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Masterpieces from the Margins: The Outsider Art Fair Triumphs in New York

Eddie Harris, Shanty Sculpture.

COURTESY ANTILLEAN

At the entrance to this year’s Outsider Art Fair in New York hangs a mural-size canvas by self-taught artist Kevin Blythe Sampson and the Rusty Thorn Collective (Manuel Acevedo, Cesar Melgar, James Wilson, Jerry Gant, and Lauren Sampson). Titled The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, but it Bends Towards Justice, the painting is a plea for inclusiveness, fairness, and tolerance, with multiple references to current events including images of a Mexican Sacred Heart, a kneeling football player, and a scrawled riposte to Donald Trump’s recent comment about “shithole” (or possibly “shithouse,” as if that would matter) countries.

The mural serves notice that while most of the work exhibited at the fair is categorized as outsider art, it is—no matter how narrow or eccentric its focus—invariably connected to the world. On view at Tokyo gallery Yukiko Koide’s booth are quiltlike hangings made of thread and plastic bags by Jessie Dunahoo, a blind and deaf artist from Kentucky who is thought to have made his works as aids for navigating his environment. (At the booth of Lexington-based Institute 193, another Dunahoo piece makes a great pairing with Beverly Baker’s sheets of paper covered edge to edge with dense swathes of ballpoint-pen inkings.)

Plains Indian drawings from the 19th and 20th centuries depict scenes of tribal life at the booth of New York’s Donald Ellis Gallery. Of particular note are delicate depictions of horses and riders from the late 1800s by Oliver Good Shield and bold 1920s-era renderings of dances and hunts by Joseph No Two Horns, an artist, shield-maker, and veteran of the Battle of Little Big Horn who became well-known for his work during his lifetime. A Bird Will Always Try to Fly (1991), a powerful painting by the late, great Southern artist Thornton Dial of a fierce tiger-striped bird shown by Fred Giampietro Gallery from New Haven, Connecticut, suggests African-Americans’ continuing struggle for safety, equality, and justice. The same concerns figure more graphically in Mary Whitfield’s image of a lynching based on stories told to her as a child growing up in Birmingham, presented by the Brooklyn gallery Phyllis Stigliano.

Mary F. Whitfield, Oh Papa and Mama!, 2002.

RON MEISEL/COURTESY PHYLLIS STIGLIANO ART PROJECTS

Many of the artworks on view are closely associated with the artists’ sources of employment or home life. First-time exhibitor Almost Art from Beijing is showing Li Zhongdong’s wonderful drawing of a big cat whose brick-patterned coat alludes to the artist’s job as a construction worker, and Chris Byrne of Dallas pairs New Zealand artist Susan Te Kahurangi King’s riotous agglomerations of fragmented cartoon figures with a small trove of toys and other objects—saved by King’s grandmother and, later, her sister—that belonged to the artist and related to her work.

A notably elegant booth has been mounted by the New York-based gallery Antillean, which has hung a tight display of work by three Jamaican self-taught artists: Eddie Harris, who builds miniature sculptures of shanties reminiscent of Beverly Buchanan’s; Kemel Rankine, who makes hand-painted signs emblazoned with local sayings; and Sane Mae Dunkley, who produced shaggy, multicolored mats from scraps of cloth. All three have deep roots in Jamaica’s folklore, craft traditions, and culture of recycling and reuse.

A number of artists in the fair were of, or had close ties to, the mainstream art world. Two rough-hewn paintings by Dan Asher at Brooklyn’s Winter Works on Paper should revive interest in an artist who, while he suffered from mental illness, was an admired, albeit sometimes exasperating, presence on the downtown New York art scene before his death in 2010. (The gallery is also separately showing faked-up news photographs from Russia of alien autopsies, Big Foot, and UFOs—you know you want one.) Chicago gallerist Carl Hammer has drawings of glamorous women by Lee Godie, who sold her work on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago and was well known to that city’s art community. And Mason Fine Art and Events of Atlanta is exhibiting paintings of flowers and mysterious figures by the perennially underrated artist Sybil Gibson, who, though she had an exhibition at the Miami Museum of Modern art, was prone to disappearing and spent much of her life living in poverty.

Great Spider, 1952, toy belonging to Susan Te Kahurangi King.

PETITA COLE COLLECTION, AUCKLAND

Shared belief systems are another powerful connector between artists and their communities. Brooklyn artist Alexander Gorlizki’s Magic Markings is offering a selection of Indian spiritual and vernacular art from the 18th century to the present, including an antique yantra showing a goddess in various guises and an unusual brass frame, probably used to hold sacred images, in the shape of crouching person. Elsewhere, Southern African-American spiritual traditions are embodied in a totemic figure by vernacular artist Bessie Harvey made with a painted branch and adorned with chains and beads, at the booth of New York-based gallery American Primitive.

There is much more to see at the Outsider Art Fair—open through Sunday at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea—from work by famed outsiders James Castle (at Fleischer/Ollman), Martin Ramirez (Ricco/Maresca), and Bill Traylor (Luise Ross) to that of lesser-knowns like Aurie Ramirez (watercolors reminiscent of Karen Kilimnik’s glam fantasies at Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center) and new discoveries such as Leopold Strobl (whose abstracted landscapes were introduced last year by Galerie Gugging/Nina Katschnig).

In its sweep, the fair’s 26th edition is the most wide-ranging yet, reflecting an ever-broader definition of what constitutes outsider (or naïve, primitive, self-taught, tribal, street, or vernacular) art in the midst of increasing acceptance by the mainstream art world. Above all, it hums with life—which, as Sampson’s Arc of the Moral Universe mural suggests, cannot flourish without connection.

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