The Outsider Art Fair 2004, the 12th in the series, was held at the Puck Building in New York's Soho district during Jan. 23-25, with a preview on Jan. 22 to benefit the Museum of American Folk Art. The show looked better than ever, its 32 dealers offering a heady brew of works by new artists (new to New York, anyway) and by others making leaps in their artistic development, while also offering a good selection of classic self-taught talents.
Luise Ross Gallery showed two vividly colored oils by Reverend McKendree Robbins Long (1888-1976) of North Carolina, one a Biblical scene of Jesus reaching out to hordes of damned souls and another of an exotic "woman in red." Long's work is also on view at Ross' gallery on Broadway, his first show in the city, Jan. 3-Feb. 28. It's an excellent opportunity to become familiar with one of the more interesting new talents in the Outsider field.
Long turned to art as an adjunct to his ministry, not unlike many other preacher artists, ranging from Edward Hicks to Rev. Howard Finster, Rev. William A. Blayney and Sister Gertrude Morgan. Unlike the others, Long had solid training in art, even studying with the court painter to King George VI (who was on the throne 1936-52). Long abandoned an early undistinguished career in art to become an evangelist, beginning to illustrate the Bible, concentrating on that perennial folk-art favorite Revelations, some time in the 1940s.
The Damned Are Cast into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone (1968) is crammed with figures in chalky whites la El Greco and colors fresh from the tube, far distant from Long's initial artistic works. Other Old Masters, like Drer and Caravaggio, too, have influenced Long, yet he comes up with something unique, often inserting contemporary figures into his work. The features that make his later paintings stand out are the white/bright color contrasts, crowded yet well-defined compositions, lots of local North Carolina color in some backgrounds, and the wildly imaginative sea creatures and demons.
Long's other main subject is a 1940s vamp referred to by his critics as "the woman in red." She appears in about 50 paintings by the artist. In one entitled What Might Have Been, the woman strolls with two children, oblivious to the artist in the distance with his easel. A long-lost love hovers ever-so-closely but out-of-reach in what may be a fantasy or the real thing. Stay tuned, as more research is sure to be done on the artist.
Another find is the Italian-born artist Domenico Zindato, who is showing with the Phyllis Kind Gallery, and whom I recently had the pleasure of interviewing. He had his first exhibition here a few years ago and keeps getting better and better. Now living in Mexico, Zindato makes brilliantly colored pastel-and-pen works that freely combine figures with repetitive abstraction.
For sheer joy, it's hard to beat Zindato's meticulously detailed drawings, which have recently leaped in size from rectangles of several inches to several feet. Zindato has managed the new scale beautifully, and it's now even easier to get lost in his work. The large pieces take three months of six-to-eight-hour days to complete. His work boogies all over the wall and invites you to come along. His latest work is currently on view at the Kind Gallery in SoHo,
At the fair, Zindato's work shared the spotlight at the Kind booth with one of the largest and best of Martin Ramirez's collaged drawings. Here's hoping a museum snaps it up.
Speaking of masterworks, the Cavin-Morris Gallery booth featured several pieces of delicate wire sculpture and a couple of small paintings by Emery Blagdon (1907-86), the Nebraska farmer whose shed was crammed with a fantastic assemblage of 1,000-plus wire structures that made up what he considered his "healing machines." Several more Blagdon works were shown in a recent group exhibition at the Cavin-Morris space on Broadway in New York.
As desirable as these pieces are, the larger situation with Blagdon's healing machines is a tragedy. Blagdon's masterpiece deserves to be installed in a museum, or under a museum's care, as a whole. His construction may have been inspired by a family history of cancer, but the magic "cures" of his healing machines, which he shared with local people as a treatment for several ailments, are esthetic rather than physical.
But what we really need is a concerted effort to save the work for a public collection. Rumor has it that the price is around $2 million and that no museum is willing to pay it. The two men who bought the whole shebang at auction, and cataloged and preserved it for the last 18 years, obviously would like some cash for their efforts.
Reconstructed for the touring show "Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century" at the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum), Blagdon's machines made a spectacular impression, festooned with Christmas lights for illumination. It seems a perfect fit for the Museum's Contemporary Center, but the museum has pleaded poverty and is unable or unwilling to buy Blagdon's work. Blagdon's machines constitute the most important art installation not in a museum.
If the American Folk Art Museum or the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore or the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe or any of the many other art museums who purport to embrace contemporary self-taught art cannot afford the whole thing, what's wrong with pooling their efforts? If Matthew Barney's work can be shared by museums, why can't Blagdon's?
The 19 pieces that were sold were being "tuned" by Blagdon outside his main shed and had never been exhibited before. Before the main shed's holdings get away, I'd love to see the Dia Foundation, which has done splendid work in preserving installations, recreate the work at its new home in Beacon, New York. Leonard Riggio, please help!
At the Outsider Art Fair, the Ricco/Maresca Gallery had some impressive William Hawkins paintings. One, a Statue of Liberty, was pushed into another dimension by a collaged magazine snippet of a woman's eyes.
At Ricco/Maresca in Chelsea is "Cut It Out: Collaged Works by American Self-Taught Artists," which contains an impressive installation of several Hawkins' paintings. (Another show by the non-self-taught but fascinating Joseph Heidecker is also on view. Heidecker embellishes sepia cartes de visite with stiching or beading. The resulting works walk the fine line between decoration and S&M bondage.)
Several panoramic watercolor-and-pencil works by Henry Darger were among the blue chip offerings at Galerie St. Etienne at the fair. An absorbing one-person show at the gallery surveys the evolution of this important artist with the assistance of study materials from the American Folk Art Museum.
Pieces by established artists like Darger, Bill Traylor, Sam Doyle, Justin McCarthy and London-born Scottie Wilson -- all of considerable quality -- were offered at a number of booths.
At Chicago's Carl Hammer Gallery, one standout (along with Lee Godie paintings and works by Eugene von Bruenchenhein), was an anonymous memorial, roughly six feet high. A pyramid on a base was encrusted with pebbles and small, painted wood effigies of WWII presidents, politicians, and war heroes.
Dean Jensen of Milwaukee presented the drawings of the German artist Bruno Schleinstein (b. 1932) for the first time in this country. Schleinstein managed to have a stint in a mental institution, work as a street entertainer and appear in several films by Werner Herzog, even aspiring to create his own films. A wretched childhood spent in orphanages seems to have seeped into many of his pencil drawings, which have mother figures, often not very pleasant ones. Only a few pieces were available, but they had me wanting to see more.
Outsiders range from the mentally disturbed, like Adolf Wlfli, to the socially well-integrated, but their unique oeuvres remain unattuned to the larger art market and are passionately involved with their sense of self. Their force-fields are direct and powerful, like the one cast by a pencil-and-ink abstraction by the San Antonio artist Hector Benavides at Jimmy Hedges' Rising Fawn Folk Art and the bars-in-blocks quilt by the Gee's Bend artist Lorraine Pettway at Russell Bowman Art Advisory. Works like these simply leave most contemporary abstract art in the dust.
Because so many talented artists have overcome mental and developmental disabilities to create something strange and wonderful and refreshingly different, a number of galleries, like the Henry Boxer Gallery of London, specialize in the works of these visionaries. Dreadnoughts, an ink drawing from 2002 by Nick Blinko (b. 1961), uses tiny cells of ink to conjure a shallow space which his mythic vessels navigate. Blinko is a schizophrenic, who takes medication but cannot work while doing so. He braves his illness to make his art, putting himself at considerable risk and discomfort. The results, as in drawings like Dreadnoughts and in pieces that contain only rows of tiny script with words that do not make linguistic sense, are claustrophobic and utterly haunting.
Not every mentally ill person is going to be an artist, of course, but talent seems concentrated enough in this population for several organizations to try to foster these artists with supplies, working space, and marketing assistance, the latter something many could not begin to carry out for themselves.
There are several different models for this. The nonprofit Pure Vision Arts, located in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, showed work by a variety of artists with developmental disabilities, primarily autism, who have taken arts or crafts classes at their facilities. Susan Brown's black-outlined and brightly colored acrylics of repetitive naturalistic elements stood out.
Galerie Atelier Herenplaats of Rotterdam, Netherlands, hand-picks mentally handicapped artists and provides them with some direction and studio space. The gallery has set up an art gallery and an active exhibition schedule around their artists' productions, often combining the work of their members with that of other contemporary artists.
I was especially taken by the black-and-white drawings of Ben Augustus, whose "hot ladies" are copied from Playboy and similar magazines. Sheets abound in small, happily cavorting nude or seminude female figures fitted closely together. It's a miracle how this man organizes space.
Augustus is young, deaf and has Down's syndrome. His art is his primary way for communicating his sexual fantasies and desires. Besides figures, he also employs the Dutch texts of popular erotica as source material. Even thought he may not understand the words, these texts are transformed by him into a cheery art, no matter what the sense of the words.
Jean Dubuffet said, "Real art is always where you don't expect it." He may be incorrect as more and more mentally different people are shown not to be disabled, but quite talented, when assisted in producing and marketing their art.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.