On a late Sunday morning, the Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan is busy with excitement and a mild sense of urgency. It is the last day of the 2017 Outsider Art Fair, and the opportunities to see old favorites or discover something new are waning–until next year. With sixty-two exhibitors, this is the event’s biggest iteration so far. There is a lot to take in, and the crowd only grows denser throughout the day.
Artists who made their debut at the fair in previous years, some now among the ‘classics’ of outsider art, share walls with newcomers. As we wander around the space, pushed along by the crowds, the exhibitors’ booths reveal their treasures: a Martin Ramirez or Adolf Wölfli; Domenico Zindato’s rhythmic patterns and Hiroyuki Doi’s circles; M’onma‘s nightmarish clown masks and Gil Batle’s carved eggs. It is a walk through memory, with fortuitous surprises along the way. Keep your feet nimble and your mind focused, as it will be a long journey.
A brochure for the fair invites us to see our visit as a “road trip” across the United States and beyond, as we discover local artists along the way. The idea of travel is not just a metaphor: if any single theme emerges from this year’s fair, for us it is architectural and map-like images. Many artworks explore space and place, and create the illusion of being transported to some real or imagined location.
According to Tom di Maria, the director of Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, viewers love outsider art precisely because it creates an alternative realm with its own rules for the viewer to journey into. At the panel “From Obscurity to Prominence: The Discovery and Stewardship of Outsider Art,” held in association with the fair, di Maria said that artists at Creative Growth are “privileged” to live in a “little bubble.” They inhabit a world of their own making, where they are beholden only to their imagination. And we, the public, are privileged to be their fellow travelers, and that was the spirit we took with us upon attending the fair.
Near the entrance of the fair pavilion, the Chicago-based gallery Western Exhibitions shows three bird’s-eye views of Cincinnati drawn by Courttney Cooper. Using his extraordinary spatial imagination, eye for detail, and quirky humor, Cooper creates a splendid vision of his hometown during a never-ending Oktoberfest. In one of the drawings, hot-dog dirigibles and hot-air balloons shaped like pretzels and beer jugs float above the painstakingly rendered urban panorama. Cincinnati is drawn block by block with its gables and turrets, churches and bridges, aquarium and fairgrounds. Under the spell of Oktoberfest, it becomes one all-encompassing celebration. It is hard to believe this has been achieved using only a ball-point pen.
Down the first aisle, we come across Jim Work (b. 1944), whose drawings are represented by the Pardee Collection in Iowa City. Work uses bright-colored crayons to depict the small-town Midwestern architecture that shapes his world. His red barns and yellow and orange houses are shown in detailed front elevations against clear blue skies. While many drawings present ‘portraits’ of individual structures–some, like the “Sonar Tower” of 1990, fairly complex and idiosyncratic–Work’s real achievement are his large ‘scrolls’ that weave these structures together into an urban network. According to the collector’s information, these scrolls can reach a remarkable 250 feet in length. In the scroll displayed here–“Highway” from 1970–a network of blue and purple roads connect barns and houses in an intricate maze. With roads shown in aerial view and buildings in front elevation, as if on a map, “Highway” reads like a key to Work’s inner world. Each building is lovingly ‘constructed’ and given an individual character by means of asymmetrical roofs and window placement, or variations in detailing.
The architectural imagination triumphs in a cityscape of Tokyo by Mamadou Cissé. According to Antoine Ritsch-Fisch, the owner of the gallery of the same name, Cissé has never been to Tokyo. The artist used maps and photographs to create his vision. Cissé is clearly a master of the axonometric drawing, but his technical skill as a draughtsman is enlivened by brilliant color: buildings are outlined in a silver pen, making the metropolis look like a modern-day illuminated manuscript.
A different, beautiful and uncanny architecture is created by Leopold Strobl, presented by Ricco Maresca Gallery. Strobl’s miniatures show oblique, perspectivally distorted views into secluded gardens and courtyards. The images create the feeling that we are peeking into a forbidden place or hearing a whispered secret. This is an insular, private world, very much unlike Cissé’s metropolis.
As we move deeper into the maze of the gallery, each booth presents its own sense of place. The New York-based Y Gallery shows Ruben Natal-San Miguel’s photographs of the people and buildings of Harlem and other New York City neighborhoods. Each of the places and characters captured by Natal-San Miguel dazzles with bright lights, big jewelry, and intense gazes. The places are rundown, yet filled with dramatic stories; the people in the portraits are strong yet vulnerable. An androgynous young man wearing the word “Fierce” in the form of an oversized necklace, and a woman with handcuff-shaped earrings looking the viewer straight in the eye embody the resilience and spirit of the neighborhood. In the poster-sized prints, each individual is presented as the star of their own life. Natal-San Miguel shows that New York truly reveals its grit and glamor on the personal scale.
Henry Boxer Gallery from Richmond in the United Kingdom shows a striking stained-glass panel by Pinkie Maclure. The work depicts six intertwined figures, their bodies writhing in pain as they struggle to wrest themselves from the mirrors they are holding. Each is incapable of looking away from his or her own reflection. Maclure creates a medieval-like morality tale for the present day that is, clearly, a warning for all of us. “Look out,” a banner above the scene says, in a pun at once funny and sinister. Elsewhere in her work, especially in another stained-glass panel called “The Collectors,” Maclure turns her gaze directly at the art world. “[T]hey want to possess and control all that is rare and beautiful,” the artist states in her description of this work.
Maclure’s admonition of collectors poses the very important question of exhibiting, narrating, and dealing in outsider artists’ work. How does one do justice to artists capable of constructing their own worlds? This question was a key one at the panel “From Obscurity to Prominence” before the fair. Karen Patterson, a curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, discussed the case of Eugene von Bruenchenhein, who spent his whole life creating his own visual culture and mythology together with his wife Marie. At the time of his death, his house’s interior was painted and filled with sculpture and with photographs that he and Marie developed in their bathroom. Even though von Bruenchenhein rose to exceptional prominence after his death, the original setup of his work was destroyed, and his oeuvre was preserved in the form of individual objects. Only photographs of the house survive. Patterson spoke of the particular difficulties of working with artist-made environments.
The Outsider Art Fair was a forum in which galleries showed different experiments with spaces in which their artists’ work can be at home. For example, Magic Markings from Brooklyn, New York, who showed drawings from India from the 18th century to the present, set up their booth as a mystic or scholar’s study–with a desk, soft carpet, and a literal cabinet of curiosities. Perhaps most successful were the booths set up by the artists themselves. Like last year, Daniel Swanigan Snow created an installation that resembled something between an antiques shop and a nightclub, his robot-like assemblages of found objects flashing in the semi-darkness.
The Outsider Art Fair this year showed not only an incredible diversity of artwork, but also different approaches to presenting and narrating it. Our visit did feel like a long journey through imagined spaces, presented in drawings, photographs, or whole structured environments. Sometimes the artists would invite us in, and sometimes dealers and gallerists would be our guides into magical, obscure places. We are looking forward to the fair’s return in 2018.