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Examining l’Art Brut: Outsider Art Fair, Paris 2015

“I’m not an artist.”

We’ve certainly all heard these words, a plaintive excuse. But can we ever really draw the line between what is art and what is not? The question of whether formal training gives you a leg up in credibility is raised. The Outsider Art Fair argues the contrary. Founded in New York in 1993, the Outsider Art Fair has grown considerably, expanding to include a second city in 2013: Paris. Nonconformist, raw, self-taught, the artists showcased biannually through the festival’s New York and Paris incarnations seek to display l’art brut at its very best: passionately unconstrained.

Paris makes for a particularly apt location for the Fair’s European outpost, taking into consideration the city’s struggle to define both art and artist, eventually becoming the birthplace of Impressionism in its rebellion against salons.

Indeed, since its 2013 debut in the City of Light, the Paris Fair has expanded by a third. With more new artists appearing on the scene than ever, there are more dealers to field them, including some of the top American galleries such as Ricco Maresca Gallery and Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery in Australia. In comparison with 2014’s 25 exhibitors, the Fair’s 2015 incarnation now boasts 38 different galleries in its new location at Hotel du Duc.

Director Rebecca Hoffman cut her teeth in the gallery world prior to taking the helm of the Outsider Art Fair. Speaking to Hoffman, her passion for Outsider Art became clear.

“Outsider Art creates an emotional connection in its viewers paving the way for a personal response,” Hoffman said.

Wandering the two floors of the venue, Hoffman’s words rang true. The vivid, Frida Khalo-esque colors popped off white walls. Old World cut crystal chandeliers, painted molding, and black lacquered wooden floors created a distinct contrast with the splashy, staggering array of art. Outsider Art often values feeling over ordered thought—pure emotion, as opposed to a constructed narrative.

Cathy Ward, "Land of Promise IV," Incised Ink on Clay. Courtesy Galerie Toxic.

Cathy Ward, “Land of Promise IV,” Incised Ink on Clay. Courtesy Galerie Toxic.

Represented by Luxembourg’s Galerie Toxic, Cathy Ward’s intricately detailed fantasy worlds are compelling, luring the viewer to move closer to take in each distinct, silvery line. Using a scalpel to gently scrape away layers of India Ink to reveal the white clay beneath, Ward’s lustrous scratchboard pieces have the subtractive precision of a surgeon. Shifting between the abstract and the identifiable, her images connect us to a shadowy dream world where even the recognizable is not quite what it seems.

 Pascal Leyder, "Cartographies Sans Titres."  Courtesy of La Grand S Atelier.

Pascal Leyder, “Cartographies Sans Titres.” Courtesy of La Grand S Atelier.

Pascal Leyder similarly plays with our perception of reality with his raw take on cartography. La S Grand Atelier proudly brings his reinterpretation of maps, his series of real and imagined places to their array of exhibited artists. With apparent detachment, Leyder uses watercolor and ink to complete his cartographic visions. The reoccurrence of the written element in his work almost occupies more space than his chosen visual motifs.

Similarly, Gregory Blackstock’s painstakingly meticulous work has a compelling effect. His combination of ink, crayon, marker, and pencil on swathes of paper painstakingly seamed together to create custom sized sheets had an instantly alluring effect. His taxonomical style takes objects and labels them, ordering and arranging them according to his particular vision. His attention to detail, neat labels, and use of thick layers of crayon have the attraction of a collector, an archivist’s degree of attention and passionate absorption.

“Gregory Blackstock has become one of the most collectible American Outsider artists in the genre in the past decade. He’s come a long way since his first introduction and solo exhibition in 2003,” Karen Light said.

Gregory Blackstock, "The Birdwing Butterflies," Graphite, Crayon, Ink, and Markers, 36" x 24", 2015.

Gregory Blackstock, “The Birdwing Butterflies,” Graphite, Crayon, Ink, and Markers, 36″ x 24″, 2015.

After discovering Blackstock’s work in a company catalogue, Light was drawn to his unique style. After 25 years as a pot washer for the Seattle Athletic Club, Blackstock’s personal development has surged alongside his artistic success.

“Moreover, Blackstock is the happiest personally, he’s ever been in his life. He recognizes that his artwork has directly changed how he is perceived in the world. Blackstock labels most of his t-shirts with the word ‘ARTIST’ written in bold letters. Like his drawings, he is making a clear classification, branding himself with a positive identifier that is a great source of pride.”

The colors of Andrew Gilbert’s series European Tribal War Idols—Waterloo, 1815 jump off the walls. Parisian gallery Polad-Harduin brings his personal reinterpretation of history to the forefront in their corner of the Fair’s exhibition space. Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, the once-revered Napoleonic wars are twisted into absurdist fantasies through Gilbert’s eyes. The contrast between the warm red, pink, and purple hues with the ice blue of the surrounding flowers draw the eye to the chaotic feeling of this conflict.

Andrew Gilbert, "African Flowers,"  Mixed Media on Paper 39.4" x 27.6", 2012. Courtesy Galerie Polad-Hardouin

Andrew Gilbert, “African Flowers,”
Mixed Media on Paper
39.4″ x 27.6″, 2012. Courtesy Galerie Polad-Hardouin.

“Gilbert draws every day, surrounded by a library worthy of a historian,” Polad-Harduin says of the artist. “In these books he obsessively searches for the details which we find, in a transfigured form, in his drawings: costume decorations, positions of battalions, quotations.”

In contrast, his thick, chaotic brushstrokes and disturbing imagery of severed, distorted breasts create an impulsiveness to his work, a distinctly emotional, rather than an ordered and intellectual response.

New York’s Ricco Maresca gallery—a first time exhibitor in Paris—emphasized self-taught tattoo artist Tino “Rosie” Camanga’s unique work. His obsessively drawn tattoo flash sheets have an insistent quality, an immediacy that he continued to cultivate long after officially retiring as a tattoo artist. Moving to Honolulu from his native Philippines, Rosie found work as a tattoo artist transforming members of the U.S. Military into illustrated men. While his work falls within the Sailor Jerry aesthetic, Rosie’s vision ranges from typical motifs such as mermaids, pin-ups, anchors, and planes to imaginatively unique images such as cupids riding giraffes, heart printed horses, or a cherubic mouse in a Navy dixie cup reaching around to grasp a plump disembodied cherry.

See George Pool, "", House Paint and Objects on Plywood.

See George Pool, House Paint and Objects on Plywood.

While these artists focused on 2D pieces, See George Poole chooses to incorporate tangible objects, giving his work a punchy quality, as it literally jumps off the wall. Poole lives and works in Admiral, Saskatchewan, population 14. Discovered by Gordon Novak, of Novak Graphics, during the process of redesigning an abandoned curling rink, the strength of Poole’s point of view was immediately evident, despite his lack of formal artistic training.

“I took art in high school because that’s the class where the girls were,” Poole said in an interview with Barb Parchman.

Relying solely on his inspiration and sense of humor, Poole creates imaginative 3D pieces, incorporating wood, house paint, metal, photographs, and found objects. This layered effect gives his work a raw, punk aesthetic inspiring questions in the viewer, and daring us to challenge our perspectives on what we consider fine art.

While it would be difficult to string together a list of overarching commonalities across the board, the artists represented did have one thing in common. Their unrestrained passion was evident—their work an honest, immediate response to emotion that will stay with the viewer for some time.