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by N. F. Karlins
|The big trend among the more than 30 dealers at the 8th edition of the Outsider Art Fair at the Puck Building in Soho, Jan. 28-30, 2000, was the noticable influx of European work, in the booths of American and European dealers alike. Formerly rare examples of Adolf Wölfli's drawings were everywhere, as were works from the psychiatric patients of Gugging, Austria. The usual lively mix of Outsider, naïve, folk, "Art brut," visionary and occasional kitsch remained making the discovery of great pieces, of which there were many, all the more exhilarating.
Here's a quick rundown on the most interesting new dealers and artists.
Wasserwerk, Galerie Lange from Siegburg, Germany -- a newcomer to the fair -- offered a parade of the brightly colored largish Pop Art-like gouaches by long-time European favorite Josef Wittlich. Royalty, as in his Princess Margaret ($7,000), and military men were common subjects, painted in his typically lush colors.
Completely unexpected were the semi-abstract figurative drawings of Munich-based artist Alexandra Huber. Pulsing with Expressionist energy and a sure grasp of composition, her work -- seen for the first time in New York at the fair -- had would-be buyers lined up at the preview party on Thursday night, a benefit for the Museum of American Folk Art. Her larger drawings were $1,500; her smaller pieces at about 6 x 6 in. were probably the most reasonably priced items at the fair at only $200. The work was often wry, always compelling.
Stähli. Zürich. Kunsthandel, also new to the fair, introduced the work of Alfred Stief. Born in 1952, Stief has spent much of his life institutionalized for mental illness in his native Germany. His crocheted sculptures of cord made more of an impression than his colorful drawings of fairy tales and figures in landscapes or his pictures made of pasted bits of colored wool. His crocheted Head with Hat was snapped up for $1,000.
There was plenty of good work from Americans, new and old. Margaret Bodell did double duty. She presented work from her own gallery, including the enigmatic formulae-and-word drawings of ballpoint pen and tape of Melvin Way (around $1,500), already an influence on many younger artists. Nearby she presided over an installation of works from the Hospital Audiences, Inc., new to the fair this year, but hardly new to New York art lovers.
One of HAI's programs sends artists into various institutional and outpatient settings to give workshops, which have discovered many talented artists, like Rodney Thornblad. His large battle scene of thousands of fighting stick figures, studded with vignettes like The Last Supper ($2,500), dominated a strong grouping of works. Included were the odd, almost surreal, ballpoint pen drawings of animals by the better-known Ray Hamilton ($1,500).
Newcomer Sindy Lutz, once an intern at Ricco/Maresca, debuted with the gallery at the fair. Her stapled collages of female figures combined frenzied drawings of sexual organs with snipped out photos from fashion mags. They managed to be both brutal and elegant in their analysis of female identity. Here's a young artist to watch.
Aron Packer of Chicago displayed a selection of works from the estate of Uncle Joe. Little is known about this secretive artist of Polish descent, who worked at a now-defunct amusement park in Chicago. At his death at 43, a closed-off room was found to contain macabre sculptures, perhaps related to a secret society of one, but bearing traces of a carnival environment. Most important were his colored wax masks with crab-claw teeth and doll eyes priced at around $10,000.
The late Robert L. Walker, a gardener, odd-job man and cab driver from Savanna, was known for doodling, but it was only at this death that his architectural drawings of exteriors in the historic district came to light. The Barbara Archer Gallery of Atlanta had the estate with prices ranging from $900 to $3,500.
Other works by established artists that caught my eye: the vivid green and yellow oil Nine Birds by Morris Hischfield at Galerie St. Etienne ($90,000); a large painting of miners by Albina Felski at Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago ($10,000); a small James Castle stitched clothing construction at J. Crist, Boise, Idaho, ($5,800); a beaded hanging of the Haitian loa Symbie Boumba by Constant at Galerie Bourbon-Lally (Petionville, Haiti); and a Malcah Zeldis acrylic of Miss America ($4,500) at the Gasperi Gallery, New Orleans. Shortly after seeing Miss America, I bumped into the artist herself. She was not the only artist around. Many artists routinely troll this show, which is bursting with ideas.
The Outsider Fair always encourages local galleries to stage special shows. Here's a summary.
European Outsiders at Galerie St. Etienne
A survey of European Outsiders at Galerie St. Etienne asks "European Self-Taught Art: 'Brut' or Naïve?" (to Mar. 11). The gallery's brochure/checklist contains a thoughtful essay discussing how particular groups of Europeans first became aware of Outsiders and reflects on how that shaped perceptions of the work and the terms to describe it. The 70 pieces on display, a first-rate mix of loans and paintings and drawings for sale, are used as illustrations.
Whatever your opinion about the question raised, you are guaranteed to be made speechless by the works of Russian newcomer Vasilij Romanenkov (b. 1953). A quiet man from a small village, he moved to Moscow where he paints and works as a gardener. He trained as a cabinetmaker. That may have influenced his Motherhood, in mixed mediums and covered with a varnish-like substance. It has three vertical panel-like elements embedded in larger areas of designs, composed of hundreds of parallel lines. At the lobed top of each is a face; at the bottom, feet. The panels are reminiscent of stained-glass windows, that is, if stained-glass windows had feet. All three of his works sold at the gallery's opening night.
Works by several Yugoslavian artists, more prominent in Europe, are here. Sava Sekulic's folkloric works, like The Hero and the Fairy filled with humans, fairies and composite creatures, and Ilja Bosilj-Basicevic's fantastic The Birds of Ilyade are stand outs.
Also handsome are two gouaches by the well-known German artist Josef Wittlich (1903-1982). His brightly colored figurative pieces are highly sought after, and his Lady Di in Pink Dress is a stunner worth every bit of its $10,000 asking price.
A selection of works by the American Henry Darger (1892-1973) are being highlighted in a small alcove and run from $12,000 for a small drawing of one of his Blengin dragon-like creatures to $75,000 for one of his elaborate watercolors with collage, roughly 2 x 10 ft. wide, that he used to illustrate his epic about seven little girls with harrowing adventures.
Johnnie S. Swearingen, others at Phyllis Kind
At the Phyllis Kind Gallery, a mini-retrospective of the Reverend Johnnie S. Swearingen's oils is the focus upstairs. Swearingen (1908-1993) was born to black sharecroppers in East Texas. He lived a hard life and returned to his home from California to care for his ill father. He became a minister, married a second time and began to paint scenes of rural life. His best work is organized into areas of differing patterns and designs. There are no straight lines, just arcs that work together to capture the sweep of life itself. His palette often consists of a sour lemon yellow, purple and deep brown-black. Not an easy combo, but he pulls it off. His paintings go from $5,000 for Chopping Cotton to $15,000 for Congregation of Money Changers.
The real news here is downstairs amid a potpourri of works. Kind had shown a few small pieces by the young Italian, Domenico Zindato, at the fair last year, but this marks his gallery debut. Zindato's mostly small mixed-media works often have human figures, written words in several languages (the artist speaks seven), and/or a few animals or fantasy hybrids. Their overall minute patterning of great delicacy gives them the feeling of Indian miniatures. Not surprising, as the artist has traveled extensively, including to India. Zindato now lives in Mexico City and the vivid colors and bold designs of that place appear occasionally, too. He's definitely someone to watch. And that should not be a problem with his first one-person show slated for February at the gallery. His drawings range from $850 to $3,000.
Also being shown in New York for the first time are the painted corrugated-cardboard pieces of Jesse Montes. Born and raised amid a large family in rural Mexico, he came to the United States at 21, worked a variety of jobs, married and is now retired. He started by making a picture frame of cardboard and has never looked back. He curls thin strips of corrugated cardboard, so that the rough ends, sometimes painted and sometimes not, form discrete areas in pictures of Mayan deities, Old West figures, like his Wyatt Earp, and stars of pop culture. His Mel Gibson is sold, but at last look his Antonio Banderas could still be had for $1,500.
Edward Nagrodski, Ionel Talpazan at American Primitive
American Primitive is presenting the first showing of work by Edward Nagrodski (1915-1999). This inventor was born in Paterson, NJ, but spent most of his life in Port Jervis, NY. He was a model maker and did research in manufacturing automation. After he felt the government robbed him of a patent, he turned into a protester, focusing on tax issues, but rarely giving up a chance to make fun of politicians Nixon and Rockefeller. He developed a persona as a tax outlaw, complete with a horned mask and Yap Yap Truth Gun, both up for sale. He even distributed his own currency. You can own a piece of currency for only $75, but his Yap Yap Talking Gun, which has a speaker in its coconut head will set you back $7,500.
Ionel Talpazan, a regular at the gallery, is also getting a one-person show. Devoted to depicting UFOs since observing one during his childhood in Romania, his current crop of colorful saucer drawings are among his best. A five-by-five foot oil from 1997 is a knockout, priced at $8,500.
Leroy Person at Luise Ross
Luise Ross' "Leroy Person: Sculpture and Drawings" (thru Feb. 19) is the first show of this important artist's work in New York. It may be that this is the first of his drawings anywhere. Person (1907-1985) was a retired sawmill worker from rural Occhineechee, North Carolina. His furniture and small sculptures decorated with rough incising and wax crayons were first widely seen in the Museum of American Folk Art's "Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century."
Person's affection for his tools is evident in their frequent outline on many of his pieces. The gallery has several of them, all with incised wood handles, on view. His drawings, all done in pencil and crayon, contain images of tools, plants, a peacock (inspired by watching NBC), and grids with letters and triangles. His sculptures include a basket of telephone wire along with large and small wood pieces, some painted in one color and others embellished with many. His "Disk/Desk" is a wonderful rough-hewn piece, and the most expensive thing in the exhibition at $12,000. Person's polychromed and carved wood-handled hatchet is $2,000, while his drawings are priced from $500 to $5,000.
Freddie Brice at Kerry Schuss
Kerry Schuss is devoting his latest show to Freddie Brice's paintings of animals, interiors, and timepieces (to Mar. 11). (Brice's subjects also include portraits, hands, cooking and eating utensils, and airplanes.) He was born in Charleston, but started to work via a psychiatric day program in New York. Having suffered a stroke a few years ago, Mr. Brice is still producing drawings, but can no longer tackle the large acrylic-on-board or -canvas pieces in this show.
Right from the start, his massive forms, usually rendered in black and white with only an occasional but telling use of color, were a hit. His animals, real and imaginary, possess a tremendous dynamic power, especially those that seem to metamorphose into humans (and vice versa). The interiors and clocks and watches have an imposing strength all their own. Prices go from $2,000-$5,000 for the paintings, but drawings are only $350-$500.
"Facts and Figures" at Margaret Bodell
Margaret Bodell is taking a different tack in the show "Facts and Figures" (thru Feb. 27), mixing self-taught with school-trained contemporary artists. Can you really tell them apart? I found that in some cases, yes, in some, no. Who cares as long as the works are good?
Of particular interest were Roger Swike's drawings of letters, words, and numbers augmented with the names of game shows or sketches of faces ($350-$400). Each has touches of bright color in just one area. The works are direct, beautifully balanced compositions that capture the child-like glee you once had discovering all the cool things you could do with the alphabet. They may remind you of Donald Baechler, but with more purity and punch.
"The Intuitive Eye" at Ricco/Maresco
At Ricco/ Maresco, there's nothing to buy, but plenty to see. "The Intuitive Eye: Selections from the Mendelsohn Collection" (thru Feb. 29) gives everyone the opportunity to see highlights from one of the outstanding private collections of 19th and 20th-century self-taught art. Gael And Michael Mendelsohn of Westchester were bitten by the folk art bug in 1982. Since then, they have acquired such stunning pieces as Morris Hirshfield's 1942 nude with a mirror American Beauty and one of the best watercolor-and-collage pieces by Henry Darger. A major painting with three-dimensional additions by William Hawkins, Tasmanian Tiger #3, feels right at home with unknown Stanley Papio's Bust of a Woman made out of chrome-steel car bumpers.
A quilt from around 1925 by Cecil B. White is loaded with vignettes that are witty and charming. It is well worth a very long look, as is a fired clay and slip-glazed Portrait of a Black Man by P. W. McAdam. A grouping of armless wooden figures once used as fetishes from Woodbrige, NJ, is haunting, while a Folding Purse Puppet from the early 20th century is just plain eerie. Don't miss it.
All of the above galleries showed at the Outsider Art Fair in addition to presenting the shows mentioned.
Cavin-Morris and Fleisher/Ollman
Last year two long-time exhibitors at the Fair decided not to return. Cavin-Morris has a special show at its regular quarters in Soho in conjunction with the Fair. Fleisher/Ollman Gallery of Philadelphia is taking over the John McEnroe Gallery for a while.
Cavin-Morris actually has two shows. The main gallery's "Self-Taught Artists of the 21st Century" has some finely shaded floral oil pastels by the medium Anna Zemánková (modestly priced at $700) and a good-looking oil of Adam and Eve by Justin McCarthy ($5000). Brand new to New York are Kevin Sampson's sculptures that incorporate bones and other mixed media (priced at $1,500-$1,800), rising from about one to two and a half feet high.
Another revelation, perhaps literally, is the automatic drawings of Helen Butler Wells. This medium was the center of an influential spiritual circle called the Jansen Group in New York City. Her son died at an early age and became her guide to otherworldly contacts, including famous persons, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a variety of Native Americans and alien visitors. The gallery has a group of about 50 abstract graphite drawings by Ms. Wells dating from 1915 to 1922 ($750-$1,200) and several others in color by her daughter, who took over the group after her mother's death.
A smaller gallery holds "New Year in Transamerica: Drawings by Chris Hipkiss." These new graphite-and-ink drawings by this young British visionary deal with his concerns for technology's harmful effects on the environment. In a post-Apocalyptic world, he pictures a symbolic injection of a potentially regenerative female force into polluted Nature. His remarkable draughtsmanship makes his sci-fi-inspired allegorical approach to industry vs. nature enjoyable whether or not you agree with his ideas. A roughly 6 x 8 inch piece can be had for $450, but one of his largest pieces, about 33 x 57 in., will cost $4,500.
"American Self-Taught Artists," which was on view at Fleisher/Ollman's temporary digs till Feb. 4, featured a nice selection of tattoo "flash," or patterns. Small twisted-wire constructions with various detritus by the anonymous "Philadelphia Wireman" still look fresh and are well priced. One sporting a feather and blue comb is going for $850. A small Leopard carving with paint and glitter by the Elijah Pierce seems a steal at $2,800, especialy compared to the $275,000 being asked for a carved limestone Angel by William Edmondson or the $600,000 for a Horace Pippin oil from 1940, the Amish Letter Writer.
A grouping of Pennsylvania fracture drawings, small sculpture, and an exceptional dower chest from 1832 are as interesting as the contemporary pieces. A painted cut-paper with an eagle and flags is yours for $7,200, but the dower chest is $75,000.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.
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