The New Visionaries

Contemporary artists are picking up where self-taught artists left off—with rough-hewn, unguarded styles some call faux naïve.

Jockum Nordström’s 2 2 collage The Coachman uses traditional folk-art motifs, such as the tree of life and symmetrical patterns.


This is a picture about a place we live in called Earth that is inside of this place we call space.” That was the title for a rambling installation by Chris Johanson at the Whitney Museum’s biennial last year. The diorama-style piece overtook the nooks and crannies of the museum’s granite stairwell with an assemblage of imaginary cities and cartoon-colored characters spouting New Age homilies. The wooden construction began on the first floor and erupted in a childlike rendition of a celestial sunburst at the top. Johanson’s unguarded enthusiasm and a handmade simplicity lent the piece a strong resemblance to the work of self-taught artists. Indeed, with its epic title and scale, its use of primary colors and poster paint, and its thorough rejection of formal composition and slick production values, Johanson’s apparent mixture of innocence and worldliness could easily confuse his work with that of such outsider artists as Bill Traylor or Reverend Howard Finster.

During the 199 s, the field of outsider art—a term for work by self-taught, often visionary artists, made in idiosyncratic styles or folk-art traditions—gained increasing respectability and value. In 2 1, at the same time as a new headquarters for the American Folk Art Museum opened in midtown Manhattan, a wave of contemporary artists, many with M.F.A.s and major gallery representation, began to exhibit works that unapologetically resembled the style and intensity of the best of their self-taught predecessors, most notably Henry Darger, Adolf Wolfli, Thornton Dial, William Edmondson, James Castle, and Martin Ramirez. Unlike these well-known outsider artists, who are still shown primarily at the Outsider Art Fair or in galleries specializing in this work, such as New York’s Ricco/Maresca and Phyllis Kind, their contemporary counterparts are popping up at international art fairs and biennials. Some call this new trend “faux naïve”; others refer to it as “professional folk.”

“It only makes sense that artists operating within the network of the art world are inspired by the work of self-taught artists,” says Brooke Anderson, director and curator of the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum. According to Anderson, several factors—increased visibility through museum exhibitions, higher levels of scholarly research, and rising auction prices—underscore the accomplishments of self-taught artists in ways too numerous to be ignored by the “other” art world, including contemporary artists and their dealers. Christie’s held its first sale of outsider material, from the Robert Greenberg collection, in January and brought in a total of $1.5 million, while setting auction records for Darger, Edmondson, Morton Bartlett, and William Hawkins. Sotheby’s has included works by self-taught artists in its Americana sales for several years. But prices in the private market can exceed these public records, with watercolors by Darger going for more than $5 , and sculptures by Edmondson reaching $3 , .

“Self-taught artists have a devotion to their vision and to their craft that is awesome and mind-boggling to professional artists,” says Anderson, pointing out that these artists live up to a romantic ideal of making work without the usual distractions of a more businesslike art career. “Add to that the freedom that the self-taught artist has to exist with no art history. That allows an incredibly idiosyncratic body of work to develop,” she offers.

The influence of outsiders is critical to the development of 2 th- century art, from Picasso’s appropriation of African masks to Dubuffet’s adaptations of the art of the insane, according to Gary Garrels, chief curator of drawings and curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA. “If you look at Matisse and Picasso,” he says, “without the baggage of history, their paintings are incredibly raw, even awkward.”

In this context, many of the works featured in “Drawing Now,” MoMA’s survey last year of contemporary works on paper, curated by Laura Hoptman, seemed to be a direct outgrowth of artists’ long-standing love affair with outsider material: Jockum Nordström’s Grandma Moses ;style domestic dramas, Barry McGee’s thrift shop ;like display of drawings of street people, Russell Crotty’s obsessive ballpoint-pen approach to night skies, and Laura Owens’s lyrical takes on embroidery patterns. Some viewers might question the skill of artists flirting with the look of naïveté. But Garrels points out that “the question ‘Can he draw?’ has been leveled at artists since the advent of Modernism,” and to ask it today ignores that history.

But some are less enamored of a style that Los Angeles ;based independent curator Michael Duncan calls “deliberate primitivism.” Duncan, who curated the recent Kim MacConnel retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and has championed artists ranging from Sister Corita, an activist and nun, to Jim Shaw, finds the recent wave of faux naïve work to contain a touch of cynicism. “There’s a certain ineptitude that seems to be perceived as some kind of a direct expression, but I think in this day and age, it comes off as calculation,” says Duncan, who insists that the complexity of an artist’s vision—whether the artwork is by a self-taught artist or by a highly trained contemporary artist—is all that counts.

Johanson, 35, did not attend art school, though his career hardly matches the stereotype of the reclusive “outsider.” Based in San Francisco, he trained himself while painting houses and decorating skateboards. He also enmeshed himself in a community of like-minded artists, including Alicia McCarthy, McGee, and Margaret Kilgallen, McGee’s late wife, who died of cancer in 2 1, and had recommended Johanson for the 1997 “Bay Area Now” show at the Yerba Buena Center. Since then Johanson, who is represented by Jack Hanley in San Francisco and Deitch Projects in New York, has had solo shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Hammer Museum. Prices for Johanson’s work at a solo show at Deitch Projects, two years ago, ranged from $1,5 to $2 , .

The pervasive “do-it-yourself” style of his San Francisco colleagues earned them the moniker the “Mission School,” referring to the formerly down-and-out Mission District, where they once resided and from which many of them gained inspiration. This style is a celebration of low-tech art making, whose sources range from flea-market finds and graffiti to macramé and high-school shop projects. Kilgallen was included posthumously in last year’s Whitney Biennial, with a grand-scale wall installation that appropriated the look of carnival signage. McGee, 37, who is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco, also has a following in graffiti circles for his tag, “Twist.” He creates displays from hundreds of miniature pencil drawings of sad-sack characters flanked by empty liquor bottles. Included in “Drawing Now,” he has had solo shows at the UCLA Hammer Museum, Deitch Projects, and most recently, Fondazione Prada in Milan. While both McGee and Kilgallen received B.F.A.s from the San Francisco Art Institute, their work seems to come directly from the street, looking like the heartfelt creations of a bodega owner or a homeless person, rather than like that of well-educated contempor
ary artists.

“We have to define what outsider art is,” says James Elaine, a curator at the UCLA Hammer Museum, where Johanson created a lobby installation in 2 1. “I wouldn’t call Chris an outsider or naïve, but I like the unfinished quality in his work, the way it tends to grow, almost like an organism, without necessarily having a beginning or an end.” Elaine points to a certain sensibility—a rejection of high-tech production values and high-art theory in favor of handmade objects and New Age rhetoric—that infuses the work of these artists, and he sees it as a sincere expression by those who either grew up in or were attracted to San Francisco and its 196 s counterculture. “Some artists try to be at the center of the art world, but for artists like Chris or Barry, this was a result rather than a goal,” says Elaine. “They stand more comfortably on the periphery of society and the art world, but just because they are standing on the outside, that does not make them outsider artists.”

“I think as society in general becomes more homogeneous, of course artists are looking for anomalies, whether it’s Grandma Moses or George Burns,” says Wayne Baerwaldt, director of the Power Plant, an alternative space in Toronto. Both of these popular personalities inspire the Royal Art Lodge, an artists’ collective based in Winnipeg. Baerwaldt and New York ;based independent curator Joseph Wolin cocurated the Royal Art Lodge show at the Drawing Center in New York this year. It travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, next September.

Proving that the “new naïve” is not only a San Francisco phenomenon, the members of the Royal Art Lodge  ;Marcel Dzama, Jon Pylypchuk, Neil Farber, Michael Dumontier, Drue and Myles Langlois, Adrian Williams, and Dzama’s younger sister, Hollie) have been meeting every Wednesday night since 1996, churning out collaborative drawings, videos, CDs, stuffed dolls, and sculptures—more like a quilting circle than an art studio. Each drawing is worked on by several members in the group, who pass the paper from one to another until it is deemed complete; then the art is “rated” by the group as either fit for exhibition or “to be destroyed.”

The results often reflect an ironic attitude toward contemporary art—an attitude in turn embraced by mainstream galleries. Dzama now shows independently at New York’s David Zwirner, where his work sells for $9 unframed. Pylypchuk recently had his first solo show at New York’s Friedrich Petzel. At other times, the drawings read as the heartfelt doodles of a forlorn high-school student—which, in fact, Hollie Dzama is. “It’s a rigorously independent approach,” says Baerwaldt. He draws an analogy between artists’ collaboratives, such as the Royal Art Lodge and Two Six Packs, also based in Winnipeg, as well as Forcefield and Dearraindrop in Providence, Rhode Island, and the singular vision of self-taught artists. “With the Royal Art Lodge, the agenda is archiving and sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of a mediacentric world to try to find small doses of sentimentality and authenticity.”

For Amy Cutler, 29, a graduate of Cooper Union who shows at Leslie Tonkonow in New York and is having a solo exhibition at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, next April, folk-art influences add to the references in her paintings. She draws on details from Indian miniatures, Shaker drawings, and 15th-century paintings by Brueghel and Bosch to create watercolors that seem as naïve as illustrations from children’s books  ;which she also mines) but contain complex, disturbing narratives. “I am telling a story but not really defining it,” says Cutler, “which is probably why I am drawn to outsider art: it always has an intensely personal story behind it.” Prices for her gouaches and paintings on wood panels range from $2, to $15, .

Likewise, New York ;based digital artist Paul Chan intentionally appropriated Henry Darger’s epic work In the Realms of the Unreal for his 2 3 video Happiness  ;finally) after 35, years, in which the prepubescent girls come alive, have sex with each other, and battle with cell phone ;carrying businessmen. Moving from scenes of blissful naïveté to mass nuclear destruction, the video pits the obsessions of Darger—an individual who was generally considered off-kilter, if not insane—against broader social anxieties, such as war, that also could be deemed insane.

Gerald Slota, on the other hand, openly applies the markings and manias of self-taught artists to the medium of photography by scratching, retouching, and chopping up his negatives in ways that evoke the imaginings of an inmate in a lunatic asylum. “I am very inspired by outsider and folk art, specifically William Hawkins for his use of color, Bill Traylor for his line, Henry Darger for the darkness of his imagery, and for photography, Eugene von Bruenchenhein,” says Slota. Those primary influences are an unskilled worker in Columbus, Ohio; a former slave; a well-known recluse; and a photographer who churned out pornographic portraits of his wife. But Slota, whose works regularly illustrate the pages of the New York Times Magazineand who is represented by the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, states, “I am not trying to pretend that I am an outsider.” A typical unique photograph will sell for around $3, . He explains, “These artists have a pure idea about what art is without outside influences corrupting it; they are not going to openings and mingling.”

Jules de Balincourt, 31, who recently filled LFL Gallery in New York with signs, paintings, and a plywood construction of a full-grown tree with tree house that visitors were encouraged to climb, says, “Part of it is a rejection of the artist-as-business-genius sensibility, and part of it is making fun of myself.” The centerpiece of his show was Global Warming Souvenir, a diorama of the artist’s former Los Angeles neighborhood, Malibu Lake, created inside of a large wooden tub. Water flooded the miniature valley every 4 minutes. His works look as if they were done by elementary-school kids precocious enough to read front-page headlines but without the skills to make polished art for commercial galleries.

De Balincourt’s work is a reflection of his life experience: a childhood with a “hippie mom” in Topanga Canyon, just outside Los Angeles, then, at 18, a move to a commune outside Santa Barbara. But de Balincourt also represents the next generation of Mission School artists, having graduated with a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute and now completing his M.F.A. at Hunter College in New York. “Maybe my works are feeble or naïve attempts to subvert authority,” he says, “but they are also a rebellion against painting for painting’s sake to reach a broader audience, even though I’m also making fun of the failed hippie and utopian dreams that are really unattainable.” While small works from his first show were priced around $1, , his paintings sell for $4, to $5, , half a year later.

Artists like de Balincourt, embarking on the faux-naïve style, have good company and models for the untrained look. Marcel Dzama’s pen-and-ink cartoons are being paired with the flatly painted, pseudofolk parables of Swedish artist Jockum Nordström at David Zwirner Gallery, from the 12th of this month through January 24, 2 4. And Anton Kern Gallery  ;also in New York) now represents Scottish artist David Shrigley, whose awkwardly handwritten, one-sentence drawings are filled with self-deprecating phrases such as “If you take your eye off the pen for a second, the drawing can turn into something you never meant.” While Raymond Pe
6;s savagely witty take on American comic books is one influence on this younger generation of artists, the true source for much of their work may well be Jim Shaw and his landmark exhibition of found “Thrift Store Paintings,” shown at New York’s Metro Pictures gallery in 1991.

“I am a marginally functional person myself, so maybe I am like an outsider artist,” says Shaw, who had an exhibition of 3 years’ worth of drawings and paintings at Metro Pictures this fall. “My feeling is that even though I went to CalArts, and I am supposed to be a kind of wise guy, I also know that any intentions that an artist might have don’t necessarily have any relationship to the impact that the art achieves.”

A case in point for Shaw is the widespread influence of the “Thrift Store Paintings,” works by unknown amateur artists that he found, starting in the 197 s, in junk shops and flea markets; they have since traveled the world as a museum exhibition. “They hit a Zeitgeist that I wouldn’t have predicted, like going from being a dweeb to a cool person, but never really wanting to be cool,” he says. Summing up the current situation for himself and many of his peers, Shaw observes, “As an artist, you find things you like, as a sifter of culture, before they have been totally consumed by the culture, but you inadvertently spoil them too, because then they get the imprimatur of cool.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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