I went to the 20th Anniversary Outsider Art Fair last weekend in NYC with friends, and it was a lovely, cleaned-up, curated carnival of an experience. It was a lot like going to the Folkfest in Atlanta without the folk-artsy "Southern Charm" booths and wares. All the booths exemplified what "the field" of outsider art has become: examples of works from programs for artists with disabilities intermingled with "high-end" galleries representing mid-level and higher-level outsider artists. Lots of gorgeously meandering drawings, flashy expressive paintings, home-made dolls, found-object sculptures. Etc.
I kept hearing the refrain from the Talking Heads song in my head as I walked through: "Same as it ever was." The newness of "outsiderness" has completely worn off, at least for me. Now everything about the concept has the gleam and gloss of "establishment," an enterprise that has settled into itself and has become what it is supposed to be, and what it will be from now on.
I wasn't bored or outraged by this epiphany. The experience was completely pleasurable. I appreciated what the fair was. I enjoyed the works. But I also felt my interest slipping away from the concept as a whole. Putting all these works together under the rubric of "outsider" seems kind of old-hat and a little ersatz now. Antiquated in a way that can't be addressed through an essay or a symposium.
In the program that accompanied the fair, Critic Edward M. Gomez writes: "As many of these outsider art admirers regularly point out, there is one inescapable aspect of the most compelling work made by self-taught artists that never fails to seize their imagination. That is that it is always profoundly, unmistakably, inexplicably moving." He goes on to paraphrase Jean Dubuffet, the Godfather of all of this stuff: "Dubuffet insightfully noted that each of these art-makers produced his or her work primarily for himself or herself, not for a broad public and certainly not for the art market or to grab media attention."
Gomez never really gets at the central irony of all this: celebrating "outsiderness" by celebrating the way it has become celebrated and commodified, when in effect the whole idea was to shield the concept from this inevitable process. Or at least complicate it some.
We stayed with our friends Andrew Cole and Cathy Dailey in Princeton, NJ and took the train in to see the fair. Andrew and Cathy are really incredible people. Cathy is a self-taught artist in her own right, and Andrew is a professor at Princeton. One night Andrew showed us some drawings from his childhood that his mom had saved for him. They are incredibly silly and potent renderings of reptiles and outerspace creatures and superheroes, all done on notebook paper and stashed inside a green three-ring binder labeled, "Monsters of the World."
These drawings, to me, were just as exciting as a lot of the stuff I saw at the Outsider Art Fair. I loved their delicate nostalgic obsessiveness. Their sweetness. Knowing Andrew for 20 years also helped. Something about the intermingling of that self-taught creepiness and knowing the artist in a specific way somehow helps to separate the art you like from the Art World you don't, which is the central problem I think I'm trying to get at. When outsider art becomes a part of the everyday world, the intimacy becomes commodified. The stories behind its making evaporate into aphorisms and appraisals. But those childhood drawings of Andrew's have an authenticity and a preciosuness I can champion without feeling like a douche-bag art critic; they are fun to look at and were produced because of a need to sanctify the delirious love of dinosaurs and lazer beams. Period. My pleasure at their creation is fortified by the fact that these works were made not to be seen but to be collected in a three-ring binder dream-bible hidden under a little kid's bed.
That same sort of sanctification happens in Dean Millian's work above. He makes animal sculptures out of aluminum foil, and his work (supported by LAND Gallery, a program for artists with developmental disabilities in Brooklyn) was the best stuff I witnessed at the 20th Anniversary Outsider Art Fair. I don't know Dean, but I somehow felt the same nostalgic and obsessive sweetness coming from his work as I did from Andrew's: a sense of play, and a sense of devotion to playing. But, unlike Andrew's childhood drawings, there is a posh finesse to Dean's work. He takes the simplest of materials and fashions them into a sophisticated silver menagerie. It's like merging those high-end aluminum foil swans fancy restaurants give you as doggie-bags with the mythology and grace of Noah's Ark.
Andrew is a Princeton University Professor. Dean is an artist labeled with a disability. But looking at their works I felt the same drive to make something out of nothing. They both create art that has left its artifice and became blatantly something else, while also maintaining a certain stubbornly authentic aesthetic. Purity is no longer an issue now that outsider art is what it is. But purity and an intensity that "is always profoundly, unmistakably, inexplicably moving" comprise outsider art's essence, the reason it exists as a genre. Placing Andrew and Dean's works side by side complicates "outsiderness" to the point it does not really make sense anymore, and yet maintains the idea that art set free from having to be art always somehow finds a way to exist with or without a fair or a genre or even an audience.
How do you celebrate that?