The Outsider Art Fair has arrived, and some of the best that the field has to offer is currently on display in the Metropolitan Pavilion. This annual convention of exhibitors of outsider and folk art has existed for over two decades. In recent years, however, it has grown exponentially. Since its acquisition in 2012 by Andrew Edlin (of the eponymous gallery), the event’s profile has continued to rise, attracting new gallerists and visitors. This year, a mix of domestic and international, commercial and nonprofit, as well as established and new galleries offers a compelling array of both historic and recent work. A preview of the fair makes it clear that the “outside” lies, in fact, at the very center of contemporary art currents. That said, art brut has not lost its identity; it may be in, but it has its sense of purpose.
This Thursday’s vernissage saw the fair at its peak even before its official opening. Steady crowds and excitement rising throughout the evening. All those with whom we spoke – organizers, exhibitors, visitors–embodied this enthusiasm. When we met Ariel Willmott, the director of the Fountain House Gallery, she was busy selling one piece of art to an enthusiastic client, greeting passersby, and helping her colleague retrieve a painting from the wall of their booth. She offered a blunt, but spirited, assessment: “People are sick of cold and detached artwork. They want to feel something.” Her statement is indicative of a greater shift in current tastes. A phenomenon that started on the margins has gone so far as to raise the expectations of fine art everywhere.
Becca Hoffman, the fair’s director, agrees. A week before opening night, we spoke with her at her new office on Bowery Street, surrounded by the unpacked boxes of her recent relocation. “I think we’re experiencing the change where it’s all [just] art,’ she said. “One hopes that there won’t be distinctions in the future, that outsider art will be shown on a broader scale in contemporary museums, in more biennials, and come to the forefront.”
Hoffman points out that the event appeals to diverse audiences. Asking prices range from as much as three quarters of a million to as little as fifty dollars. Contemporary art galleries, each representing a handful of outsider artists, as well as major collectors, and even representatives of museums looking to augment their collections, are present. The diversity of exhibitors and works on view can easily lead one to question the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ or ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. According to Hoffman, relying on these terms “gets a little tough these days.”
Phillip March Jones, the director of the Andrew Edlin Gallery, offered an explanation of his own as to what comprises the distinction. Having exhibited at other fairs, including Art Basel Miami and the Armory Show, he said of the Outsider Art Fair, simply, “It’s a lot more fun. People seem happier.” He was right. That evening, it was impossible not to share his excitement. Everyone around us was smiling, laughing, and engaged not only with the art, but genuinely with one another.
The fair’s grid of booths is structured in such a way as to offer a surprise around every corner. Often, we found ourselves crossing paths with old friends. Aloïse Corbaz was present in more than one location the form of her characteristically red-robed heroines. Among the Andrew Edlin Gallery selections was a towering piece by Domenico Zindato that bears the poetic title “Purposes and Prayers of the Coloured Mind Pouring Drops of Love over the Feelings of Woven Worlds of Intuitions.” His minutely crafted patterns of leaves, human hands, and animals elicit wonder and delight, and it was gratifying to witness other visitors marveling as we did.
The Ricco Maresca Gallery booth houses two of Gil Batle’s familiar, intricately carved ostrich eggs. These three-dimensional tales of the artists’ harrowing prison experiences have borne a happy ending: Norman Brosterman, the artist’s agent, informs us that Batle is safely back in the Philippines and hard at work on new projects in the wake of his unexpectedly high-profile but well-deserved notoriety.
Jones says that the Andrew Edlin Gallery had taken a “greatest hits” approach, and were showing older favorites like Adolf Wölfli, Aloise Corbaz, and Martín Ramírez. Similarly, the Creative Growth Art Center from Oakland, California, brought a selection of their own ‘superstars’ whose works are now part of MoMA’s collection, like Dan Miller’s drawings composed of overwritten script. But both Jones and Catherine Nguyen, Creative Growth’s gallery manager, chose to present works by both more established artists alongside emerging ones, in an attempt to promote the latter by sharing their work with a broader audience.
Among the exhibitors are not only commercial galleries, but also nonprofit organizations that work with outsider artists–such as Healing Arts Initiative (HAI) on Long Island, Creative Growth, and Fountain House amongst others. Attending representatives of these organizations were extremely positive about the rising prominence of outsider art, as well as the broader impact engendered by supporting it. Heather Levine of HAI said participation in the fair provides an increased “sense of self, responsibility, and self-awareness” to the artists. Catherine Nguyen of Creative Growth similarly mentioned that the interest in outsider art means more exposure for initiatives like hers, and that this ultimately benefits the artists. Fountain House’s Willmott added that the artists from her gallery were so excited about participating in the fair that she had taken several phone calls from the artists, in the midst of all the activity, asking her for any updates. Like Levine, she asserted the importance of artists receiving acknowledgment for their work.
It very well may be that it is this precise connection between the artist and his or her work that visitors can sense, and appreciate. Exhibitors were eager and pleased to speak to us about the artists they represented. In some cases, artists, like Nancy Josephson, were on hand to speak for themselves. Represented by Lindsay Gallery of Columbus, Ohio, she showed us the exquisite brooches she handcrafts out of stunning glass taxidermy eyes. Likewise, Daniel Swanigan Snow of Brooklyn’s Cathouse FUNeral led us into the tent-like structure that houses a Dada-esque robot sculpture and mechanistic assemblages featuring crystal and wire.
Swanigan admits that he is not really sure what ‘outside’ means anymore and, to be certain, this year’s Outsider Art Fair further blurs the line. With exhibitors from as far as Haiti and Japan, organizations representing not only folk art and art brut, and also more conventional art galleries, this is a visual feast of vastly different, yet consistently satisfying art. More than pleased with our evening foray, we began to consider whether ‘outsider art’ can simply be explained as that which is not over-studied and cerebral, but rather touches you emotionally in one way or another. As Hoffman explained, “It completely moves you. It hits you in a place where [you] can react. And it’s exciting, that reaction.” We agree, and encourage you to share in the experience.
Not to be missed, the 2016 Outsider Art Fair runs through this Sunday, January 24.