[1. “Untitled,” Henry Darger, watercolor & pencil on paper. “The Women of New Amsterdam Insurance Company Get Dressed for Work” (2009), Tom Duncan, mixed media. “Doomsayers” (1994), Paul Edlin, postage stamp fragments on board, & (foreground) “Untitled” (1980), Howard Finster, mixed media. 2. “Untitled (4)” (1915-1916), Adolf Wölfli, colored pencil on paper. 3. “Untitled” (2003), Michael Ryan, mixed media on panel.]
Inaugurating their new location in Chelsea in the former Bellwether Gallery (previously reviewed by Leaves of Glass), Andrew Edlin Gallery is exhibiting the work of 20 artists in “In Through the Out Door,” which runs through December 5, 2009. Established in 2001, the gallery specializes in and embraces artists of the “outsider” genre—though they also represent and exhibit trained artists. Drawn from the work of gallery artists and work in its inventory, “In Through the Out Door” is informed by Andrew Edlin Gallery’s perspective that some of the best visual art is created by self-taught or uninitiated artists who have historically been undervalued and overlooked.
Yet things have become more complicated as these “outsider” artists have become, by increments, recognized to the point where they are acknowledged for their influence on artists who define the canon. On the question of what constitutes “outsider” art, there is little agreement other than it’s a loose amalgam of art that has not been through the process of art schools, galleries, and museums. Originally, the term emanates from “Art Brut” (“rough” or “raw” art) which was coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) to describe art created beyond the reach of the creative canon, and loosely translated into this English term in 1972 by art critic Roger Cardinal. Within this category, one finds a wide spectrum of individuals whose only point in common is that they have had little or no contact with the predominant art world and its related institutions. For instance, there are untrained artists aspiring to an artist status within established cultural canons. While they are often called “Outsider artists,” they are more correctly creators of “Naïve art.” Additionally, there are those artists—considered marginal to the art world—who have varying degrees of involvement with it. Possibly they may be doing their art work part time: These individuals are not true “Outsider artists” either.
Often the work of such individuals is only discovered after their deaths. A special component of this construct includes those who have been in mental hospitals. Emerging as a successful art marketing category—an Outsider Art Fair has taken place in New York since 1992—the term has been misapplied in a way to cash in on that interest. A year before the New York event first took place, Intuit (The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art) was established in Chicago. The latter maintains a museum featuring art by intuitive, outsider, and self taught artists.
Ranging from those whose work is well known to those whose work is less known, “In Through the Out Door” includes the creations of: Beverly Baker, Frank Calloway, Thomas Chapman, Henry Darger, Mario Del Curto, Tom Duncan, Paul Edlin, Howard Finster, Willem Van Genk, Brent Green, Albert Hoffman, Hans Krüsi, Martin Ramirez, Michael Ryan, Linda Carmella Sibio, Amanda M. Smith, Charles Steffen, Adolf Wölfli, Malcah Zeldis, and Domenico Zindato. The show’s title is drawn from the eighth (and final studio) album by the English rock band Led Zeppelin, recorded in late 1978 and released nearly a year later. Like other British bands at the time, Led Zeppelin was in tax exile during the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan period.
Among works featured in this show are those by the reclusive and celebrated American artist Henry Darger Jr. (1892-1973) whose hundreds of drawings and watercolor paintings were discovered after his death as well as those by Hans Krüsi (1920-1995) who is best known for his images of agrarian life in Switzerland. Krüsi—reared in an orphanage, completing only grade school, and working as a farmhand and laborer—began selling his postcard sized paintings in the 1970s at his flower stall in Zürich. In the 1980s, he achieved artistic celebrity in the wake of enthusiasm for “Wilde Malerei” (Wild Painting). Arrayed across various media as figurines, toy soldiers, scrap metal, and assorted detritus, the work of Tom Duncan—in its dialogue with such issues as the Holocaust, sexuality, and authority—makes inroads into certain realms of “Insider art.”
One of the first artists associated with the category of “Outsider art,” Adolf Wölfli (1864 - 1930) survived childhood physical and sexual abuse, a series of foster homes, and prison time (for attempted child molestation) to go on to produce a huge number of works done with the simplest of materials such as pencils and paper. His complex, intricate, and intense works were done in the over three decades he spent confined in a Swiss psychiatric hospital for his psychosis and hallucinations. Considered retarded as a child, the autistic Willem van Genk (1927-2005) suffered a particular trauma as a teenager during the German occupation of the Netherlands when the Gestapo questioned him about the whereabouts of his father who was in the Dutch resistance and in hiding. That image never left van Genk: Associating the uniforms of the Gestapo with their evil and power, he produced an impressive array of decorated black raincoats. He went on to do a large body of image-packed paintings of crowded cities replete with planes, trains, and political subjects to allay his fear of emptiness.
A Baptist reverend and artist from Georgia, Howard Finster (1916–2001) claimed to be inspired by God in the creation of over 46,000 artworks. One whose life and work straddled varying categories of folk, “Outsider,” “Naïve,” and visionary art, Finster first exhibited his work in 1976 and painted four works for the Library of Congress in 1977. Not only was he selected to participate in the Venice Biennale of 1984, but his work was used by such musical acts as R.E.M. and Talking Heads for album covers. A part of his “Paradise Garden” was installed as part of the permanent collection of Atlanta’s High Museum. The compelling work of Charles Steffen (1927-1995)—in the form of dozens of five- to eight-foot-tall drawings on brown wrapping paper—often contained text about his longing for drawing lessons.
While his education never went beyond the sixth grade, Albert Hoffman (1915-1993)—who made his living in a New Jersey junkyard—produced over 250 carvings with subjects drawn from the Torah and other Jewish subjects (as well as whaling and issues relating to indigenous Americans). Some of his carvings, bas reliefs, and compositions ended up in synagogues while others ended up with the American Folk Art Museum, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (Williamsburg, Virginia), and Noyes Museum of Art (Oceanville, New Jersey). Malcah Zeldis—born in the Bronx, reared in Detroit, and later residing on an Israeli kibbutz—painted on a wide array of subjects, such as fairy tales, themes of social importance, personal heroes, Jewish subjects, and the urban experience. Whether Anne Frank, Marilyn Monroe, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, or Dr. Martin Luther King, the flat style and bold colors of Zeldis’ work have conveyed these figures in her own inimitable way. Having illustrated three children’s books, her work has been collected or exhibited by such institutions as the Smithsonian, American Folk Art Museum, Jewish Museum, and Milwaukee Museum of Art.
This show is interesting for the “high notes” possible with artists largely operating outside the expectations and opinions of peers and professionals. Among such artists there is little or no reluctance to convey their own vision.
In Through the Out Door
Through December 5, 2009
@ Andrew Edlin Gallery, 134 Tenth Avenue NYC 10011