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This article by F.R. Rivera was prepared for the May 7, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Outsider Art, & Its Inner World

It seems odd that something so guardedly secret could

have become so publicly known. The phenomenon of bringing "outsider

art" to world attention is akin to putting personal diaries online.

Much outsider art is, in fact, out there in cyberspace for public

consumption. Just how big it has become since the term was coined

by British art historian Roger Cardinal in 1972 is evidenced by the

number of collections and museums worldwide that are dedicated to

its exhibition, promotion, and preservation.

The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore, for example,

has more than 4,000 pieces of outsider art in its permanent collection,

and shows them on a rotating basis, of about 80 works per exhibition.

In its show of about the same size — 75 pieces — the Gallery

at Bristol-Myers Squibb builds its survey of contemporary outsider

art on a sturdy historical footing. The exhibition spans 87 years.

Thirty artists from 14 countries are represented. It is a lush tapestry

of images that illustrates just how difficult it is to pin down the

maverick esthetic of outsider art.

The exhibition includes four pieces by well-known Swiss outsider artist

Adolf Wolfli — who spent the last 35 years of his life in a mental

institution — and whose work is now part of a major retrospective

at the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

The need for an "outsider" to make art is not elective. It

is more like a survivalist response to external threat, which creates

an elaborate barrier around a personal world. Reviewing the Wolfli

show in the May 5 issue of the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl writes,

"He couldn’t stand to be contradicted . . . Besides having an

immensely complicated and subtle technique, Wolfli is scary. Trying

to make a pet of him could get your hand bitten off."

Curator Kate Somers recruited independent curator Kristen Accola,

past director of exhibitions at the Hunterdon Art Museum, to give

this show its final shape. Accola’s background includes studio training

at the Rhode Island School of Design and in art history at Brown University.

She is one of the sophisticated insiders who has enlarged and cultivated

the audience for outsider art.

Included among the mainstream insiders are dealers, collectors, artists,

and medical doctors. Indeed, one of the first to recognize the value

of outsider art was Austrian art historian and psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn.

He began collecting the work of his patients in 1920; and his collection

ultimately numbered in the thousands. Prinzhorn was instrumental in

bringing outsider art to the attention of a wider public.

When works from the Prinzhorn collection were shown at Cornell University

in the mid 1980s, Accola, on the staff at New York’s Lefebre Gallery,

saw them. Lefebre exhibited a number of European expressionists, part

of the CoBrA group, who plumbed the depths of the unconscious in their

work. Their paintings demonstrated much of the raw energy and phantasmagoria

found in outsider art. Accola’s familiarity with this art, however,

did not prepare her for the over-the-top experience of seeing the

Prinzhorn collection.

She recalls her first encounter with outsider art as a "turning

point" in her life. She says she felt "breathless" and

remembers thinking, "even Picasso does not hold up." It was

a revelatory experience for Accola who had spent all of her adult

life immersed in art. She threw herself into the study of outsider

art and before long became something of an authority on it, along

with New York dealers Sherry Cavin and Jennifer Pinto Safian.

Last winter Somers proposed that she and Accola co-curate the present

show. The two visited the New York Outsider Art Fair just last February;

and Accola spent the four days of the fair combing the corridors to

select the work.

Unlike folk art, which is externally linked to its community and rarely

a solitary pursuit, outsider art is compulsively introspective and

solitary. Folk art is inter-generational. It has definable ancestral

links; outsider art does not. Whereas folk art hones an esthetic that

is handed down from parent to child, outsider art is a closed circuit;

and its particular vision ends when the artist stops producing. Outsider

art is not naive or primitive; it is not for or against any esthetic.

As a representative of AVAM writes, "It is like love; you know

it when you see it."

Accola concedes that the term may have outlived its

original meaning as defined by Jean Dubuffet, "art brut,"

— or art ignorant of the cultural mainstream. As outsiders move

— not so gingerly — into that mainstream, an AVAM spokesperson

reports, for example, receiving a letter on printed stationery embossed

with the words "Hermit/Visionary Recluse." The writer included

his fax and phone numbers and a press packet!

Outsider art is passionate and purposeful, while at the same time,

it is self-effacing. Curiously, those who practice this art are not

necessarily aware that they are making art at all. Certain of them

feel that they are merely a conduit through which the art flows. Such

an individual was Madge Gill, an obsessive ink-on-paper artist, who

— although she showed during her lifetime — declined to sell

her work because she said it was not hers to sell.

The show’s subjects are quirky and richly authentic. It brings together

white-bellied whales (Merrie Densmore), an emperor in the cabbage

patch (Tyyne Esko), a prancing, preening dog up on two legs, wearing

an orange bikini (Bohill Wong), a melee of flying porpoises (David

Butler), and desiccated vegetables like suspects in a police line-up

(Philippe Dereux).

These artists depict only what occurs inside their sphere of preoccupation.

For Chris Hipkiss, for example, who draws with the precision of a

medical illustrator, that sphere is ecological survival and it teems

with frantic activity. Hipkiss creates furrowed fields riddled through

with flaming smokestacks, coils poking in and out of the earth. These

fields roil as if receiving a massive electrical charge.

Anthony Hopkins, an Australian who suffers from autism,

is haunted by the plant life he finds in the Sydney Botanical Gardens.

He draws not just the plants — exotic and wonderful as they are

— but rather their inner light, which he claims emanates through

their porous skins, giving them the appearance of iridescent colored


Accola refers to artist Martin Ramirez as one of the "most loved

and revered" of all the outsider artists. According to Schjeldahl,

the American Folk Art Museum has tentative plans for a retrospective

of Ramirez’ work. Institutionalized in 1930 at age 35, Ramirez suffered

from a type of schizophrenia that left him mute. Either unwilling

or unable to speak, he created vast fantasy structures in panoramic

spaces. He hoarded pencils and crayons, scavenged and patched paper

together with homemade paste. He drew obsessively, using repetitive

motifs, toiling until the end of the day, only to have the hospital

staff clean up and dispose of his efforts. Finally, a doctor arrived

who began to rescue his work.

The works of Hipkiss, Hopkins, and Ramirez, along with work by many

other outsiders, are brought to us from commercial dealers — who

are, in effect, scouts for artists who were, or are, incapable of

self-promotion. As the world of outsider art moves into the 21st century,

it is as vulnerable as ever to the many consummate insiders who have

borrowed or appropriated from it. The smashed plate paintings of Julian

Schnabel, for example, or the crusty murals of Anselm Kiefer bring

to mind the esthetic of outsider art.

Accola observes in her foreword to the show’s catalog that, as the

"conditions of isolation" that fostered this art fades, so

will the distinction between marginal and mainstream.

Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Route 206, Lawrenceville,

609-252-6275. "Outsider Art: The Inner Worlds of Self-Taught Artists."

Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends and holidays, 1 to 5

p.m. To June 15.

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