Friday, August 27, 2010

That's the Look, That's the Look, That's the Look of Love

This month in Aeqai, a local Cincinnati online art-criticism journal, Alan D. Pocaro writes about the latest works by Spencer Van der Zee at Malton Gallery: "While possessing no formal education in the medium, stylistically, Van der Zee has absorbed all of the conventions associated with the look of the outsider. The drawings on display include juxtaposed images, scrawling lines, doodles, snippets of text, blobs of color, ethereal narratives, and highly rendered scenes that jostle for attention on the surfaces of the support."

I guess my question is: what exactly is "the look" of "outsider art"? The way Alan D. Pocaro frames it, the look is actually just plain old Wetsern art:

"Juxtaposed images" = Surrealism and its offshoots
"Scrawling lines and doodles" = Cy Twombley
"Snippets of text" = Jenny Holzer
"Blobs of color" = take your pick of the Abstract Expressionists on that one
"Ethereal narratives" = William Blake maybe, or Andy Warhol making movies
"Highly rendered scenes ..." = Keith Haring and all that came after.

Or that whole paragraph could be used as a way to define graphic novels about superheroes who think too much, funky-fresh, overly clever/cute ads in Details magazine, or a really cool one-sheeter advertising the Ramones with special guest Blondie back in the day.

I guess what I am getting at is that by appropriating the "look" of "outsider art," you also collapse its meaning. Which from my point of view is a good thing: it takes away the special preciousness embedded in that super-sweet narrative of the naive and innocent outsider "doodling" his/her way into your heart, or that slightly scary outsider creating "highly rendered scenes" of hell or something because he/she just can't take the real world... The good old narrative Jean Dubuffet more-of-less started in 1948, when he officially established his Art Brut collection, modeled after the art collection of Dr. Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist in Germany. Dubuffet's Art Brut collection showcased works of various media, but what made them "outsider" wasn't the "look" or "materials" as much as the biography: the artists in his collection weren't pros. It was a class thing. Dubuffet loved to talk (and often scream) about the works in his collection as alternatives to the tired artwork of Western culture.

Dubuffet's outrage at Western civilization becomes a "look," right? Just another variant of "style." That's not sad at all really, because Dubuffet's initial instinct, to use the art made by unconventional artists as a metaphor for his anger at this rotten old world was kind of self-centered, even while being revolutionary. His insight opened a lot of doors for unconventional artists, but it also created a hallway they can be lead down and then unceremoniously escorted out of.

Dubuffet's Art Brut became Roger Cardinal's "outsider art," and now it has become a a "look." Hooray. But what also is just as wonderful to think about are artists not trying to capture a look, or create art from looking at art, artists who really don't want to be artists but will put up with the whole idea of being one because they truly have something to say that scratches its way out of them visciously and quietly in rooms and trailers and day programs and bus-stations all over the universe. The "outsider art" narrative collapses under the heaviness of the "aesthetic," and what arrives in its place?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I want to be there to see it.

Above: one of Spencer Van der Zee's great outsider-looking collage/drawings, on display at the Malton Gallery in Hyde Park. Cool stuff. Like Max Ernst and Fritz Lang and Cy Twombley and R. Crumb got together and played Exquisite Corpse one afternoon.