On a recent afternoon standing in the Williamsburg apartment of Randall Morris and Shari Cavin, the eponymous Manhattan gallery owners, I was introduced to a new term. “A friend calls it our ‘ethnosphere,’ ” Morris said, referring to the pair’s permanently in-flux private exhibition space, which is filled, floor to ceiling, with tribal masks, sculptural works, canvasses, and all sorts of ephemera. It doubles as their living quarters. “It’s an ecosystem that’s not quite in control of itself,” he said.
Morris and his wife opened their first gallery in TriBeCa in 1985. At the time, it was one of only three galleries in the city, alongside Phyllis Kind, Rosa Esman, and Ricco Johnson (today Ricco Maresca) to specialize in Art Brut, outsider, and self-taught art—a field that the broader art market has become more receptive to only recently. The gallery later occupied a space above Dean and DeLuca in SoHo before moving to its current digs in Chelsea in 2006. But they are not just dealers. First-and-foremost, they consider themselves passionate collectors.
Evidence of this comes as Morris directs my attention to a metallic mermaid. “This is Georges Liautaud,” he said, introducing me to the prolific Haitian sculptor by way of the feminine figure posed in a suggestive mode of swimming, which sits in his living room. “He was a blacksmith,” added Cavin, “and the story goes that in the early ’50s the head of the National Museum of Haiti came across some metallic crosses in a graveyard made by Liautaud. He later asked the artist if he’d ever made a sculpture and Liautaud, in his insouciant way, said, ‘No, but come back in a week and I’ll have something for you.’ “
That “something” would turn out to be a mermaid, the first of Liautaud’s cut-metal sculptures, which would over several decades spawn a cottage industry of curio knockoffs in Haiti. Today, several of Liautaud’s sculptures sit in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The mermaid before us, said Morris, was “one of the first five or six Liautaud ever made.”
Morris was quickly on to another item. “This is a mask from the Yangshao region of China,” he said, pointing to what looked like a small animal’s hip bone with two eyes carved into it. “It’s one of the oldest pieces we own, from around 3000 B.C.E. It’s almost neolithic.”
On the other end of the spectrum is a haunting oil of a sinister-looking hooded clown-like figure beside children by the Californian artist Jon Serl. The work, titled Nun and Three Kids, is largely inspired by Serl’s life, Morris explained. “He was a chuckwagon chef brought up by nuns. He was also a hobo in a traveling carnival family and female impersonator.” Serl was 89 when he met Morris, who came to represent the artist for the rest of his life. “He was one of the first major artists I dealt with,” Morris said.
The couple’s taste is deeply catholic, even within the context of self-taught art. They take an “edgier outlook on things,” Morris said.
“We want it to be real and authentic, but people are so busy looking for the top-of-the-line they miss this huge middle in tribal art of stuff that’s real and amazing,” Morris said, elaborating on the couple’s collection predilection. “But it’s not sexy to most people because it doesn’t go for a quarter of a million dollars.”
So what comprises “real and authentic?” I asked.
“At first it’s our gut reaction,” said Cavin, with Morris quick to follow, adding, “We look for work that fulfills whatever the artist set out to do. We’re going against what most of the art world is about, because the art world removes intentionality.” By this, Morris explained, he views the art world as a self-contained “culture” which tends to dilute the context of individual artists and their work. Morris and Cavin’s interest, in contrast, is in each individual artist they encounter. They look for the presence of “technical proficiency” meeting something they’ve “never seen before.”
This is not how many people in their field approach collecting, Morris said. “There’s a prissiness right now,” Cavin added. “Collectors want it to either be primitive or blue chip. They’re not really looking at the material itself. They too erase the intentionality.”
They brought up Henry Darger, a staple of the field, as an example. As one of the first dealers to show Darger back in the 1980s, Morris recalled how “no one was buying him because of the blood and violence” in his work. Back then a Darger piece could go for around $1,200. Today in Europe, Morris said, that figure can run as high as $750,000. “The violence became acceptable once they reached a certain price point, which transcended its subject matter,” said Morris.
In one sense, the overall increase in the value of self-taught art serves as validation for Morris and Cavin, but art-market acceptance was never really their priority to begin with.
“It’s a weird existential place to be because we fought for that recognition,” Morris said. “We keep saying it’s not a trend, or a movement. It’s always been here, and it’s always going to be here.”