Why do we create?
The answers are as varied as humans themselves. An active police officer journaling his cases. A recluse documenting his hallucinogenic visions. A blind man building magnificent sculptures in his backyard to scare away the birds from his plants.
At the Outsider Art Fair in Paris, the common unifier is, undeniably, an urgent passion to create. Each gallery exhibits works of visual mastery with a raw intensity that can only be defined as l’art brut. And this year, more than ever, Paris is paying attention. The fair’s fourth year in Paris featured 40 exhibitors from all over the world with a more European focus than the fair’s New York counterpart.
“It takes time to establish roots, and we are really starting to establish roots here. In the past five years, there’s been such an increase in the outsider art movement – there’s a lot more attention paid to outsider art now, because I think people are looking for something real,” fair director Becca Hoffman observes. “That’s a lot of what Outsider Art is. There’s a passion to all of the dealers and artists. There’s a different emotional reaction.”
Despite its growing momentum, fair organizers were intent on preserving the personal, eclectic setting that art brut is intended for. The venue, Hotel du Duc, originally built as a casino for the Duke of Morny in 1864, has all the sumptuous, extravagant ambiance one could imagine from Napoleon III’s Second Empire. As Hoffman identified, “the contrast of the classically French architecture with outsider art creates an intimate setting,” while enchantingly transporting the visitor.
Winding through the decorous maze of galleries showcasing art brut from all corners of the world is transformative. Each piece of art is more unique and visually arresting than the last. What truly sets this exhibition apart, however, is the raw, urgent emotion emanating from the gallery walls.
Roberta Smith, an art critic for the New York Times, once observed in an interview with Jack Cocker of the BBC, “What if there is this inborn urge to be an artist? Inborn in these guys who have no chance. The thing that I think we look for in art is a kind of urgency, like the artist could not help but do it.”
This urgency rings clear throughout the exhibition. No matter the stylistic choices, geographic location, time period, background, or creative intent, each piece is undeniably genuine, and has its own unique quality that makes us feel what it is to be human.
One such example is artist Marie-Claire Guyot, who was known as a talented, contemporary portrait painter while she was alive. However, “she kept her best work secret” explains Maroncelli 12 gallery owner, Antonia Jacchia. “Her family knew she was a painter, but she had depression. An art critic urged her to use painting as her release, and use her pain and anxiety in her work. When she died, the family found out that there were many paintings that were hidden and now are famous”. In an exhibit aptly entitled “The Secret Opera”, Guyot’s hidden work is prominently displayed. Each painting reveals her inner struggle through an artistic process in which she is always the subject of her works. According to the gallery, her opera is, “a solitaire trip inside soul pains: silent and grasped by her own sight, she runs from a painting to another and in the meantime the canvas painted all over with red color look as if they would explode like life blood earth.”
On the other hand, artist Charles Sabba chronicles his life in a much more open fashion. An active lieutenant from the New York City police force who has worked with INTERPOL to recover stolen art, Sabba’s main exhibit is a personal journal of vignettes using pastel and inked fingerprints on police finger prints cards. Entitled “My Wall of Resistance”, many of the cards feature imitations of the stolen artwork, with detailed notes of the case scrawled in pen on the back. Other subjects range from mug shots of art thieves, to personal interests such as French Avant-Gardes culture and physics, to snapshots of his past. The many layers of his art work are very important, says gallery personnel Carlos Garcia-Montero, because in showcasing his personal diary, Sabba’s work is essentially “an expression of what humans are.”
One of the featured curatorial projects this year was Gérard Audinet’s “Self-Portrait With My Neuroses”. Selected from la collection abcd Art Brut, Audinet shows us that “the limit between official and outsider art is very thin” says exhibit personnel Julia Francias. The artists in this exhibit range from a great scientist (Leopold Hugo, Victor Hugo’s nephew, 1828-1895) to an award-winning yet social outcast academic (Francois Chifflart, 1825-1901), interconnected with established outsider artists. No matter their social position, each self-portrait expresses the idea that there might not be such a thing as completely “normal”. As Audinet writes in the OAF catalog, there is much that connects them all: “from academic to self-taught artists, from bourgeois to modest means artists, from apprentice to mediums. Under the common denominator of disorder or neurosis, perhaps will emerge the contours of what I have previously called “the democracy of the marvelous.”
Shrine Gallery, a newcomer to the fair this year, features African-American artists from the deep South. Gallery owner Scott Ogden, who has also produced a documentary entitled “Make” capturing the lives of each of his artists, also identified a common thread. “We try not to highlight the artists’ disability, although they all had one. We call the film “Make” because, all these individuals, whether it just happened naturally or they decided to do it. They all found a lot of meaning through art making, and it transcends whatever life problems they were in the midst of.”
Each artist, Ogden continues, is connected because of their deep interest in expressing something with their art: “It’s not making it to sell. It’s making it to get it out, or to scare the birds, or in some cases, we might never know what they were doing or why they were doing it. Everyone can take their own ideas of what it is.”
Whatever the intention of the artist, the Outsider Art Fair continues to create a captivating forum for interpretation.