The Outsider Art Fair unveiled a strong 11th edition last weekend, Jan. 23-26, 2003, featuring 32 participating dealers from six countries -- three of them new to the fair -- at the Puck Building on the edge of SoHo.
Two trends stood out this season: a surge in the number of works by Russian artists, and some new needlework that is very intriguing.
Galerie Suzanne Zander of Cologne, Germany, introduced the work of Alexandre Lobanov, who was born in the 1920s in Russia and who currently lives in a psychiatric institution. Lobanov is obsessed with guns. His mixed media drawings depict the unsmiling artist with his rifle or other firearms within elaborately decorated frames. Considering the subject matter, Lobanov's sensitive use of a limited range of colors and his sensual design motifs are unexpected yet powerful. His double-sided Self-Portrait with Gun is priced at $3,500.
New York's own Galerie St. Etienne also featured several works by Russian artists. In fact, the uptown gallery is currently hosting one of the strongest exhibitions in town right now based on the work of four Russian self-taught artists. Those at the fair, who didn't have a chance to see that show, could still enjoy the work of Vasilij Romanenkov, now around 50 years old and an artist for more than 25 years. His impressive work has been shown at the fair before, but he's still under the radar of many.
Romanenkov makes large intricate drawings in graphite, pen and colored pencil of figures performing ceremonies with a mystic aura. They are built up by tiny, repetitive marks into patterns of great delicacy, often in the gold and silvery tones of icons. He uses flattened forms for his congregations of figures, representing archetypal scenes. Among his titles are World of Human Life, The Baby Saint and Peasant Cottage. He says that he feels an otherworldly hand guiding his own when he makes these evocative, spirit-charged scenes, yet demurs from describing exactly what's going on. His use of abstract forms, usually in medallions around the borders of the drawings, is particularly interesting. Since Romanenkov comes from a small town and was originally trained as a cabinet-maker, it seems clear that Russian folk art influenced his work, which costs from $900 to $4,500 for single sheets.
Perhaps the most exciting newcomer to the fair is Rosa Zharkikh, another Russian at St. Etienne. Active during the 1970s, the artist made both drawings and embroidery. A Moscow factory worker who became a visionary after a near-death experience, Zharkikh follows the dictates of no single religion, drawing symbols from many. Her small, vivid drawings resemble other mediumistic works, but her embroideries are all her own. Each takes about two years to complete, and is a tangle of embroidery that forms into animals, faces and other shapes that dissolve as quickly as they appear. At the fair, her tapestry Zodiac Signs, which measures roughly 10 feet by 12 inches -- were those rabbit faces? -- was a steal at $9,500.
Laura Carmody's Galerie Bonheur of St. Louis, Mo., spotlighted the tapestries of London-based Sandra Sheehy. Sheehy's latest works have painted areas and stitched-on beads, shells and feathers. Without training in embroidery, she began to make her works as love tokens for her husband. Her cool and elegant Tapestry in Green with its paint, beads and embroidery was a mere $750.
Another highlight of the fair was found at American Primitive, which featured tiny and complex needlework pictures by Raymond Materson, which measure 1,200 stitches per square inch, or so I was told. His Ted Williams, one of his series of baseball greats, was already sold within the first hour of the opening. Materson began creating his distinctive art years ago while in prison, using thread from unraveled socks. He turned his life around and became an artist. His pieces go for around $3,000 and range in theme from sports figures to symbolic anti-drug themes to scenes from his life.
Galerie Bourbon-Lally from Montreal showed an exquisite selection of beaded voodoo banners by Constant, who is a female Haitian artist not to be confused with the celebrated Dutch Situationist. Her use of many kinds of beads, not just sequins, sets her apart from other Haitian banner artists. Her 35 x 36 in. La Sirene, or Mermaid, was imposing yet modestly priced at $1,500.
A fresh supply of drawings created a buzz, too. The debut of Pearl Blauvelt's pencil drawings at K. S. Art was a surprise. An extensive trove of pencil and colored pencil sketches on lined paper was discovered in a fruit crate years after her death at the house this reclusive woman called home in Pennsylvania. Her work includes figures, scenes and especially impressive still lifes of clothing. Her drawing of an arrangement of women's stockings, All Sizes Both Silk and Cotton, done in colored pencil on lined paper in ca. 1940, was the standout of Blauvelt's pieces at the show. At $1,800, it was drawing many admirers when I saw it at the opening.
Other drawings of note were the turbulent and organic masses made up of thousands of miniscule black-ink circles by Tokyo artist Hiroyuki Doi at Phyllis Kind. He just had his first solo show in this country at Kind last month.
An intense black-ink drawing of a Renault car by Serge Delaunay, one of a group of artists from Gallery Herenplaats in Rotterdam, was a very different type of stunner. It was on the cover of this year's catalogue. Gallery Herenplaats is one of the three new galleries that joined the fair this year along with Barenberg Gallery of Boston and Gary Snyder Fine Art of New York.
Old favorites like the panoramic narrative watercolors of Chicago recluse Henry Darger (1892-1973) seemed to be everywhere. Less commonly seen are the shimmering assemblages of the late Simon Sparrow, but a particularly nice one with two figures on either side of a cross, the whole made of cast-off jewelry and small bric-a-brac in a glitter-dusted shallow frame, turned up at Chicago's Judy A. Saslow Gallery.
Looking at Sparrow's pieces, I couldn't help remembering Mike Kelley's show at Metro Pictures in November, which included several agglomerations in plaster of buttons, beads and other shiny things that Kelley admitted were done as "homages to folk artists." His riff on Sparrow was lackluster compared to the real thing. And the Sparrow at $15,000 was much cheaper than Kelley's $60,000 knock-off!
Such influence is one sign among many that the self-taught and Outsider field is growing up. Two others are the addition of another day to the Outsider Art Fair to accommodate its many fans, and a special annual auction at Christie's devoted solely to Outsider material [see
"Artnet News," 1/29/03].
The field owes a lot to the perspicacity and determination of Sanford Smith, who has been producing this always exciting show for the last 11 years. Three cheers for Sandy!
N. F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.