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by John Drury
Every year now, New Yorkers are treated to a series of three art fairs at the ornate, red-brick Puck Building in SoHo, featuring art and collectibles made by artists who are not privy to the high-falutin’ pomp of the capital-letter Art World. These three fairs are "Art Off the Main: The Show of Contemporary African, Caribbean and Latin American Art," Oct. 6-8, 2006; "The Outsider Art Fair," Jan. 26-28, 2007; and "The National Black Fine Art Show," Feb. 1-4, 2007.

Art Off the Main
Considering both the praise and prices garnered by top Outsider and folk artists these days, the category is hardly the underdog it used to be. The junior fair in this group, Art Off the Main, is now in its third year, and presented 41 dealers from about 20 countries, ranging from Arte Antilles and Arte de Cuba to the Jamaican Artists Alliance and Medalia Art/The Art of Haiti.

Though Art Off the Main is hardly home to works with modernist pretenses, the fair did boast a steel sculpture made by the Chilean-born French Surrealist Roberto Matta (1911-2002), a spindly tangle of surreal biomorphism in matte black indifference titled Design of Intention (1975). It was at the booth of Walman Project (a joint effort of Walker Fine Art and Skot Foreman Fine Art) and, though produced in an edition of 30, was priced at $28,000.

More typical of Outsider Art fairs were the works by the recently deceased Jamaican intuitive Leonard Daley (1930-2006) at the Avisca Fine Art Gallery from Marietta, Ga. Daley’s visionary enamel-on-Masonite works depict birds, fish wild animals and ectoplasmic human figures. His rhythmic, dreamy images have thematic and technical affinities with the Surrealist and abstract experiments of classic European and American Modernists. And, at $450-$750, they’re a steal.

Outsider Art Fair
The granddaddy of these fairs at 15 years, the Outsider Art Fair offered a bit more variety this time than in 2006, and although each year a new artist seems to surface as the flavor of the day, the fair continues to present museum-quality works by disenfranchised, forgotten, previously ignored and often deceased self-taught artists. More than 30 exhibitors were on hand, including Henry Boxer, Andrew Edlin, Carl Hammer, Dean Jensen, Phyllis Kind, Luise Ross and Galerie St. Etienne.

At the booth of Chelsea’s Ricco–Maresca Gallery, alongside their signature cache of William Hawkins (1895-1990) paintings, Morton Bartlett’s Standing Girl held center stage. The self-taught sculptor and photographer Morton Bartlett (1909-1992) created a world of only 15 amazingly life-like children, which he subsequently posed and photographed in spooky shades of black and white. Also included at Ricco-Maresca was a stone dove by master carver William Edmondson (1870-1951). Edmondson was the first African-American to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and though this is a modest example of his work, it’s always a joy and privilege to see any of them.

The Keny Gallery from Columbus presented its usual array of masterworks by the artists of their native Ohio. An especially impressive carved tableau of the crucifixion by Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) was snapped up and whisked away early on Friday afternoon by its new owner. This fair is in flux all weekend as works are sold and replaced by new ones, a result of brisk sales and a cash-and-carry approach.

Maxwell Projects, which hails from Leonard Street in Tribeca, had on display a work by Harlem’s own Freddie Brice (1920-2003). His Brice Bear, painted on wood and measuring about 3 x 4 ft., was shown at Artists Space in the early 1990s, and at $10,000 is a steal for the discriminating collector. Boldly and powerfully painted yet inflected with a loveable character, it is on par with the quality of a William Hawkins work, but lean and not as cheerfully colored.

Milwaukee’s Dean Jensen Gallery offered a trio of clay heads and a single skull by the artist and blues musician James "Son" Thomas (1926-1993). These sun-baked portraits of neighbors and musicians, including the blues artist Elmore James (who first invited a young Son on stage to perform) are powerful. At $1,250 each, these works are one of the best deals out there -- presumably, prices are low because Son is considered more of a musician than an artist. Collectors June and Ron Shelp, who already owned four works by Son Thomas (their collection is documented in Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South), snapped up an additional example in the last ten minutes of the fair.

Also on hand at Dean Jensen was a masterpiece by Virginian woodcarver Shields Landon Jones (1901-1997) depicting a life-sized, grimacing woman ($13,000). Jones carved hardwoods from his native Virginia -- maple and black walnut -- and then painted them. He is best known for these busts, though his production also included quirky ballpoint pen drawings, which he colored in with pastels.

New York City’s Phyllis Kind Gallery had the lion’s share of the aforementioned "art du jour" at the fair -- notably, an impressive stash of carved and painted woodworks of animals, birds and humanistic beings by the influential Navajo artist Charlie Willeto (1900-1964). In an Outsider version of Vincent van Gogh’s famously productive final months, Willeto completed 400 works in the three years at the end of his life. His untitled Serape Owl is a whimsical depiction of the nocturnal avian appearing here happy and content in the desert tones of earth red, white and black.

National Black Fine Art Show
Now celebrating the dawn of a second decade in existence, the National Black Fine Art Show seems to have found its comfort zone, with 38 dealers in all, including some crossover vendors from the Art Off the Main and Outsider art fairs, attesting to the power of much of this art from the edge. Exhibitors include Aaron Galleries (Chicago), Dolan/Maxwell (Philadelphia), Galerie Bourbon-Lally (Petionville, Haiti), Bill Hodges Gallery (New York) and the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, with outposts in Chicago, New York and Detroit.

Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence are the avatars of this segment of the art world, but much more can be found here. Standouts this year included the painter Bob Thompson (1937-1966) at Martha Henry Inc. Fine Art. His Bachanal is a tender study of race and gender by an artist who famously succumbed to life’s excesses, which were made readily available with his meteoric ascent to stardom -- a recipe for disaster that was followed ingredient for ingredient by Jean-Michel Basquiat two decades later.

Another senior master is the painter Robert Colescott (b. 1925), whose comedic philosophies could be found here and there. Aaron Galleries from Chicago had a great little stone lithograph from 1989, a treasure showing two women standing nipple to nipple, one dark-skinned and sporting a white brassiere the other light-skinned and in black cups. The work takes up one of Colescott’s abiding themes, the meeting of black and white.

New York City’s ACA Galleries brought along a painting by Barkley Hendricks (b. 1945), whose figurative images have a direct link to the younger Kehinde Wiley’s paintings of characters from the contemporary urban street. In this flawless work, a lone player sports the cool of the day (1975) in a lovely peach space.

At the fair itself, visitors and dealers alike wore their Sunday best, and dignitaries in attendance at this event included the artist and scholar David Driskell and documentary photographer Ernest Withers, famous for his photographs of the Civil Rights Movement and his native Memphis.

JOHN DRURY is a New York-based artist, writer and teacher.