An Inside Look at the Outside

William L. Hawkins, Boffo, © Ricco/Maresca Gallery, Estate of William Hawkins, Philadelphia, PAThink of it as a riddle. What’s the difference between an artist who lines up identical piles of sand on the floor of a former Philadelphia warehouse and another artist who builds towers out of chicken bones?

Before you try to answer, here’s yet another example. In that same North Philadelphia industrial space called the Skybox, you could have seen the works of a young sculptor whose medium is balloons, albeit ones big enough to resemble submarines. Elsewhere in the City of Brotherly Love, there are works currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) by an artist named Sam Doyle (1906–85) who used discarded corrugated sheets of metal as canvases, painting scenes that included a funeral parlor embalming in process.

The answer is that the works in that “alternative” warehouse space are ones that receive attention in the mainstream press and to which fashionable people congregate for wine-and-cheese openings, thumping with house music, the artists on hand regularly vying for grants and residencies at art colonies and inclusions in biennales. But when those other artists were wiring together the remnants of their chicken dinners and walking the shoulders of rural South Carolina highways in the 1940s, looking for battered signs and segments of guardrails, they were working in complete obscurity, usually with no understanding that they might even be artists.

Whether you like so-called Outsider Art or not, it is a genre that you can always recognize for what it is. Those piles of sand will blow away and the balloons will shrivel long before the works in “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection (through June 9 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) will disappear. The spookiest thing about Outsider Art is that, while every artist who makes it has a distinctive vision (often a truly hallucinatory one), every piece of art within that genre has a similarity—not in composition, but in mood and intent.

This show at the PMA of 200 works by twenty-seven American Outsider artists begins with a succinct definition of the genre that every visitor should stop and read. What makes Outsider Art? “The basic answer is that it is art made by people who have not gone to art school, who usually do not operate professionally or earn their livings as artists, and who create, for the most part, with limited or no connection to the art world and its dealers, galleries, collectors, critics, schools, and museum.” The stated definition, written by the PMA’s curator of drawings, Ann Percy, adds that the art reflects “particular inner compulsions, which may be visionary, derived from memories, evangelical, or popular-culture inspired....The best outsiders produce work that is out of the ordinary, edgy, imaginative, or even obsessive-compulsive.”

This definition helps, but still doesn’t exactly answer why Outsider Art looks the way it does. If you consider poets who write their verse with no hopes of latching onto an academic tenure track or musicians who sing impromptu tunes in the shower, their creations are certainly not those outside of the ordinary. Many a Sunday painter renders her floral still-lifes with no fantasies of fame.

Elijah Pierce, "Love" (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Outsider Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, PhiladelphiaThere is not a moment of boredom to be had in this landmark show (all of the featured works, which date from the 1930s to 2010, are a promised gift to the PMA). None of the pieces allow a viewer to be blasé or indifferent. Maybe that, too, should be part of the definition of what makes a canvas or sculpture or assemblage a work of Outsider Art—that it forces the viewer to respond.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910–83) was a Milwaukee baker who built towers and thrones of chicken bones, none of which were seen by anyone outside of his home until after his death. His assemblages may not be beautiful, but nothing else exists in the world like his sculptures. And to see them evokes everything from the smell and taste of the meat to the skeletal remains we throw away. James Castle (1899–1977) was born deaf, and even though he attended the Idaho State School for the Deaf and the Blind, he never learned to communicate by sign language or lip reading. From his trailer on a family farm, he spent many of his days taking used bits of paper and cardboard and remnants of string, and assembling them into compositions made with a paste of stovepipe soot, water and his own spit. In the show, you’ll see his Brown Chair, with its eerie echoes of the electric chair, snippets of string appearing to hold together the painted surface. His Blue-Handled Pitcher, too, is adorned with string, along with pieces of cutout cardboard that have allusions to an advent calendar.

As for that other directive of Outsider Art, that its practitioners make use of found objects and unexpected materials, you might consider Elijah Pierce (1892–1984), who worked with just a pocketknife, chisel, shards of broken glass and sandpaper to apply layers of paint so thickly to surfaces that they become pigmented bas-reliefs. Most of his works depict biblical scenes—The Flight Into Egypt, Christ Visited by the Angel in the Garden of Gethsemane—but also other images important to African Africans (all Americans), such as a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Love). Pierce was an anomaly among his fellow Outsiders in that his work was recognized during his lifetime. Although he had made a living as a barber in Mississippi and Ohio, it was because of a grad student who saw his works in the 1970s and brought them to the attention of curators at the Corcoran Gallery of Art that Pierce became known as a working artist. 

When you read the biographies of the artists included in this show, you will come upon references to schizophrenia, paranoia, homelessness, criminal behavior, nervous breakdowns, religious visions (Howard Finster, an Alabama-born artist in the show, was said to have seen God in a paint smudge on his finger, whereupon the divine presence instructed him to make “sacred art.”). Outsiders (the curator uses this helpful term) are far from the only artists with such mental and physical afflictions (think van Gogh, Goya, Lautrec, et al). Yet, a hardscrabble existence, alienation from cultured society, a tenuous balance on mental health, fundamentalist religious zealotry, do often seem to be ingredients of the Outsiders. And their troubled states and obsessive concerns are revealed in their works.

One of the unstated definitions or assumptions of the art of Outsiders is that it is unsophisticated, simply because it is not rooted in academia or formal art practices. But if you look at the Six Colored Circles by Eddie Arning (1898–1993), who spent much of his adult life in mental hospitals and nursing homes, you can’t dispute that this is an artist fascinated by color and composition rendered in a minimalist perspective. And, yet, millions of dollars are paid for Damien Hirst’s “spot paintings,” which have all the interest of a shower curtain pattern—and which his workshop of employees create for him.

What this show proves is that Outsider Art is as distinctive, identifiable and powerful as any of the better-known isms—Minimalism, Impressionism, German Expressionism. For some viewers, it is disturbing to see images of funeral preparations or imagined monsters or canvases glued with dolls heads, but with Outsiders, there is no posing or posturing. These are real works reflecting real visions that elicit real responses. 

"'Great and Mighty Things': Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection" continues through June 9, 2013, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Telephone 215-763-8100. 


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