Outside comes in at outsider art fair


Jayne County, “See Me in No Special Light,” 2004, mixed media on paper. James Barron Art. Photo courtesy Outsider Art Fair.
By Mary Gregory

In 2014, art critic Walter Robinson made a wave (that swelled to a tsunami) in art world circles when he identified a trend in contemporary art he called “Zombie Formalism,” where countless young MFA-wielding painters cranked out innumerable eerily similar works. But you won’t encounter those types of paintings at the 27th annual Outsider Art Fair. What you will find instead are deeply personal, idiosyncratic glimpses into unique personalities with singular visual voices.

Art is the soul’s language, and our polyglot culture is richly reflected in the breadth, depth and emotional impact of art that is at times quirky, elegant, boisterous, whimsical, mysterious, touching, unsettling and elevating. Many of the works, presented by some 65 international galleries, stand squarely outside the mainstream. Others, like Morton Bartlett’s photographs of meticulously sculpted, dressed and posed figures (from Julie Saul Gallery), might spark thoughts of James Casebere or Cindy Sherman, though they were created decades earlier. This year’s Outsider Art Fair proves there’s a fine line between the art world’s insiders and outsiders.

That fact will resonate with museum-goers who’ve seen the Metropolitan Museum’s recent exhibit “History Refused to Die,” featuring Gee’s Bend quilts and major works by Thornton Dial, or the Smithsonian’s current “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor,” the first major museum exhibition for an artist born into slavery. The Outsider Art Fair includes works by Dial and Traylor.

So inside has outside become that even Hollywood stars are gathering at this year’s fair. Actor and comedian Jim Carrey will be exhibiting political drawings, and photographs by Mark Hogancamp, whose life and work are the subject of “Welcome to Marwen,” a film starring Steve Carell, will be presented by 1 Mile Gallery.

What brings it all together is the inclusive vision of Wide Open Arts, organizers of the fair. “For outsider art, the fair utilizes the definition of self-taught or non-academic work. We try to be very broad so we can be open to all work that comes our way,” said Becca Hoffman, Outsider Art Fair director. “We start with self-taught, and from there we explore.”

Some of art’s most groundbreaking greats, like Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Joseph Cornell, were self-taught. So was William Edmondson, who made sculptures so powerful that, in 1937, they earned him the spot as the first African American artist to be given a solo exhibition at MoMA. His work can be seen at the Ricco/Maresca booth.

There are plenty of contemporary artists to discover, as well. Jana Paleckova, represented by Fred Giampietro Gallery, starts with vintage late 19th or early 20th century photographs. She obscures some parts, paints others in, and creates astonishing, complex, surreal imagery that’s at once haunting and elegant. Mary F. Whitfield’s watercolors convey themes of poverty, slavery, survival, love and triumph. Her work, on view at the Phyllis Stigliano Art Projects booth, has been called visionary.

And then there is Jayne County. “Jayne County was Punk Rock’s first openly transgender performer, inspired Andy Warhol, David Bowie and participated in the Stonewall uprising,” said Hoffman. “She’s someone that people should know, but might not.” Her technicolor dreamscapes, peopled by mythic figures, are presented by James Barron Gallery

Also a highlight for Hoffman are the assemblages of Staten Island artist, John Foxell, whose life and art spilled into one another. “Foxell was an administrative assistant in the Manhattan family courts for a long time. He was also a poet and a preservationist,” explained Hoffman. His small, saltbox house became so transformed by his art that it’s now a landmark. His eccentric, often humorous tabletop assemblages will be on view at the Norman Brosterman booth.

The Outsider Art Fair will also present off-site exhibits at Ace Hotel, including a pop-up Troll Museum, a presentation of Boro textiles from Japan, and a group of short films. A talk titled “Unusual Brains: Neurodiversity and Artistic Creation” will be held at the New Museum, and two curated spaces, one featuring underground comics from China and another dedicated to gallerist Phyllis Kind, will also be part the fair. God’s Love We Deliver will be the beneficiary of a silent auction and part of the opening night’s proceeds.

Some things can be taught in art schools, like theory, history, materials and techniques. But art, itself, comes from a deeper place – from the heart, from life lived. “This work speaks from a place of warmth and authenticity,” Hoffman said. “It’s exciting for me to watch people come into the fair and discover something they love. The art dealer will tell them about the story of the artist, and suddenly the visitor will be talking about themselves. It’s a really connected experience.”