Category Archives: USA

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)

Our Faith Affirmed – Works from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection

IMG_5068Our Faith Affirmed is a current exhibit at the University of Mississippi Museum of Art. On exhibit are the works of 27 African American self-taught artists born between 1900 and 1959, including Thornton Dial Sr., Roy Ferdinand, Bessie Harvey, Lonnie Holley, Charlie Lucas, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and Purvis Young. I am familiar with the work of these artists from my readings, but growing up far away in Canada (both in distance and culture), I have no first-hand knowledge of their lives. I know that the vast majority of my international readers will agree that we have a lot to learn about this particular genre and even more to learn about America’s Southern culture, both past and present.

Recently, I had the good fortune to converse with scholar/collector Gordon W. Bailey through my blog. Mr. Bailey organized and curated the exhibition and has an extensive collection of work by African American self-taught artists. He kindly forwarded a catalogue of Our Faith Affirmed to me.

In his catalogue essay, UM alumnus, and now acclaimed rapper, Jason “PyInfamous” Thompson, wrote that the artists’ works are not traditional because “no artist – no person – that has endured the sweltering, seething heat of Southern segregation and sectarianism can be considered ‘traditional.’  In a land where tradition included nooses and nihilism, there was a necessity to express the anxiety and anguish that came with being Black in the South.”

My own studies have focused on how we define “outsider” art. As I settle in to write my thesis on this very topic, I can tell you that there is no single definition that we all agree on. Some writers focus on the self-taught aspect of the work; others point to the marginality of the artists; while others consider an artist’s biography as the most important indicator of being outside – or inside (outside or inside of what?). Unfortunately, the ball of entwined definitions is still very tangled and I can only hope to shed some light on why we defend our own views with such tenacity.

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The artists in this exhibit, states the catalogue, are unique individuals who have unique iconographies, but share context. That context is, of course, the “otherness” of poverty, racism, and segregation. And, I think, that distinguishes the art of Southern self-taught artists from everything else. They have a shared language because they have a shared history. Roger Cardinal described art brut (outsider art) as a “teaming archipelago rather than a continent crossed by disputed borders. The only connection between each ‘island of sensibility’ is that they are all distinct from the cultural mainland. The only likeness is within the work of a single artist.” I would suggest, however, that most Southern self-taught artists live on the same continent.

IMG_5066Take, for example, Roy Ferdinand’s Sulton Rogers Portrait and Charles Gillam’s carving of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. They celebrate two great African American men from their respective communities.  Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s Cotton Wagon expresses the back-breaking work of cotton pickers he undoubtedly knew, disconnected from each other, bent with exhaustion. Joe Light’s Colored Hobo asks us to consider the fate of one African American man – a homeless vagabond. Even the breathtaking canvases of Thornton Dial, whose work trumps those of the very best abstract expressionists, express more than meets the eye: they speak to American history and politics, particularly racism, and bigotry.

The works in this exhibit take us far beyond “self-taught” art that we know in the bigger world of outsider art. These are not fantasy images, they are real and they spring from personal experience. If you have an opportunity to do so, see the exhibit (which runs until August 8, 2015) or browse through the catalogue and reflect on the sobering messages beyond the images. They highlight issues that are still relevant today.

(All images provided courtesy of the Gordon W. Bailey Collection)

 

 

 

Enter the world of Sue Kreitzman

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The world of outsider art is small. It’s good because someone you know always knows someone, who knows someone else. There aren’t many degrees of separation between people connected to this quirky culture.

My friend from Chicago, Susann Craig, introduced me to Sue KreitzmanDSCN0875 when we met up in NYC at the Outsider Art Fair in May.  Sue is known for her eccentric fashion persona, her enormous collection of outsider art, and her own artwork. A documentary film, Fabulous Fashionistas, was being screened that week. It is a film about  six women, with an average age of 80, who defy ageing in the most stylish ways, looking fabulous and having fun.  Sue, like the other women in the film, embraced change later in life and is now clearly identifiable on the streets of NYC and London, where she lives most of the time. She is a walking piece of art, with self-designed clothing, large hand-crafted jewellery and, of course, red glasses (and red everything else).

Sue used to be a food writer in London, but gave that up late in life to become a “closeted, obsessive, untutored artist”. Walking into her flat in NYC is shocking … in a good DSCN0867way. It is red, red, red, with glitter, sparkles, and do-dads. The walls and shelves are chock-a-block with artwork of every imaginable kind – paintings, assemblages, sculptures, dolls  and many, many other things. In a word, it was extraordinary. I had the feeling that I would stand there for a very long time before I could focus on any one object in the room. As you would expect, every object in Sue’s collection has a story attached to it – who created it, the joy of discovery, her enjoyment of the work.

 

DSCN0881But wait – there’s more! Sue has her own studio that is even more tightly packed (if that were possible) with her own creations.  Most of Sue’s artwork is of women and about women. She says she fashions friends, strangers, self-portraits, heroines and imagined goddesses and decorates them with symbols made from “junk”.  (I would describe it as glittery, colourful junk!) There are decorated dolls and doll heads everywhere. It is both disorienting and fascinating to see repetition of an idea or a technique in an effort, I suppose, to understand it fully. Most images are joyful and humorous, like Sue herself. It was an unexpected and colourful (red) delight to experience all that is “Sue Kreitzman”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outsider Art Fair Lectures: J M Basquiat + Sam Doyle

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fallen Angel, 1981An interesting feature of the Outsider Art Fair in NY this year was the panel discussion about the self-taught artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Panelists: Brooke Davis Anderson, Eric Fretz, Lenore Schorr, Xaviera Simmons).

I had only a vague understanding of Basquiat and his work; he entered my radar screen when he began collaborating with Andy Worhol in the 1980s. But, obviously, there is much more to his short life story than that (he died in 1988 at the age of 27).

Basquiat was a bit of a wunderkind; he was said to have shown his intelligence and artistic talent at an early age. His art interest and talent was nourished by his mother, but she was committed to a psychiatric institution when he was 11. It seems that Basquiat’s life took a downward spiral at that point and he lived with his father for awhile, but was soon banished from home. He lived on the street, supporting himself by selling T-shirts and postcards.

Basquiat became known for his spray painted graffiti under the name SAMO. He met Warhol in a restaurant in around 1980 and, so the story goes, Warhol was taken by Basquiat’s genius. Basquiat went on to exhibit in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition, and later was taken up by gallerist Annina Nosei. Warhol and Basquiat worked on some collaborative paintings between 1983 and 1985. Basquiat is “famous” for painting in Armani suits, which he would appear in later for interviews. (Obviously, success was getting to his head…) He died from a heroin overdose in 1988, at the height of his career. His paintings now sell for kajillions of dollars.

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OK, well, that’s the official biography of Basquiat, but what about his artwork? His art focused on dichotomies, like wealth and poverty and inner versus outer experience. He used a lot of text in his drawing and paintings and incorporated found materials. He worked in abstract and figurative styles, mixing historical and contemporary commentary. He obsessively included anatomy, words, and symbols in his work. Most interestingly, he loved and collected the work of outsider artist, Sam Doyle (1906 – 1985), pictured at right (Devil Spirit. Image kindly provided by Gordon W. Bailey).

Sam Doyle? Who would have thought that? Doyle was a self-taught artist from South Carolina, who painted bold figures on sheet metal and wood. He profiled the history and people of his community. His work is figurative and bold and one can see what attracted Basquiat to Doyle’s work. Look at the bold, face-on stance and facial expression of Doyle’s and Basquiat’s images. No subtlety, no restraint, just pure expressiveness.

But I find one thing disturbing: Basquiat’s work sells for millions. Doyle’s work doesn’t. Was it Basquiat’s connection to Warhol that commands awe and top dollar, or does it have to do with his images that ask the big questions about life. I think may be a bit of both. Although they were both “self-taught” artists, one of them (Basquiat) had the power of the NY art scene and mega$$$ behind him. The other (Doyle) did not.

I’m just sayin’…

 

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Outsider Art Fair 2014 (NY)

DSCN0833I had the opportunity to attend the Outsider Art Fair in New York last week (May 8 – 11). I first went about 5 years ago, and things have changed under the new ownership of art dealer Andrew Edlin. The fair is now in an old building in Hell’s Kitchen and covers 4 floors in a much more attractive setting. It was bright and inviting, and the booths were dazzling. As usual, it was hard to know where to begin.

DSCN0837The first thing I noticed was that the folk art was gone. Last time there seemed to be  an over-abundance of countrified folk art, which I wasn’t interested in seeing. It seems that folk art and outsider art have finally gone their separate ways. (Hooray!) It is always interesting to observe what artwork is in abundance.  A few years ago there were Finsters and Traylors galore. This year I noticed a lot of William Hawkings, Ramirez, and Von Bruenchenhein’s photos. All were treasures.

The OAF draws people from diverse groups. The serious collectors showed up on opening night and seemed to know everyone there. It felt like a tight group of friends who gathered for a celebration of outsider art. (Note: outsider art enthusiasts do not conform to the black + white dress code!) There was a steady stream of visitors over the next 3 days, and red dots started appearing beneath the artwork.

To walk through the fair with someone who has not been indoctrinated in outsider art is a wonderful experience. I had an opportunity to do that with my son. Although he is somewhat familiar with the genre, he was unprepared for the volume and diversity of the artwork. He marvelled at some works and raised his eyebrows at others – a typical guest, I think. If you ever get a chance to attend the fair, do it. You’ll be glad you did.

One of my favourites by Japanese artist Momoka Imura (fabric, thread and buttons):DSCN0841