What Is “Outsider” in Unthinkable Times?

Bill Traylor, “Black Pig with Blue Eye” (ca. 1939–42), tempera on found cardboard, 11.75 x 11.75 inches (photo courtesy Just Folk)

It’s that time of year again, when the annual Outsider Art Fair pitches its big tent in downtown Manhattan, and its exhibitors roll out multicolored welcome mats, throwing open treasure chests filled with their latest discoveries from around the world: paintings, drawings, carvings, sculptures, and peculiar whatchamacallits in an array of forms and media.

Each arrival of this fair inevitably stokes the fires of now-familiar — and sometimes tired-sounding — debates surrounding which hard-to-classify concoctions from self-taught art-makers, situated by choice or circumstances on the margins of mainstream society and culture, can rightly be labeled “outsider art.” Get ready, too, for the usual gabfests around such perennial bugaboos as the notion that the “outsider” label is inherently derogatory, or that even the most reputable dealers are unethical exploiters of naïf art-makers whose works they bring to market.

Mario Mendoza, “Beast” (1980), ball point pen and felt tip marker on paper, 11 x 8.5 inches (photo courtesy Julie Saul Gallery)

But forget the squabbling about who or what might rightly be considered “outside.” Outside what? Much more interesting now, in a world in which fascism is on the rise, including in the United States, where a would-be president-king exemplifies the textbook definition of corrupt, autocratic, lawless rule, is the question of just where the “mainstream” is to be found. For, more and more, what was once edgy, out there, or unthinkable, from S&M to routine mass shootings, has become the stuff of sitcoms and ho-hum headlines.

Against this backdrop, the best outsider artworks offer not just an escape from the darkness of a soul-crushing moment, but also the solace (or deliverance) that emerges from this kind of art’s inherent truths. To discover — and seize upon — them is to find anchors in a storm.

Hassan, “Untitled” (ca. 2010–11), mixed media on wood, 8.5 x 12 inches (photo courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery)

Such compelling emotional power is particularly evident in the fair’s array of drawings — a mainstay of the art brut and outsider art genres. New York dealer Julie Saul will feature some in ballpoint-pen and marker inks by the Mexico City resident Mario Mendoza Alpizar, who, from the 1930s through the 1980s, made caricatures of celebrities and urban characters, as well as images of animals. Mendoza’s work was discovered by the American art historian James Oles, a specialist in Mexican modern art who teaches at Wellesley College. In a gallery handout, Oles has written a summary of what is known of Mendoza’s life, noting that the artist once “self-deprecatingly identifie[d] himself as a ‘bungling amateur draughtsman with pretensions of being an artist.’”

Dealer Scott Ogden of the Lower East Side’s Shrine recently found a cache of never-before-seen drawings and paintings by patients at northern London’s now-defunct Friern Hospital (formerly known as the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, its buildings have been transformed into housing). Produced between 1930 and 1960, these works caught the attention of the hospital’s head psychiatrist, Alec C. Dalzell, who had been influenced by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Shrine’s offerings include pictures in various media, including Lily Gibeon’s almost psychedelic cats in gouache on paper.

Issei Nishimura, “Copy” (2013), acrylic, colored gesso, and linen on plywood, 28.74 x 20.87 inches (photo courtesy Cavin-Morris Gallery)

Northern California’s Creative Growth Art Center, which introduced such crossover outsider-to-contemporary-art-market stars as Dan Miller and the late Judith Scott, will show drawings and totem-shaped ceramics by Dinah Shapiro, works whose compositions seem to emerge organically and construct themselves. From Paris, dealer Hervé Perdriolle will showcase boldly colored, oil-on-wood nature scenes by the Moroccan Ali Maimoune, which bring to mind the earth-honoring spiritualism of the paintings of the late Jamaican Intuitive Everald Brown (1917-2003). Perdriolle will also feature meditative, pencil-on-paper drawings by the singer Paban Das Baul, a mystic minstrel from the Indian state of West Bengal.

Bold, too, are the pictures of flat-topped, neatly rectangular houses or studiously perspectival pieces of modernist furniture created by Ousseynou Gassama, an itinerant Senegalese artist known as “Hassan,” who was last spotted around the port of Barcelona; his exact whereabouts are still unknown. New York’s Ricco/Maresca Gallery will present his mixed-media-on-wood paintings, which share some affinities with the ink-on-paper architectural drawings of the contemporary British self-taught artist Albert, who uses only one name, and whose works are represented by Henry Boxer, a London-based dealer and longtime OAF exhibitor.

Angelika, “Toy for Big and Small Children” (ca. 1940s), pencil on found paper, 4.50 x 4.25 inches (photo courtesy Just Folk)

Like many of his colleagues in the field, Boxer delights in — and counts on being able to deliver — surprises, and this year he will show, among other offerings, detailed drawings in pencil on found scraps of paper by a mediumistic artist known as “Angelika,” who resided at a psychiatric hospital in Potsdam in the 1940s. Her undated “Double Self-driving Lamp with Clock” and “Toy for Big and Small Children” depict just two of the contraptions she conjured up while the spirit moved her.

Over in the extra-bold category, look for the psychologically charged, drippy-trippy, semi-abstract tableaux in various media of the Japanese artist Issei Nishimura, a reclusive painter and prolific maker of drawings who lives in Nagoya, the center of Japan’s automotive industry. Sometimes inspired by American blues music, each of Nishimura’s images (a ribbon-like tongue dangling from a face or what appears to be the back of a head covered with eyeballs) is more unusual than the next. Cavin-Morris Gallery will be showing them at the fair for the first time, along with tempera-on-paper paintings by Tarcisio Merati (1934–1995), a technical draftsman and schizophrenic from the Bergamo area of northern Italy, whose mysterious, mechanical-architectural forms seem to hover in pictorial space like big balloons above unknown landscapes. Another Italian, Elisabetta Zangrandi (James Barron Art) from Verona, comes from a background as an embroiderer and nature lover — she sometimes paints rocks that she finds while hiking — to make big-eyed, acrylic-on-wood fantasy portraits set against multicolored backgrounds.

Elisabetta Zangrandi, “Regine dell’oceano” (undated), acrylic on wood, 15 x 29 inches (photo courtesy Cavin-Morris Gallery)

Sharing the spirit of these artists’ electric palettes are the exuberant abstractions in ink, gouache, and acrylic on paper of Queen Nancy Bell, a Philadelphia-based artist whose business card reads, “Done by the fingertips of Jesus, the fingertips of Jehovah, and the gospel of the Holy Spirit, amen. Master artist ordained by the churches.” Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman will bring them to the fair, while Galerie Gugging, part of the Art Brut Center Gugging, near Vienna, will highlight the work of the Austrian Heinrich Reisenbauer, whose Pop-flavored drawings in pencil and colored pencil on paper, or in Sharpie pen and acrylic on canvas, depict neat, repeated rows of drums, pears, apples, and other everyday subjects.

The Outsider Art Fair takes place at Metropolitan Pavilion (125 West 18th Street, Manhattan) from January 17-20. 

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