Outsider Art is hotter than ever. The epicenter of this cutting-edge art by self-taught artists is Sanford Smithís Outsider Art Fair, Jan. 27-29, 2006, which is about to open its 14th annual installment at the Puck Building in Soho with a Jan. 26 preview to benefit the American Folk Art Museum. Dealers from across the United States and Europe are joined this year by a Japanese gallery, Yukiko Koide Presents.
In addition to being extremely imaginative, Outsider Art is increasingly influential on younger artists and the culture at large. Older artists and photographers, such as Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Charles Shannon, Nathan Lerner and Sterling Strauser discovered many of the most important Outsiders. Now, younger artists are learning from Outsider masters like American Henry Darger and, perhaps the most famous of all Swiss artists, Adolf Wölfli. Talented contemporary artists Devendra Banhart and Simone Shubeck, for instance, happily acknowledge an interest in Outsiders. Or compare the drawings of Daniel Zeller, who has showed at Pierogi in Williamsburg and G-Module in Paris, with some of the works in the American Folk Art Museumís current show of "Obsessive Drawing."
Outsider Art falls into the more capacious category of self-taught art.† It is primarily figurative and narrative, includes craft-based work, and stretches from the 18th- and 19th-century to today. Contemporary artists have mined this area, notably for technique. Lane Twitchellís huge cut-papers and a slew of artists employing or evoking quilting, both here and abroad, like the Swedish artist Jockum Nordström, come to mind.
At present, two New York gallery shows have opened in advance of the Outsider Art Fair. "Contemporary Outsider Art in America: Survey 2006," Jan. 10-Mar. 25, 2006, is the result of a nationwide call for artworks by mentally disabled artists put out by Hospital Audiences, Inc. Art by the mentally ill is just one subcategory of Outsider Art, but an important one.
Hospital Audiences, Inc., which provides artist-led workshops for the mentally ill in New York, began its search for works by talented artists who were neurologically challenged in 2004, and displayed the impressive results in itís Soho gallery in January 2005. This yearís show brings another crop of artists from around the country. Several are known to New Yorkers, and there are a few repeat participants from last yearís show, but most have not exhibited before in a commercial gallery.
Melvin Wayís ink-on-paper drawings consist of abstract designs around formulas, often taken from science textbooks that the artist scavenges. Whether in black and white, or blue, black and white, these arcane yet authoritatively rendered texts seem to provide the key to alternative universes.
Discovered by Andrew Castrucci, an established artist who works with HAI in New York, Way has been joined this year by another Castrucci find, Reggie White. Script and figures, some in exotic dress, are joined with geometric motifs in ballpoint pen on lined paper in Whiteís drawings.
Life in Godís Fishing Hole by Illinois-based Blake Lenoir, on the other hand, is teaming with colorful fish, flamingos, a volcano and four gigantic butterflies. Done in colored pencil, every bit of its 22 by 30 inch surface is crammed with details.
Oklahoma artist Harper Deering Hair is showing a series of grotesque small black ink drawings from a sketch book. At $75 each, they ought to disappear quickly. In fact, all the works in HAIís "Contemporary Outsider Art in America: Survey 2006" are reasonably priced, with nothing costing more than $5,000. For that sum, you can commission Francina Hill of Pennsylvania to create an over-life-size figure for you out of fabric, feathers, shells and leather. Perhaps it will look something like her Anouka, with its purple velvet, cowry-bead necklace and feather headdress.
Other strong works include Self-Portrait with Snake, a fabric hanging by Amelia Edgeland, and Joe Simmsí acrylic Woodpepper, with its assured paint-handling and integration of words and image. Both artists are from Virginia.††
Others in the show are Laura Lambe Burrell, Adam Elias Hines, Harry Teague, Mark Rimland, Roberta Beauchamp, Maevis Hutson, Laura Anne Walker, Inťs Orihuela, Jack Beaverland, Adeyinka Perry, Gedal Shikman, Frank Ferrone, Richard Robertson and Tina Franz.
"Survey 2006" promises extended hours during the Outsider Show. For more info, call the Gallery at HAI, 548 Broadway, 3rd floor, at (212) 575-7676.
The show features six portraits by Ammi Phillips alone. Elizabeth Smith Hunter and David Hunter, both from around 1820, are being sold as a pair. A novel touch is that the original tortoiseshell comb worn by Elizabeth Smith Hunter is displayed beside the oil of this attractive lady. Along with the comb, she wears an elegant lace-collared dress, drop earrings and a striking red shawl.
Sheldon Peckís Portrait of a Young Physician in Front of Bookshelves and Drapery (ca. 1828-30) is painted on wood but the manís jaw seems sculpted rather than painted, as is usual for Peckís sitters.† Another portrait pair by this artist joins three works by Erastus Salisbury Field and several portraits by anonymous artists. One outstanding anonymous work of a little girl in a pink dress from around 1840 is an over life-size charmer.
Two large house portraits in pencil by Ferdinand Brader record so much that a viewer can pretty much understand upper middle-class life in Pennsylvania just by careful looking. For example, The Property of Jacob G. and Hannah Herzog, Exeter Town, Berks County, from 1883, leaves nothing out, just like the title. Buildings of all kinds, animals and birds, carriages and each fence and every variety of tree are lovingly recorded.
More free form is an Emancipation Sculpture that looks like a pulpit.† With a bust portrait of Lincoln carved in front and with a male and female slave seated on either side of the base, the whole is surmounted by a spread-winged eagle. The piece stands almost four feet high and dates to about 1870. Its maker is unknown.
An Amish quilt from Ohio in a Variable Star and Chinese Coins Pattern from 1905 is an exciting yet graceful combination of greens, lavender and purple, and neutrals.
For a more visceral kind of excitement, a series of three anonymous paintings illustrating the Battle of the "Constitution" vs. the "Guerriere" (after 1812) is just the thing.
"Just Plain Folk" is on view at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 21 East 70th Street, Jan. 5-Mar. 4, 2006.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.