as a whole. As interesting as these artists’ backgrounds and personality quirks are, what really matters is the art itself, and as is the case with all imagery, the emotions, associations, and meanings it stirs for each individual.
I asked Bryant Yarborough, Pure Vision’s Program Coordinator, if having the fair the same weekend as Frieze was significant.
“I think that having both events on the same weekend makes a statement that we belong in New York during the major art fair season,” he told me, surveying the scene. “And that this gallery and this fair can hold it’s own.”