Monthly Archives: January 2015

Don’t try this at home

The Outsider Art Fair in NYC is on this weekend, and I am wishing I were there instead of here. I originally set out to write my thesis on the current definition of outsider art. Because we don’t celebrate outsider art in Canada, I needed to understand what it was before announcing that Canada had arrived at the party a century late.

I was particularly interested in hearing a panel discussion at the Outsider Art Fair called Paranoia and Creativity because I am currently  writing a chapter on the myth of the mad genius. This myth is deeply embedded in our culture, despite a dearth of scientific evidence that such a connection exists. It reinforces the stereotype that a life of psychological torture is the price one must pay for creative genius and for some reason we are enamoured with this idea. More (much more) about this later.

The progress on my thesis is slow because I am suffering from “cabin in the woods” syndrome. I remember this illness well from attending university in pre-Internet days. I spent many useless hours dreaming about living in a remote cabin, with no textbooks, no deadlines, and nary a care in the world. I would also think of hundreds of “urgent” chores that had to be done before I could get to my desk – anything to postpone a long day of studying. Like writing this blog.

But now we have the Internet, the biggest playground in the world. So, I have spent countless hours Googling remote cabins – like the one in this photo – where I could work on my thesis on a patio bathed in warm sunshine, birds chirping happily in the trees, and maybe a glimpse of the ocean (or the desert) when I look up from my laptop. But since I am here and not there, I am easily distracted by other things that cross my mind, such as how to make my down pillows like new again.

The online experts advised me to simply stick them in the washing machine and dryer. You wouldn’t dry-clean a goose, so why would you dry-clean a goose down pillow? Made sense to me. I decided to do this last week and stuffed two pillows into my washing machine. Ten minutes later I discovered that the machine had overflowed, the floor had become a pond of soapy water, and water was pouring out of the light fixture in the room below. Yikes! I lied to the washing machine repairman who came to investigate the problem. I told him that I was doing a “big load” when it overflowed, but not that I had stuffed the equivalent of 65 geese into the washer. Anyway, I had to lug two incredibly heavy, wet pillows to the laundromat and finish the job in a commercial-sized washer and dryer.

I now have something else to do instead of writing. I am shopping for new pillows. Mine are as hard as bags of cement and they smell like a farmyard. I was a costly experiment – to both my bank account and my pride. I will never do that again. I will find a more constructive and less expensive way to waste my time.

 

 

 

 

 

Basquiat and the Bayou

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While visiting New Orleans in December, I caught “Basquiat and the Bayou” at the Ogden Museum, another dynamite exhibit at the international contemporary art biennale, Prospect 3. My exposure to Basquiat’s work is limited to a few small paintings I saw in the past and I was not prepared for the room of stunning canvases I walked into. I am a sucker for large expressionist paintings (and triptychs) and, in two words, I was “blissed out”.

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In an earlier blog from the NYC Outsider Art Fair, I talked about Basquiat’s love of Southern self-taught artist Sam Doyle, and the influence Doyle had on his own work. Although this exhibit tried to connect the dots between Basquiat and the Bayou, it was a pretty tenuous connection. The curator described the connection thus:

Basquiat and the Bayou explores a body of work representing Basquiat’s internal fight with the shadows of the American South, shaped by a long history of slavery, colonialism and imperialism. New Orleans is the crossroads where the Mississippi greets the Middle Passage, and shortly before his death, Basquiat visited the city. He knew the importance to his work of the South and New Orleans specifically. The selection of works in the present exhibition explores themes of geography, history, and cultural legacy in Basquiat’s work in a number of  ways.

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Let’s just say I wasn’t convinced of the connection. I can make this bold statement because this is my blog and I can say whatever I want. But, had I proposed such a connection in an academic paper, I know I would have been sent home to reconsider my thesis…

Whatever connection Basquiat had to the Bayou (or not) is somewhat irrelevant when you see his work. I will leave my analysis at that and instead show you images of his stunning canvases. I could have sold everything I owned and bought one of his pieces for $15,000 in the early days, but I didn’t. Instead, I make mortgage payments and raised a child. Last year a Basquiat painting sold at a Christie’s auction in NYC for $48.8 million. What’s that expression about hindsight?

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Art from Angola Prison

DSCN1013I just returned from a trip to New Orleans – the first time being away from home on Christmas and the first time bar-hopping with my son, but that’s another story.  Because this blog is about outsider art, not intoxicants, I will refrain from telling you about Bourbon Street, and the copious amount of alcohol that is consumed there. Let’s just say it’s a party every day in New Orleans…

Prospect 3: Notes for Now (called “P3”) is an international contemporary art biennial on now at 18 different venues in New Orleans. I attended the exhibit at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which included the work of Basquiat, The Gasperi Collection: Self-taught, Outsider and Visionary Art, and a particularly interesting exhibit about the prisoners in Angola. I am compelled to describe the prison art collection first: Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick: Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex. For those of you who live outside the USA, Angola is the state penitentiary in Louisiana. It is a maximum security institution, housing over 6,000 prisoners and 1,800 staff members. In short, it is a small city unto itself where the last stop on the bus is death row and Louisiana’s execution chamber. (The United States is the only developed country that retains this abhorrent practice.)

The Calhoun and McCormick collection focuses on the lives of Angola’s prisoners and the impact of incarceration on their families. Because this specific exhibit was about art and justice, it was impossible for me to view it wearing anything but my “lawyer hat” and I left the exhibit railing against the absence of justice in far too many cases . The purpose of the images was to “restore humanity to a marginalized population”. It aimed to chronicle the daily life of an African-American within the prison system in Louisiana. The problem is this: to chronicle the lives of African-American prisoners is to normalize it and that, in itself, is an injustice. While roughly 12 – 13% of the American population is African-American, they make up 40% of the male prison inmates in jail or prison in the USA. Forty percent.

There are many innocent people in prison and how they got there is often the result of racial stereotyping and lack of legal representation. And, indeed, the profile on Welmon Sharlhorne was a prime example of how the system does not work. (Artwork pictured at top of page.)

serpentSharlhorne was born in Louisiana in 1952. He was convicted of robbery when he was 14 and went to juvenile detention for 4 years. Upon his release, he worked independently mowing lawns in the affluent areas of New Orleans. He soon got into a dispute with a customer about the amount of money he had earned; he was charged with extortion and assigned a public defender. His lawyer suggested a plea bargain sentence of 3 years. Welmon refused and fired his lawyer. Representing himself in court, he was convicted and sentenced to 22 years  at Angola prison.

Sharlhorne began drawing in prison, believing that his art and God saved him during his long years of incarceration. He obtained envelopes and a pen in order to write to his (non-existent) lawyer and used tongue depressors as a straight edge for his drawings. A clock appears in each of his drawings as a reminder that by taking time to commit any crime, little or big, it is time out of your precious time of freedom.

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Herbert Singleton was another artist from Angola prison. His painted wood bas relief (at left) shows the fate of an African-American involved in the justice system. It ends with his execution. The captions says it all: LAWDIHAVEMERCY.
(from the Gordon W. Bailey collection)