Impressive gallery shows are on display all over New York as part of "Outsider Art Week." This year, the main event, the opening of the Outsider Art Fair at the Puck Building, begins with a benefit for the American Folk Art Museum on the evening of Jan 27, 2004.
In the meantime, a sophisticated group show can be found, as usual around this time of year, at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in SoHo. One notable thing about the current exhibition is its title, "Autism/Asperger's/Art."
Autism, a series of developmental abnormalities, almost takes on as many diverse manifestations as art does ranging from social withdrawal, delayed or minimal speech facility, and repetitive gestures like head-banging or rocking, all the way to merely being shy and in greater need of a more structured environment than most other people require.
With autism in the news so much lately -- from discussions about the autistic hero of Mark Haddon's best-seller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time (Random House), to controversies over whether autism should be treated as a pathology or accepted as an alternative way of wiring the brain, the show adds more questions to the debates.
Should art of the mentally ill be considered different from other art? The drawings, paintings, collages, digital photos and computer animations by the 17 artists on display at Ricco/Maresca may be distinctive but are hardly alien to those already found in galleries throughout SoHo, Chelsea, Brooklyn and elsewhere. So are these "Outsiders" because of their mental condition?
Guest curator Dr. Larry E. Dumont, director of inpatient child and preadolescent psychiatry at KidsPeace Hospital in Orefield, Pa., asserts in an essay available at the gallery, "Artistic is autistic." He goes on to say that the personal vision of artists in general can be considered autistic, though this doesn't mean that they have autism. He also states that not all autistic artists are equally interesting, and that "What distinguishes [interesting] autistic artists is that unique passion they bring to their subject." It seems to me that this can be said of any interesting artist.
Autism and art -- immense, messy, and intertwined topics -- is the subject of a panel led by Dr. Dumont and including researchers and members of families dealing with autism at the American Folk Art Museum in New York on Jan. 25, 2005.
In the meantime, Ricco/Maresca has plenty of good work to savor, like the drawings by the gallery's own Laura Craig McNellis. She labels her still lifes, usually adorned with clouds and a bit of sun at the upper edge, in letters that don't constitute coherent words -- she is not literate -- yet the writings do underscore the importance of her images. They are an inherent part of her bold compositions that pull together objects that she encounters in her daily life.
She and many of the other autistic artists in this show have had other successful showings, both group and solo. They are certainly not outside the gallery and museum system, nor should they be. It's all art. So maybe the term "Outsider" needs to be retired.
"Neurodiversity" is the term favored by Pure Vision Arts, one of many art programs that have alumni in the Ricco/Maresca exhibition. Whether or not an artist is actually "trained" rather than "self-taught" by virtue of being in these programs is yet another issue. The programs vary in the amount of structure they provide, so any answer is bound to be dependent on the specific program. (Pure Vision, which deals with people with developmental disabilities, also will have a booth at the Outsider Show.)
At Ricco/Maresca, Susan Brown, one of Pure Vision's clients, is showing a colorful mixed-media drawing of cars, using roughly the same image again and again, arrayed in neat rows. Three recent charcoal portraits by Jonathan Lerman, a veteran of several shows at K. S. Art, are as compelling as ever.
Dan Miller's exciting abstractions are more frenetic, layers of color laid down by hyper-active mark-making. They're made by his compulsive rewriting of the same word over and over again. He's been shown at Creative Growth, an art program in Oakland, Ca., that has produced a host of important self-taught artists.
"Autism/Asperger's/Art" has the goods. It's a must-see for anyone who likes contemporary art.
One of the most impressive artists from last year's Outsider Show, who happens to be autistic, is getting his first New York gallery outing as part of a three-person show at Luise Ross Gallery in Soho. Not yet 20 years old, Jeroen Pomp is a Dutch phenomenon. He employs intense, non-naturalistic colors in portraits and both exterior and interior scenes. He thinks nothing of setting red oil paint against bright pink pastel.
Pomp's brazing portrait of his grandfather is a knockout, and his My Top Model, a nude surrounded by birds and wild animals, is incendiary. He's been shown at the Gallery Herenplaats, Rotterdam.
Also at Ross for the first time in New York is Jean-Pierre Nadau, whose huge Grand Canal de Versaille Etc. teems with tiny figures and vignettes. It would be even more stunning if he were not channeling the Gugging, Austria, artist Johann Garber. This is one "outsider" who seems very conscious of the documented art of that mentally ill artist.
The third newcomer is Thomas M. Burleson (1914-77), a Texan who worked as a night inspector at Lockheed on the West Coast, drawing during down time. He retired and worked constantly, leaving hundreds of drawings at his death. His abstractions contain geometric elements along with stairs-to-no-where, strange walls, fantastic machinery, and haunting clocks -- things Burleson would have been familiar with from the night shift but transformed into works both vividly attractive and surreal.
Another newcomer Harald Stoffers, who works in Germany, can be seen at Cavin-Morris Gallery. Like the late Austrian artist August Walla, he is mentally challenged and writes lots of letters, but he does not write them on walls or to label drawings like Walla. Stoffers begins a new letter in ink-on-paper every day, addressing his mother. He records his comings and goings, everyday minutiae, but in distinctive handwriting that becomes a personal form of calligraphy. He occasionally decorates them with tiny houses and tears the paper when he is finished.
But it is the lines, lines, lines, lines under, over, and through Staffer's script that convert his text into musical notations on staffs for unknown instruments and players. Stoffers is part of a group show at Cavin-Morris. The gallery has a one-person exhibition devoted to the hallucinatory, cave art-like drawings of Christine Sefolosha of Switzerland.
Over at Hospital Audiences, Inc., one of the best programs for the mentally ill in New York, director Elizabeth Marks sent out a nation-wide request for "Outsider Art" by self-taught people with mental disabilities. Work by 25 artists can be seen in "Contemporary Outsider Art in America: Survey 2005" at HAI in SoHo.
Are all of these artists autistic? In at least one case that I'm familiar with, the artist is schizophrenic and would prefer to be recognized for art alone.
The work comes from all over the country. I was impressed by the lush, broadly brushed mixed-media drawings by S. A. Murray from Burbank, Ca., and the alchemical formulae in ink by Melvin Way from HAI's art program. A huge multi-media sculpture from Philadelphian Betty Shostack, Portrait of Beauty, is richly textured with wood, wire, foam, beads and tissue paper, while another Philly artist, David Kime, is showing "Pre-hysteric" sculptures. These small, four-legged animals with melted crayon bodies and female doll faces and feet are edgy and unforgettable.
A group show at the Phyllis Kind Gallery is featuring four artists from Japan, all new to this country, from Atelier Incurve, a facility for the talented developmentally disabled. Shinki Tomoyuki has translated his fascination with pro wrestling into Macintosh-generated drawings that daringly distort space and juxtapose flat areas of color with patterning. Shinki's Houses, a work done in colored pencil by his friend Yumoto Mitsuo, has a lot in common with the architectural subjects of the Expressionist painter Egon Shiele.
Andrew Edlin Gallery, the only new addition to the roster of the Outsider Art Fair this year, has a mix of work by American and European outsiders. The obsessive, black ink drawings of the Frenchman Marc Lamy are especially fine. Lamy is not autistic but has worked under the influence of auditory hallucinations. There are many mediumistic artists who, like Lamy, can live ordinary lives. Should they be termed "artistically enabled?" And what would that imply about the rest ofus?
Galerie St. Etienne in midtown Manhattan is also showing European and American outsiders, including Adolf Wlfli and Henry Darger, as part of the gallery's 65th anniversary celebration.
Henry Darger (1892-1973) was an isolated artist, but was he autistic? I don't know, but Dr. Dumont has included his work in "Autism/ Asperger's/ Art." I do know that he has become so popular that I rarely make a foray into Chelsea without coming upon some tribute to him by a trained artist. Darger's use of pop-culture images and collage resonates with contemporary artists.
Another kind of tribute to "Outsiders," mentally challenged and not, is theway trained artists have appropriated their styles from Jean Dubuffet to Donald Baechler.
Since artists today are all soaking in the same media flood is it any wonder that they resemble each other?
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.