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ESSAYS

Joseph Crepin

PARALLEL VISIONS II

"Outsider" and "Insider" Art Today

In 1992, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented a groundbreaking exhibition titled “Parallel Visions,” which traced the connections between modern artists and their self-taught colleagues. This exhibition played a major role in establishing the field of “outsider” art as it exists today. However, just as our view of modernism has changed in the intervening years, the boundaries between “outsider” and “insider” art have gradually begun to blur. Many elements that once seemed exclusive to “outsider” art—obsessive repetition of form, a pop-culture frame of reference, the conjuring of fantastic alternative realities, crudeness of execution and the use of debased, non-art materials—have infiltrated the mainstream art world. Of course, the appropriation of “low” art attributes by practitioners of “high” art is nothing new and was in fact the subject of the original “Parallel Visions” show. It is thus worth asking, what, if anything, has really changed?

 

 

The title “Parallel Visions” itself implied a certain bias on the part of the exhibition’s organizers: the fields of “insider” and “outsider” art were separate but not quite equal. This last point was brought home by the subtitle, “Modern Artists and Outsider Art” [italics added]. It was the mainstream artists who were in control, who chose which aspects of “outsider” art to accept and which to reject or, more often, simply to ignore. In this sense, "Parallel Visions" was in the tradition of its two predecessors at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” (1990) and “Primitivism and 20th Century Art” (1984), both of which were widely criticized for enforcing an imperialistic, Eurocentric reading of cultural exploitation. However, while all three exhibitions dealt with the relationship between mainstream modernism and its various unorthodox tributaries, “Parallel Visions” was more progressive in questioning modernism’s own internal orthodoxies. LACMA’s curators, Maurice Tuchman and Carol Eliel, saw their presentation as a sequel to the museum’s 1986 exhibition “The Spiritual in Art,” which posited a mystically oriented alternative to the formalist paradigm that had previously dominated analyses of abstraction. By viewing the modernists’ fascination with the “other” in terms of content as well as form, Tuchman and EIiel in fact broke with accepted art-historical practice and anticipated the more expansive approach to influence that has come to characterize postmodernist critical discourse.

 

The obsession with “otherness” that is so intrinsic to modernism originated around the turn of the last century. Although a broad array of non-academic art—folk craft, amateur painting and art by the mentally ill—existed in earlier eras, the arbiters of high culture paid such lowly creations no mind. The “noble savage” existed as a concept in philosophy but not in art, which was the unchallenged purview of the hereditary aristocracy and, in democratic America, of the educated moneyed classes. During the nineteenth century, however, the readjustment of class boundaries occasioned by industrialization and the mingling of disparate populations through migration and imperialism sparked heretofore unknown confrontations between dominant and subservient peoples. The simultaneous need and inability to deal with the “other” became a leitmotif of twentieth-century history, contributing to its many genocides. The crumbling of once stable aristocratic empires touched off World War I, which in turn triggered Hitler’s retaliatory quest for European domination and World War II. And for each world war, there was a concomitant surge of interest in self-taught art, the art of the “other,” on the part of the cultural elite.

 

The waves of interest in self-taught art that recurred throughout the twentieth century tended to emphasize differing aspects of the “other.” The first “outsider” to be brought “inside” was the famous painting toll collector Henri Rousseau. Embraced by Picasso in France and Kandinsky in Germany, Rousseau was the original “naïf,” a paragon of childlike innocence. It was Kandinsky, a prolific theorist, who promulgated the notion that artists without formal training are better able to capture the “inner resonance” of their subjects than those whose spontaneity has been dulled by rote schooling. After World War I, this ideal of artistic purity would find broader commercial acceptance through the intervention of the art historian and dealer Wilhelm Uhde, who cobbled together a whole group of untrained “Painters of the Sacred Heart.” However, in the 1920s another, darker view of the “outsider” also emerged, courtesy of the psychiatrists Hans Prinzhorn and Walter Morgenthaler. Working, respectively, with mental patients at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic and with the brilliant Swiss psychotic Adolf Wölfli, these two doctors sought access to the elemental depths of the creative spirit. The harnessing of unconscious impulses became a primary goal of the Surrealists, many of whom were familiar with Prinzhorn’s and Morgenthaler’s work.

 

Surrealism spawned the preeminent post-World War-II champion of “outsiders,” the artist Jean Dubuffet. Art Brut (raw art), the term he coined to describe art untainted by received culture, was a direct response to the insanity of global war. Despairing of civilization, Dubuffet looked to its margins for hope and inspiration, which he found in the work of mental patients, spiritual mediums and extreme outcasts. In effect, Dubuffet melded the two pre-war conceptions of self-taught art, ascribing primordial innocence and purity to the work of social deviants. Art Brut in turn spawned “outsider” art, but something was literally lost in translation and in the transplantation of the genre from Europe to the United States.

 

Mainstream recognition of self-taught art, like modernism itself, was a European import that was welcomed to the U.S. rather belatedly and, in the process, given a uniquely American interpretation. As in Europe, America’s early modernists used self-taught art to ratify their own unorthodox formal experiments. But in the depths of the Depression, when America’s first homegrown self-taught painters were “discovered,” the genre quickly became a repository for all sorts of notions about national identity. Like the contemporary Regionalists, self-taught artists of the 1930s represented the strength of the heartland as against the corrupt big city. They represented native ingenuity, freedom and individualism. In America, where class divisions are more commonly denied than is the case in Europe, self-taught artists bolstered the myth of egalitarianism. Thus the art-world elite lauded working-class artists during the Depression. More recently, in the face of entrenched racism, that same elite has promoted African-American creators. Whereas in Europe, a sharp rift developed between proponents of “naïve” art and avatars of Art Brut, Americans were far less inclined to engage in such theoretical hair-splitting. To them, folk art, “naïve” art, self-taught art and “outsider” art were all different expressions of pretty much the same thing.

 

Despite the divergent aspects of the “other” highlighted in the first and second halves of the twentieth century, in Europe and in America, all approaches to self-taught art suffered from similar inherent contradictions. For one thing, the ascription of intrinsic purity to self-taught artists was neither objectively verifiable nor true. It is, after all, no more possible to determine whether an artist has a “sacred heart” than it is to X-ray his or her soul. And the paradigm of purity clashed head-on with the fact of external influence. As it turns out, many self-taught artists teach themselves in exactly the same way that trained artists do: they look at things and then poach from an array of preexisting sources. Only for self-taught artists, those sources are ad hoc, rather than selected by the art-world’s educational superstructure. There was also something insidious about the mainstream’s idealization of the self-taught artist’s ostensible purity. A self-taught artist could be disqualified, driven from the temple of Art Brut and back into the no-man’s land of inept anonymity, for being too knowing or too ambitious. The whole point was that self-taught artists were accidental modernists, creating works that looked like sophisticated art without deliberately intending to. By denying the self-taught artist’s intentionality, the art-world mainstream denied these artists the right to be taken seriously. Insofar as the discipline of art history has traditionally treated art works as texts, the purpose of which is to communicate an artist’s conscious or unconscious intent, the doctrine of “purity” made it impossible to properly study self-taught artists and therefore impossible to admit them to the canon. The “other” was acknowledged, even petted and pampered, but at the same time safely ensconced in a position subordinate to that of the mainstream elite.

 

Most of the attributes—purity, innocence, iconoclasm, individualism—ascribed to “outsiders” had less to do with them than with the projected needs of the mainstream. In practice, the mainstream’s relationship to self-taught artists was largely formal, as though by claiming a similar pictorial language, trained artists could appropriate those self-same projected values. This formal relationship was double-edged: the mainstream singled out self-taught artists who unwittingly confirmed its own preexisting aesthetic proclivities, and trained artists also borrowed specific stylistic tropes from their uneducated colleagues. Formalism became the primary way in which modernism was explained and sold to the broader public, especially in the U.S. In the years immediately after World War II, the histories of diverse modernist movements in places like Russia, Italy, Germany and Austria were pruned in order to present a clean, linear developmental trajectory from prewar Paris to postwar New York. The whole idea of a single international art “center” presupposed a high degree of coordination and unity of intent. Modernism’s subsidiary “isms” were seen to comprise cohesive teams of artists engaged in a joint mission to advance the global cause of art. Tastemakers such as MoMA’s founding director Alfred Barr and the art critic Clement Greenberg wielded immense influence through their ability to channel the messy products of artistic enterprise into neat formalist schemes.

 

Today, the formalist linearity once ascribed to modernist development has been generally discredited, both as art history and as a prescriptive mandate for aspiring artists. Artists are encouraged to take their inspiration from anything and everything that moves them, reaching back in time through all of art history, and absorbing more recent visual phenomena like cartoons, comics and film as well. Artists such as Öyvind Fahlstrom and Ray Johnson, who were considered peripheral to the Pop Art movement because of their unwillingness to subordinate pop imagery to a high-art schema, are now admired for their unmediated heterogeneity. Artists like Fahlstrom, Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon give all cultural sources equal weight, drawing no distinction between the “high” and the “low.” There are no rules or restrictions regarding the use of materials, either. “New media” such as video and computers are welcomed in the high-art arena once dominated by painting and sculpture, as are formerly “inferior” modes of expression like photography and the pottery of Grayson Perry. This diversity has created a confusing welter of objects and styles. There are no longer any gatekeepers comparable to Barr or Greenberg controlling access to the citadel of high art. For the most part, curators and critics now follow paths blazed in an increasingly freewheeling and decentralized marketplace. Globalization has for the first time created a true “art world,” assimilating collectors and artists from all over. Although many dealers are still based in New York, the art scene has become a moveable feast, decamping regularly to Basel, Miami, London or wherever in accordance with art-fair schedules. Globalization has forced a new confrontation with the “other,” both in terms of individual players and in terms of diverse traditions.

 

The current approach to self-taught art is in many respects an extension of the heterogeneity born of globalization, and as such differs decisively from the earlier, modernist approach to the genre. The pairing of Henry Darger with the Chapman Brothers and Grayson Perry in recent exhibitions was predicated not on formal similarities, but on a kinship of content. Perry has cited Darger as a key influence in helping him come to terms artistically with his own legacy of childhood abuse as well as in dealing with the larger subjects of war, violence and the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Darger’s use of children’s-book iconography to explore adult issues of sexual aggression finds further echoes in Dzama’s watercolors. Conquering evil by confronting and taming it may well be one of the primordial functions of art. Thus Frank Jones drew nests of colored-pencil cells to imprison the devils he called “haints.” Steve DiBenedetto explores childhood fears by crafting tortured mindscapes that combine organic and mechanical forms. The idea of mapping the unconscious—either through semi-abstract images like DiBenedetto’s or though literal maps like those of Darger, Perry and Pettibon—are recurrent themes these days.

 

Closely related to the impetus to conquer evil is a belief that art has redemptive potential. Many artists have seen art-making as a devotional act. Chelo Amezcua commemorated the completion of each of her meticulously wrought, filigreed drawings with a period of prayer and meditation. Hiroyuki Doi began drawing after the death of his brother, depicting amalgams of tiny, bubble-like cells that represent the transmigration of the soul and link the artist’s earthly being to the cosmos. Emery Blagdon constructed “healing machines,” composed of chemicals, scrap metal and found objects, that emitted a mild, ostensibly curative electrical charge. Roger Ackling harnesses the energy of the sun to scarify bits of found wood with fine parallel lines. The painstaking process of directing the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass is akin to meditating, and the resulting object becomes an affirmation of the world’s wonders, a combined product of earth and sky. For Ackling, as for Michel Nedjar, the found object itself carries a certain spiritual potency. Nedjar, many of whose family perished in the Holocaust, considers it important to salvage materials that would otherwise be lost or destroyed.

 

Ritual, the repetition of a seemingly meaningless act or form, can be viewed as delusional, obsessive, profound or sacred, depending on one’s frame of reference. Counting, for example, informs both the art of Joseph Crépin (who was told in a vision that if he painted a certain number of pictures, he could ensure peace on earth) and Mary Temple, who is trying to concretize the enormity of our modern world by drawing a million brightly colored ellipses. Martin Thompson creates brilliant geometric patterns on graph paper according to precise mathematical formulae, and then repeats the same pattern in reverse on a matching sheet. James Siena is similarly interested in the mathematical roots of abstraction, and his tightly nested skeins of lines and forms conform to predetermined algorithms. By revealing the patterns underlying the visible world, many of these works suggest a connection with the divine.

 

Often these days one has the sneaking suspicion that the only difference between “insider” and “outsider” artists is the way they are labeled and marketed. Chris Hipkiss, whose meticulous graphite fantasies reference such sources as Bosch, Breughel and Hogarth, chanced upon John Maizels and Monika Kinley (both important supporters of “outsider” art in Britain) early in his career, and he has been typecast accordingly ever since. Sue Coe, who shares many of Hipkiss's specific influences as well as his concern with animal rights and environmental apocalypse, likewise entered the art world through the backdoor (in her case, commercial illustration), but she has never been considered an “outsider” artist. The need to vet “outsiders” by fixating on their biographies is beginning to seem increasingly shallow and pointless. The minor detail of having gone, or not gone, to art school seems similarly irrelevant when all the world’s a school. To the extent that they exist outside the nine-to-five job grind that preoccupies most people, all artists are economic “outsiders.” And all artists, if they are any good, are passionate and driven. As the boundaries between “outsiders” and “insiders” disintegrate, so too do the boundaries between us and the “other.” At a time when we are hyper-aware of globalization’s negative effects, from economic exploitation and environmental degradation to terrorism, it is encouraging to think that at least on some level, the divisions between disparate peoples are diminishing in the face of our common humanity.

 

The present exhibition, covering such a vast variety of art and artists, would not have been possible without the help and input of a great many people. First and foremost, we must express our gratitude to our co-curator Don Hanson, who has long served as our tireless guide to the mysteries of the contemporary art world, and to Elizabeth Marcus, who also advised on the selection of artists. Warmest thanks go as well to our many lenders, including Martina Batan, Shari Cavin and Randall Morris, Feature, Inc., Richard Feigen and Frances F. L. Beatty, Harlan and Weaver, Phyllis Kind, Mixed Greens, John Ollman, Selig D. Sacks, the Von Lintel Gallery and David Zwirner. Unless otherwise indicated, checklist entries cite image dimensions for the prints and full dimensions for all other works.