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Midwestern Values: Contemporary and Self-Taught

Duff Lindsay first met outsider artist Elijah Pierce when the art dealer was studying film at the Ohio State University. “I was blown away by the man and his work, and there was something about him that took my breath away,” says Lindsay, who established his eponymous, Columbus-based art gallery in 1999. “I was so taken with this elderly man, who didn’t need anyone to confer the title of ‘artist’ on him. He just was who he was: a brilliant artist and an inspirational person. It motivated me to learn more about this type of art, and who these people were that made it.”

While a bulk of the most well-known artists of the outsider art market hail from the American South, the Midwest has played a prominent role in the history and revitalization of the genre. “There’s something about this part of the country,” says Lindsay, who counts the Columbus, Ohio area in particular to be a regional home to a number of quite famous outsider artists he had the pleasure of knowing personally, including William Hawkins, Elijah Pierce, Ernest “Popeye” Reed, Janis Price, Paul Patton, and Tella Kitchen. “As the country was being settled, all of the people who settled in the West had to come through here, and they tended to leave behind a lot of their folk traditions,” says Lindsay of the proliferation of self-taught artists from the Midwest. “The wood carvers, the quilters, the decoy-makers, all of these antecedents to American folk art— the Midwest is a melting pot for those kinds of artistic traditions.”

Paul Patton, "Doctor's Office", 14" x 18", 1988. Image Courtesy of Lindsay Gallery.

Paul Patton, “Doctor’s Office”, 14″ x 18″, 1988. Image Courtesy of Lindsay Gallery.

For Chicago’s Carl Hammer, the impetus for taking part in the outsider art market too came from discovering the talent that abounded in the area. As a school teacher at Evanston Township High School in the civil rights era of the 1960s, Hammer recognized the importance of “people who weren’t on the inside, so to speak.” And when Hammer and his then-wife decided to build an art collection, they knew that what they were to acquire would not be of an “elitist” kind of work.

“The term that was used then was ‘grassroots’ art. Being schoolteachers, we were afforded the opportunity to travel in the summers and scour the countryside,” he explains. It was through those excursions that Hammer came upon the work of Albert Zahn, a northern, Door County Wisconsin woodcarver (a large collection of his work is now housed in Sheboygan’s Kohler Art Center). “I drove past his house, an amazing environment that was still pretty much intact,” he recalls, “Zahn had carved birds and eagles climbing the trees and the house. It blew my socks off. I realized that this was the kind of person that I wanted to find more of.”

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Installation view of Joseph E. Yoakum’s exhibition “Spiritual Unfoldments” at Carl Hammer gallery, September 11 – October 31, 2015. Image courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.

Hammer established his Chicago-based gallery in 1979, and after Hammer became the sole representative of Charles Shannon’s collection of the sought-after oeuvre of Alabama artist, Bill Traylor, the gallery’s visibility escalated. Both Traylor and Chicago-based self-taught artists, like Joseph Yoakum (whose work is currently on display at Carl Hammer Gallery through October 31, 2015) were not only warmly welcomed by the clientele, but by the members of one of the city’s most famous art movements, the Chicago Imagists. This group of figurative artists from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) embraced the weird, the lowbrow, art brut, and popular culture in a manner that is often cited as parallel to, but completely distinct from, New York’s Pop Art. With Chicago artist Roger Brown (whose collection of folk and outsider art has been partially preserved for the public to peruse within SAIC’s Roger Brown Study Collection) as an especially passionate supporter, outsider art received a daily vote of confidence from the local art community. “Chicago became more of a focal point for that kind of collecting and discovering artists outside the academic mainstream,” says Hammer.

Joseph E. Yoakum, Paradice[sic]Range near Damascus Syria South East Asia, Colored pencil and ballpoint pen on paper, 11 3/4 x 19 inches. Image courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.

Joseph E. Yoakum, “Paradice[sic]Range near Damascus Syria South East Asia”, Colored Pencil and Ballpoint Pen on Paper, 11 3/4″ x 19″. Image courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.

Obviously, for both Hammer and Lindsay, the outsider art market of the early days of their galleries is markedly different from the one that exists today. “When I began, the artists that so many dealers deal in today were still alive and producing art,” says Lindsay, “It was particularly the southern folk artists that people were collecting. Howard Finster was still alive, so was Mose Tolliver, Jimmy Lee Sudduth; that was the main of the focus of the market.” With the passing of these important figures, and the subsequent climbing prices of their resale, Lindsay notes the new attention being paid to a different segment of the genre, the “contemporary self-taught” artist.

“These artists are not rural, they’re not southern. They might be knowledgeable about art and folk art, but you would not consider them to be outsiders,” he explains. “They’re not isolated from the art world or the art marketplace.” According to Lindsay, it might be hard to tell that a self-taught contemporary did not receive a traditional art education, though in spirit, the work shares something with the visionary, inspirational, or vernacular characteristics that define the genre of outsider art. And not only do these kinds of artists compound the variety within the genre, but they offer new options to collectors. “A beginning collector cannot touch a Bill Traylor or a William Edmondson,” he notes. “Contemporary self-taught artists are providing the ability for younger people who are getting into collecting to afford to acquire. It’s those artists to me that are keeping this genre alive and vital. If we don’t have that kind of energy, than this genre doesn’t really have a strong future.”

Morris Jackson,"Ritual", 9" x 12." Image courtesy of Lindsay Gallery.

Morris Jackson,”Ritual”, 9″ x 12.” Image courtesy of Lindsay Gallery.

And it’s not only the marketplace that has evolved for outsider and self-taught artists. The art world dialogue surrounding the genre has evolved as well. Hammer cites the Museum of Modern Art’s 1990 exhibition, “High and Low: Modern Art and Culture” as a particularly frustrating example of the way in which art institutions were actively participating in great disservice to an entire segment of art history. “Of course, anybody who was self-taught or not academically trained was in the ‘low art’ analysis,” he recalls, “The disappointment I felt at that time, at the short sightedness of the museum making these kinds of horrible distinctions between the levels of art being high and low –that was a shock.” Luckily, the last two-and-a-half decades have seen a significantly improved institutional context for work made outside of academia. “There are very few museums still making that kind of distinction in terms of their collecting and exhibition regimen,” says Hammer. “Roberta Smith at the New York Times makes certain of that!”

Of course, as “outsider art” becomes increasingly entrenched and its position rectified within art history, the meaning and definition of the term itself becomes an issue. “More and more, the term ‘outsider artist’ is becoming an historical term,” notes Lindsay. “We use that term to refer to artists of the past who really were isolated. Now, incorrectly, it gets applied to contemporary, self-taught artists.” Similarly, Hammer recognizes the problem of terminology. “A lot of us are starting to wonder why we’re even using the term ‘outsider art’ anymore,” he says. “It’s time for an erasure of those kinds of distinctions: who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out.’ The way that the person comes to the creation experience has nothing to do with the final product.”

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