Inside the Outsider Art World – Outsider Art Fair 2014 (New York)
It is fitting that thunder and lightning are erupting in the skies above as I write this, after having been asked to sum up my recollections of this years’ Outsider Art Fair in New York, and one of the stand out memories relates to a storm interrupting the Henry Darger talk which took place on the roof of Center 548. I was in an airplane flying through the sky as it was struck by lightning a week or so later, but that’s another story!
Backtracking to Thursday the 8th May, the Outsider Art Fair opening night had a buzz about it and there was certainly an atmosphere of celebrating the coming together of interesting and extraordinary art works. It would be difficult to highlight my favourites as this would require my compiling a lengthy list of names and it would also mean excluding. I will say, Henry Boxer’s stand is always very well selected and curated in terms of quality and balance. Galerie du Marché had a phenomenal selection of works by some of the original Art Brut ‘masters’, and their enthusiasm for the art and in wanting to marvel at it with you, to educate you, and share their library of books with you certainly leaves an unparalleled impression. The seemingly overlooked Grey Carter had some wondrous works on their stand. Galerie Toxic’s first appearance at the New York fair brought together their interesting roster of artists and hopefully had a successful reception. Ames, Andrew Edlin, American Primitive, Carl Hammer, Cavin-Morris, Judy Saslow and Ricco/Maresca all had strong works on show as I’d expect. I can’t help myself, it would be silly not to mention the artists’ works I admired, so I’ll give myself six seconds to write a list in no order: Stephanie Lucas, Christine Sefolosha, A.G. Rizzoli, Raphael Lonne, Edmund Monsiel, … six seconds. There were many many more, but those came to mind in the six seconds.
I returned on Saturday as I found the panel discussions, focussed on Jean-Michel Basquiat and Henry Darger, compelling and looked forward to listening throughout the afternoon..
The Basquiat talk was somewhat predictable, but I was interested in hearing it as I quite like his work, and one of his earliest collectors was on the panel, which made for some nostalgic trips down memory lane for her, and an interesting journey into a moment in time, for me. The reason there was a talk about Basquiat was to discuss what happens when a self taught artist becomes commercially successful. The reiteration and continual ‘confirmation’ that Basquiat was a self taught artist throughout the discussion was a key aspect in what really interested me about this talk. It raises the question ‘What is the definition of self-taught?’ And it may seem obvious and self-referential, but ponder on this with me for a moment; In the talk, one of the panelists even said it themselves “…he absorbed everything like a sponge…” So I ask: What does it mean to absorb knowledge? To me, it means to learn. To visit art museums with his mother as a child, to be influenced by (ironically) Jean Dubuffet and to reference him directly in his work, to be involved in a scene where artists learn from each other consciously or subconsciously, where did Basquiat learn to silkscreen? He taught himself? Of all people, it was Andy Warhol who showed him. So, there is more than one way to learn or be taught. People can learn more from others outside of schools than in them, no? Where is the threshold in what defines ‘self taught’? Why is ‘being taught by others’ only associated with schools? In the end it seemed he was seen as self taught due to his imagination and originality, but are these not just the qualities of a true artist? It seems obvious that Basquiat learned from many external sources. He did attend life drawing classes, and though the teachers considered his attempt a failure, it does not mean he wasn’t instructed the same way the others in attendance were.. Anyhow, you can see the issue I have there. The irony is, I think all ‘true’ artists are self taught, finding their own path, and paradoxically, I think almost no one is self taught, most people are functioning on a reactionary level. But I believe to explore what happens when a self taught artist becomes commercially successful doesn’t apply to the artist that has been chosen as an example, in this case.
The talk on Henry Darger was in accompaniment to a new book, The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist, recently published, and written by one of the panelists, Jim Elledge. The talk promised exploring new insights into the life of Henry Darger and what this meant in relation to his art works and sizeable novel. I found James Brett’s contribution particularly stimulating and engaging, and his ‘detective work’ and theories to be most progressive. The talk really came alive once the microphone was in close proximity to his mouth and mind. Some of the slides he had brought along displayed never before seen images of Darger pages from his own collection, which had something different about them, and it was a pleasure to see these. Brett became especially animated in the moments leading up to his revealing his epiphanic observation in regards to how each and every Darger page follows the other almost like frames in a film, and that this seemingly simple connection had not previously been made due to the amount of missing pages. Brett proceeded to switch back and forth between a series of nine or so slides in order to solidify this evidence before the audience, and one of the images contained a sky full of lightning, synchronising miraculously to the second with actual lightning and thunder overwhelming the place with a level of theatrics that could not be planned. It was quite a moment. I believe this was caught on film, so I’m looking forward to reliving that. Naturally, this idea of the images all being actually directly linked to each other, lead to discussing how the collection should have never been broken up and that it is all actually one piece of work and that now it is a lot more difficult to comprehend. In turn, this also gravitated towards talk about how if the work(s) wasn’t/weren’t separated, it is unlikely they would have been widely seen and analysed to such a degree of understanding. Of course with such cases, there is always the issue of whether the creator (Darger, in this case) wanted the work to be seen at all, and is it right to just distribute it, sell it, exhibit it, write books about it, without his consent, which obviously is unlikely to be possible after his death. The talk touched on various other equally interesting new theories and information and I was more fascinated by it than I initially expected. Highlight of the day. That rain got so loud, the speakers’ voices were defeated by the roar of nature and so the talk had to stop for several minutes to wait and see if we could continue. As was said on the panel, it was like Darger was above us, talking to us, trying to tell us something as the synchronisation of simultaneous lightnings occurred…
Images from the top: Richard C. Smith ‘Time Bearer’ and Mehrdad Rashidi ‘Untitled’ with both images courtesy of the Henry Boxer Gallery, London