Category Archives: Miscellaneous Musings

The one trick pony



Photos: Gregory Crewdson, August Walla,  Cindy Sherman

Sometimes people ask me about certain outsider artists. They comment that all his/her work looks the same and ask if the artist ever does anything different. I usually comment on the artist’s signature “style” and leave it at that. (But I certainly know what they mean.. some of it does look remarkably alike.)

One of my favourite photographers is Gregory Crewdson, who creates elaborately staged scenes of small town America. I recently saw a documentary about him, called Brief Encounter. When talking about his own work, Crewdson remarks that every artist has one story to tell and he tells it over and over again. The images may be different, but the story is the same.

Is this true?  I decided to watch some interviews with artists that I admire to see what they had to say about the body of their work. Kara Walker was quite explicit about the narrative of her work. Her silhouettes of Deep South slavery scenes are instantly recognizable, but she describes them as being about an exchange of power. And sculptor Kiki Smith describes her work as being about morbidity.  Walker talked about her experience of being an African American female artist and Smith talked about death masks of family members being around the house when she was growing up. It made perfect sense how and why their personal narratives were so integral to their artwork.

This pattern is even more exaggerated in the world of outsider art. I look back to Kuhler’s Roccaterrania where justice is done in his fantasy world. Darger’s children avenge evil adults. Morton Bartlett mourned the absence of children in his solitary life. The artists’ styles are consistent, and little is done to explore other ways to represent that theme. Why is that? Perhaps they are not interested in exploring other techniques. Or maybe it doesn’t matter to them. Their artwork is for themselves, not the public, so there is no need for Kuhler, for example, to find a new way to represent “justice.” The story is of primary importance, not the image.

I can only think of one outsider artist who has explored a variety of artistic methods – August Walla, an artist at Gugging in Austria. He collects and converts trash, he does calligraphy, and he paints. He installs symbols and signs in the landscape, on trees, and on roads. He poses for photographs in different places, with self-produced objects in different places. (Wait a minute, haven’t we heard this before? See photos above.)

What other outsider artists use a variety of techniques and styles in their work?




The outsider artist – Madonna or whore?

I’ve been having a lively exchange with Canadian artist, Leigh Cooney. (More about Cooney in another blog.) The discussion began with a question about how he categorizes his art. (He has  taken himself off the “outsider” list and placed himself in the “Pop Folk”  category.) Do artists label their own work, or is that something imposed by others?  This led to a discussion about the “purity test” for outsider artists.

One of my first blogs was about who is “outside” and who is not, and it seems that I am still wrestling with that fundamental question.

Who is a “pure” outsider – a Madonna – in the world of commercial art? They used to be only those poor souls locked up in mental institutions, but now  they walk among us. The editors of Raw Vision support the purist view. They  regret the use of the “outsider artist” label to just anyone who is self-taught. It’s not about clumsiness or naiveté. Outsider art, they say, is “synonymous with Art Brut in both spirit and  meaning, to that rarity of art produced by those who do not know its name.”

Here’s the conundrum. As Cooney points out, the purposes of outsider art fairs and galleries are to bring attention to the work of outsider artists, living or dead. But does plucking outsider artists from obscurity cause them to lose the purity and naiveté that made them outsiders in the first place?  Are pure outsider artists only those who don’t know they are outsider artists?  What happens when others scrutinize their work and tell them they are real artists?

And then there are the bad boys (and girls) of the outsider art world, like Joe Coleman. Coleman is one of the BIG success stories  in the outsider art world. He is well known, prolific, produces remarkable art, and is very, very good at marketing his work. He used to be an outsider before  he was stripped of his title. He had been exhibiting at the Outsider Art Fair in NYC for 6 years. Then, in 2003, he was barred from the fair because it was discovered he had done a stint at art school (actually, he was thrown out), thereby removing him from the self-taught category. Coleman has another version of the story. He says he was ostracized for being “too aware of the whole business process of selling” his work. “They seem to want to promote an art in which they’re dealing with people who are either emotionally or physically incapable of protecting themselves. Or dead.” Writer,  Jesse Walker, notes that Coleman is not the only artist in the fair with such a background.  Alex Grey, for example, teaches art!

I like the way Walker has summed up the controversy:

The conflict is important for a different reason: because it exposes certain assumptions about “primitive” art. One reason outsider art is increasingly popular is because it seems so unmediated, as though it tumbled directly from the creator’s mind onto the canvas. The  discovery that the creator actually guided its fall with some skills—skills, worse yet, that he deliberately honed—can feel like a betrayal, at least for those who’ve romanticized the artist as an untutored primitive without any self-awareness.

Do outsider artists turn into whores of the art world when they achieve recognition through marketing?   Not necessarily. Not unless they take the next step and start pandering to their audience. We have enough artists who produce paintings to match the couch. They are the ones, in my opinion, who have sold their souls for fortune and fame.

The art of being a voyeur

After writing about Larry Williams, it’s time to talk about voyeurism. Although voyeurism used to be all about the sexual thrill of spying on someone engaged in an intimate act, our culture has taken it to a new level. No longer is the subject unaware of our eyes upon him. In fact, the subject invites us into his world, strange as it may be. Who’s getting the thrill now – us or them? As Long John Baldry says, a thrill’s a thrill.

I confessed earlier to watching a few (ok, 5) episodes of The Hoarders because I was struck by the similarities of their stories to those of outsider artists. They could pinpoint the moment when the hoarding began. But there are even stranger behaviours being filmed for our entertainment – addictions you can’t even imagine that people foster. Although I still have a sense of discomfort watching these people wrestling with their personal demons, I have to remind myself that they have agreed to be onstage for the world to view, to ridicule, to denigrate. Why do they agree to this? Does money change hands? My point is that we no longer feel shame in casually observing what used to be a closely held secret.

But what about people who haven’t agreed to their most intimate creations being put on the market for sale, for display, for exhibit? I often think about two of my outsider art heroes – Morton Bartlett and Henry Darger – who worked in secret their whole lives. Their artwork sprung from intimate and personal stories that only they had heard before. As Renaldo Kuhler says – I am Rocaterrania. Maybe they thought their rooms would be cleared out and deposited in a dumpster when they died. I sometimes wonder if they held on to their collection because they didn’t care if anyone saw it. Or maybe they just couldn’t part with it. I don’t know.

So, what have I concluded after all this self-flagellation about being a voyeur? I have sidestepped the issue by focusing on the art. I say, “Why should the world be deprived of another Mona Lisa?” And it makes it a lot easier that these two artists are dead. I don’t have to look anyone in the eye and account for myself. But in the case of living artists who choose to be reclusive, whose “artworks” are only intended for their eyes… maybe it’s best to honour their privacy. They don’t think of it as art, but rather an intimate conversation with themselves. It’s akin to therapy. If it were me, I wouldn’t want anyone listening in on my therapy sessions and then speculating about the stories I tell to heal myself.


What does hoarding have to do with outsider art? I’ve been asking myself that question for the past year. First, I have to tell you that I don’t like TV, for all the reasons that you’ve undoubtedly heard before.  But then, by a technological fluke, I started receiving the full cable package (free) from my local provider. With a touch of curiosity and a truck-load of derision, I sat down to explore the world of cable television. What had I been missing for the past 20 years?

I quickly discovered that, in fact, I had missed nothing except a crop of new programs that were even more of an insult to my intelligence. HOWEVER, I sat through an episode of “The Hoarders.” And then another, and then another. Yes, watching this program is like slowing down to see the remains of a car accident, but it’s more than that. What intrigues me is the genesis of every hoarding problem. These people weren’t born hoarders – they became hoarders. Every single hoarder has been able to pinpoint the very moment when the hoarding began. It’s usually about compensating for a loss –  a family member died, they lost their job, they got divorced, and so on. That’s the part that is so fascinating to me. Most of us have survived all of these life calamities, but we didn’t become hoarders.

So why is this relevant to my studies in outsider art? It’s because I have heard the same explanation from people who describe why and when outsider artists began their life’s work. It’s typically preceded by a traumatic event. I think back to Annie Hooper, for example (see earlier blog), who started her creation of 2,500 Biblical sculptures when her son did not resume his childhood role after returning from war.  Roger Manley, the curator of the museum that houses her collection, tells me that every outsider artist he has ever met has been able to identify the moment they started creating art. Sometimes it’s a huge event, like the death of a beloved, and sometimes it’s a trivial event (to us), like a broken leg.

What I may absorb as a painful but inevitable bump in the road of life, another may experience as an overwhelming and unmanageable catastrophe that turns their life upside down.  To deny the truth of their reality is to deny their humanity. It is not a trauma competition.

It brings me back to one of my first blogs – Who’s Outside(r) – when I referred to Foucault’s description of another system of thought. We must accept the possibility of thinking that. Whether it’s someone who has stuffed 446,000 boxes into their living room or someone who has created a fantasy world of art, there is a certain logic to it. We did not take the same path, but we were not walking in their shoes.