Saturday, September 14, 2013

We Don't Know What Else to Do

Toronto-based artist Leigh Cooney is curating Superunknown:  The Neo-Folk Impulse, featuring new works by The Cooney Brothers, Mike Egan, Andrea Heimer, Ben Kehoe, Marc Lambert, Bill Ross, and Matthew Waldeck.  This show that ends Thunder-Sky, Inc. 2013 season with a bang.  Here's a wonderful, insightful essay Leigh wrote to accompany the show.  We'll also be publishing a catalog in which this will appear.

I must begin by saying that I have a very limited knowledge of art history, contemporary practices, or terminology. I did not go to art college.  In fact I only failed one course in high school and it was visual arts which was a requirement for art college. This led me to give up on art for several years.  I own, yet have never read, an entire book on art history.  (Yeah okay I like the pictures.)   I do not claim to be an expert on the definitions of “outsider” “folk,” and/or “visionary art.”  I’m ignorant of what makes a piece of art “great,” and yet I do not live in a cave, (or for that matter a psychiatric facility).   I would never say I am completely removed from the art world.  And yes, because of my ADHD I can only write in a stream of consciousness format so you’re going to see a lot of parenthesis where thoughts are broken up by thoughts as well as run on sentences and phrases that are sometimes deliberate (for emphasis) and sometimes not. Deal with it.

However having said that, I don’t believe my ignorance gives me any less authority to speak on art within the parameters of these limitations. Why? Well as an art authority answer me this: I have no doubt that the great Henry Darger’s knowledge of the art world was extremely limited; however I think it would be inappropriate to assume he was completely unaware of at least some of the more famous works.  If you could bring Darger (one of his works above) back and ask his opinion on art within these parameters would you want to hear what he has to say?  Would you want him to explain his own work?  Would you like him to reflect on art in general in relation to his work?  Of course you would. Would you ridicule him or dismiss him because he didn’t have the right terminology or knowledge? Absolutely not, because unless you want to be the laughing stock of both the above and underground art worlds you have to recognize Darger’s genius... because those are the rules, and art world people like to follow the art world rules.

You would want to hear him out because he is an artist, and an artist doesn’t need to study the books, although it can be an advantage depending on what you would like to accomplish.  An artist simply needs to create viscerally and instinctually, and in doing so a self-taught artist will more than likely come to many of the same results as a classically trained artist in the end but will come to these conclusions organically and generally at a significantly slower pace. It is often inevitable during this process for an artist to create her own opinions and connections and sometimes she needs to trust herself in spite of feeling overwhelmed when faced with so-called “expert” opinions. This is after all art not science and there is room for subjectivity and opinion even from the lowliest and most “ignorant” of us.

So how did I, a mere self-taught artist come to curate Superunknown? Well firstly it must be said that much of the credit goes to Bill and Keith at Thunder-Sky, Inc. who are immersed in self-taught art daily and have no pretensions (that I can see) about who can have an opinion on art. It is galleries like Thundersky that give artists like myself who exist on the fringes of the art world the confidence to state their opinion and to state that they have an opinion at all! 

To fully understand my own interest in folk and outsider art we must go back four years to when I first picked up a paintbrush (outside of those doomed high school classes 7 years before) and decided I would create for the sake of creating with absolutely no expectations as to the results. Up until that point I was very limited in terms of what I considered great art. I could only fully appreciate art that showed a very high level of “craftsmanship” like Michelangelo, Salvador Dali, Mark Ryden, and Chuck Close. I hated so-called “modern” or “abstract” work.   (Here’s where my terminology shows its limitations… I’m pretty sure “abstract” as an all-embracing term is frowned upon, but I’m not sure what would be better suited?)   It was for this reason that I threw out my paintbrushes after high school upon realizing I couldn’t go to college. If I couldn’t go to college and learn to paint like a master, I didn’t want to paint at all. Oh youthful ignorance… but of course things eventually came around.

When I began I was inspired by two artists specifically. One was the late New Yorker Jean Michel Basquiat, and a little later came my introduction to Outsider artist Gerald “X” Thornton (Basquiat on top; Thornton bottom). I did not immediately warm to either of these artists, I had the usual misguided “my kid could paint that attitude” to both. But again and again I came back to Basquiat, and one day something clicked. I felt that here were artists who sat down in front of a canvas and (arguably in Basquiat’s case) weren’t for a second worried about image or perception or an audience. They painted purely to communicate and the sense of naiveté that I perceived seemed to me to reflect a certain raw edge in their very souls that screamed self-doubt and desperation, and that was something I understood. And when I realized I empathized with these artists it occurred to me that I was appreciating their work less for the sugary finish that I found in a Dali or a Ryden, and more for the underlying narrative they seemed to be struggling to convey as well their own inner struggle itself. I was hooked.

I wanted to paint fast and without hesitation. I went out later and bought the cheapest brushes, canvases, and paint I could find (I still work with the same materials) and I sat down one afternoon and promised myself that I would start and finish a painting that afternoon. I did and the result was a mediocre attempt at best but the fact that I had not stopped to reflect self-consciously during the process meant more to me than the finished work. That year I would create hundreds of new paintings and I would continue to discover Outsider artists I admired. I wasn’t overly interested in the history (psychological or otherwise) of the artists I discovered and I was even less interested in the squabbling over definitions that I soon discovered was such an integral part of the world of Outsider art; I was simply interested in their subject matter and the way in which they presented it. During this first year of painting I found I could connect with groups via the internet that appreciated Self-taught art as much as I did. This was wonderful as I was too far removed from the art world both psychologically as well as geographically to be able to connect in person.

The style, subject matter, and association with Outsider fans led me to be grouped into the Outsider label myself and I was more than happy with that. It wasn’t long however before I inevitably discovered the sensitivity of certain critics to the connotations inherent in the term “Outsider.” This squabbling as well as the fact that my work was inadvertently becoming more streamlined and less “naïve” in appearance led me to distance myself from the outsider label. It only seemed fair, and I learned fairly quickly that if you wanted to call yourself a self-taught artist you better “appear to be self-taught…” in other words you couldn’t allow your work to become more technically proficient. As my work became more proficient and less naive in appearance I began to start my own questioning of terms like “Outsider,” “Art Brut,” “Self-Taught,” “Visionary,” and so on. I began to become more interested in that blurred line that disconnects the aboveground art world, and the underground art world of which I was a part, and finally the subterranean Outsider world that I was overlapping with. Not because I wanted to attempt a grouping of myself into any of these, but because I started to think maybe art labels in general were arbitrary and often misleading and best left to people who are more interested in marketing and labeling than the art itself.

This leads me to why I decided to curate a show of artists that each exemplify some facet of my love of Folk and Outsider art, yet would not be considered “Outsider” artists by the restrictive traditional definitions. These are artists that exist in neither the mainstream art world nor the Outsider art world. Some of these artists are self-taught, some are classically trained, some have a body of work that is more naieve in appearance, and some have a look that is more classical in appearance, but all have some aspect to their work that I feel falls into both the categories of contemporary pop art, and folk art. I originally thought I’d call the show Pop-Folk but I settled on Neo-Folk as a nod to my British friend and art theorist Dr. Melissa Westbrook who coined the term Neo-Outsider to group together many of these same artists that exist on the fringes of the underground, aboveground, and Outsider art worlds.

Why these artists?

After I considered the attitudes of the potential artists and dismissed a couple I respected but didn’t like on a personal level, I considered the art itself. As I mentioned before each artist has some quality to their work either physically or spiritually that borrows, pays homage, or otherwise embodies in a natural way (with little forethought or deliberation) the work of Outsider and especially folk artists. To me these artists felt pure and unpretentious in their approach in the way that the best Outsider artists do. None of these artists appear to be creating art with the sole purpose of selling work in the way that the best Outsider artists do. Although the works of these artists vary widely in presentation, they each seem to be trying to express a frustration with, and discomfort inherent in living on the fringes of the fast-paced and impersonal modern world that none feel quite at home in… you got it, the way the best Outsider artists do.

I love the natural way that these artists present themselves. Too many artists are wrapped up in the potential viewer’s perception of their art and they begin unconsciously to create art that aims to please others rather than themselves and this often results in work that is very fine at a glance, but like white bread lacks that nutritional punch that keeps you going. But like brain candy for the intellectual sweet tooth, the works in this show contain the best of both worlds, they are fun and tasty at a glance, but they have substance and keep you coming back for more.

With Ben (pictured above) I appreciated his use of autumn weather, the outdoors, grassy knowles, farm animals, wild beasts, spirituality and scenes played out against that backdrop which I often associate with folky Southern U.S. art traditions, and which I thought invoked the spirit of those that came before him that were dismissed as mere “folk artists” because they weren’t painting what those collectors and critics in the big North-Eastern U.S cities thought was in vogue at the time and were looking to buy into.  

I felt the same way about Mike’s work (above), even though Mike was presenting himself in such a different way. His work invoked not only the spirit of the Southern U.S. folky (as well as folk artists from South America and Mexico,) but also the minimalist style of these artists. Much like the artists that existed long before there was such thing as an “art world” or even the word “artist” for that matter Mike’s work spoke to me of birth, death, rebirth, religion, and what is often referred to as the human spirit.

Most importantly, both Mike and Ben (who grew up together and remain friends to this day) took these Southern U.S traditions and blended them with just a hint of contemporary “Lowbrow” and Pop-Art sensibilities. And therein lays the definition of Pop-Folk or Neo-Folk. But again I don’t suggest these titles to limit or otherwise narrow the viewer’s interpretation of the work, but rather to guide the questions a visitor to this exhibit might ask so that we can reinterpret our narrow view of what it means to associated with the self-taught traditions.


My brother Roland (or rolo as he’s known,) and Andrea Heimer (rolo's work pictured on top; Andrea's under) display the naïve (or in this case “faux-naïve” characteristics that remind me of the purity of the greatest of Outsider “self-taught” artists. I love that the uninitiated might look at the work of these two artists and dismiss it out of hand simply because it doesn’t attempt to impress with flourishes of so-called “craftsmanship.” One need only stop and read the titles associated with each painting to see that there is so much more on display here than crudely rendered narrative illustration work (and I mean that in the best possible way because I am a huge admirer of this style and these two artists.) These paintings more than any of the others offer up the confessions of the artists themselves, and reveal their discomfort with the tension that bubbles just beneath the surface of contemporary suburban living. Andrea often fills her pictures with symbolism and stories where rolo strips his work of most of the available signals as to his intent leaving just the bare bones, but both question what results from our neighbours bottling up their emotions and desires, and how it feels to both belong to as well as be scraped, grinded, pushed, and shredded on the cheese grater of modern life. Rolo and I would like to take this opportunity to coin the phrase “The Norman Rockwell of the Suburban Underbelly" to describe Andrea Heimer.

As anyone who is familiar with Thunder-Sky, Inc. knows, Bill Ross is both the co-founder of the gallery and an artist in his own right. Bill’s work is the most pop influenced of all the artists involved in this show and I believe he really puts the Neo in Neo-Folk, but if we are really going to knock around arbitrary titles here I feel Bill’s work would fit right into a Los Angeles contemporary gallery with today’s top “Pop-Surrealists” or “Lowbrow” painters simply due to the fact that (more so than many of the PS and LB artists in today’s magazines) he actually embodies the definition of  PS and LB art by being down right funny, pop influenced, colorful, kitschy, and confessional all at once. Bill’s paintings have the natural dark humour of someone who has seen how differently people can be treated either in his own experiences or through the lives of those he has come into contact with during his years as a social worker for people with disabilities.

It was Bill and Keith at Thunder-Sky, Inc. that introduced me to the paintings of Marc Lambert and the sculpture of Matt Waldeck (above, with Marc's on top, Matt's beneath) and I was immediately impressed. We agreed these Cincinnatti artists would be a great fit, but I think I’ll leave it up to Bill or Keith to better explain in their own words what it was about Marc and Matt that sparked his interest in their work.  Keith here:  Marc's sci-fi exuberance, and Matt's intricate, sweetly steam-punk daydreams so fit with Leigh's overall thesis:  they take pop-culture and channel it through a very self-made network of "not knowing what else to do," thus merging kitsch with seriousness, fanboy-ness with technique and style that supersedes pretentiousness while paying homage to invention.  

As for myself, I see some obvious and not-so-obvious but still very real parallels between my work and the work of everyone in this show (hence the gathering of these particular artists.) Some of this is due to the fact that I am influenced by every one of the artists daily, and some of it is due to the fact that I believe I draw from the same creative well as each of these individuals. I don’t have to speculate as to my influences or the signals and symbolism in my paintings because I know exactly what drives me. I like naieve and faux naieve work more than any contemporary art style, I am hugely influenced by the physical stiffness of the characters found in Outsider and medieval art, I am fascinated by the desires we hide away and the masks we wear during the day and hang from our bed posts at night. I like Kitsch and bright colours. I like pop culture, pop art, and pop music. I like to express and confess. I want to be part of the popular clique at the school of life, while I simultaneously despise them for putting me so firmly outside the circle.

I suffer from anxiety and I fear most of the artists in this show do as well, and most of my work involves the struggles we face with anxiety and in my case the overlapping ADHD problem. My work also asks questions that are related involving what I perceive as the absurdities of religion and the difficulties of the day to day interactions with folks that many people take for granted. My work is very confessional but in some cases it is buried so deeply below a layer of stripped down symbolism the intentions thankfully aren’t very clear.

These artists and I are not inside and we are not outside, but we are creating because much like the Outsiders, Folkies, Visionaries, and cast-offs before us we don’t know what else to do.