Outsiders in L.A.: Good art, bad art; pretentious writing
by Bondo Wyszpolski
During a curatorial roundtable or colloquium on the subject of black folk art, reprinted in full in the catalog that accompanies “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” Katherine Jentleson makes an important point: “Not to diminish the role curators must play in being critical and precise, but they are also tasked with communicating to an audience what a show is about on a very basic level. We have to find words to describe to an audience what they are going to see: to give them a kind of touchstone.”
Jentleson’s colleagues proceeded to ignore her. The show was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it was on view last winter and spring, before moving to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It resided there over the summer; now it’s at LACMA, and they’ll have it through March 17.
Well, it’s a sprawling show, with 250 artworks and over 80 artists, and among them are many new faces, some pulled briefly from obscurity. The curator standing behind it all is Lynne Cooke, absolutely the wrong person to be telling us about non-mainstream artists, for whom she’s devised or is advocating the term “outlier.”
Although relatively new itself, the accepted term has been outsider, as in “outsider art,” whereas in earlier times people said eccentric or visionary. That was how artists on the periphery like Hieronymus Bosch or William Blake were often described. Of course, one or two words can’t sum up such a disparate group of quirky or offbeat individuals, and so secondary terms are often added, for instance naïve, folk, or primitive modern. And yet, trained or untrained, sophisticated or simple-minded, any genuine artist is already out of the mainstream, on the sidelines, and that’s why we acknowledge and/or celebrate them.
Cooke talks about reclaiming art history, but the evidence indicates that she wants to rewrite it from the perspective of a sterile academic. And you know what that means, right? If you don’t, I’ll tell you: obtuse essays that probably none of the artists represented in “Outliers” would understand. Her introductory essay to the show makes the head spin. Who is she writing for? Not for you or for me, but maybe for her grad school students or other professors. On top of this, she lined up several other contributors, and the second essay in the catalog, by Darby English, is even worse. Has he written a parody of academic artspeak? He’s unreadable. He does, however, tell us that “outsider art is modernism’s theory of difference, written via negativa by the architects and sustained by us as legatees of vanguard ethics.”
In plain English, English seems to be exploring the idea of how we embrace or reject outsider art, that is, the suddenly new or unfamiliar roadblock that challenges us to rethink our notions of what fits or doesn’t fit into our overriding concept of art. But art writers should take a cue from the art that they’re writing about, and this is what Cooke and English are apparently incapable of doing.
I don’t say that lightly. I’m trying to be tolerant and accommodating, but I’ve been reading art catalogs for half a century and have read those for the current Getty exhibitions, “The Renaissance Nude” and “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings,” as well as the Hammer’s “Victor Hugo: From Stones to Stains,” where the writers mostly adhere to clarity rather than obfuscation. Thomas Kren’s “Renaissance Nude” catalog (with contributors) is heavy going, but it’s scholarly and accessible throughout. Most of the writing in “Outliers” is self-aggrandizing, and insulting to the viewer who wants some clear insight into the basis of the show. Furthermore, leading a group of visitors through the gallery where “Outliers” is installed, Cooke is just as dry and boring when she speaks.
Because it is an expansive show, “Outliers” is divided into three periods: work created before World War II; work from the latter 1960s to the early ‘80s; and works from the mid-1990s to the present. Many of the artists, isolated from big city galleries and often residing in rural areas, were “discovered” (often by someone with art world connections) and brought to the attention of influential curators or museum administrators. That’s the so-called “discovery narrative” that underlines much of the exhibition. It’s also part of the more democratic embrace of art that’s part of Cooke’s reclaiming of art history. In other words, the people in the foyer are now permitted into the banquet hall, and are all the more welcomed if they happen to be black, queer, or Hispanic.
This somewhat upsets the notion that vision, skill, and technique should be paramount. But no, that might be racist or sexist or in some other way discriminatory.
The thing is, art shows can’t be like Noah’s Ark where the doors are flung open to all species. In reality, it’s an exclusive club, and only a few individuals deserve to be seated at the table. Cooke, however, seems overly generous. For example, there’s the modest and uncomplicated work by Patrociño Barela, John Bernard Flannagan, John Kane, Horace Pippin, William Edmondson, and so on, but let’s face it, Edmondson is no Bernini and Kane is no Raphael or Vermeer.
What we’re often looking at here is “the aestheticization of social disenfranchisement,” as Jennifer Jane Marshall puts it, in which the “discovered” person often comes from a poor or deprived background and has had limited or usually no exposure to the art world at large. And so the “discovery narrative” kicks in and the unsuspecting artist is suddenly pulled from obscurity. Which is why we get that colloquium on black folks as mentioned earlier, which goes on too long and becomes self-serving, curators as parasites smacking their dry, academic lips as they entertain or try to impress one another.
Which brings up an interesting set of questions: Would we still regard Henry Darger as an outsider artist (and to my mind he best epitomizes the definition) if he’d been a professor at Yale, and known for his work during his lifetime rather than being found and heralded after it? Why isn’t Jean-Michel Basquiat considered an outsider artist? Should the art of children or of elephants and horses also be labeled outsider art since they seem to meet the prerequisites? And if we took the same artists in the show but rewrote their biographies, would they suddenly not be relevant in this category of outsiders and perhaps now not even relevant at all?
The truth is, what we know about these artists colors our perceptions of them. And then, of course, if we learn something unsavory, we try to dismiss them altogether. You can be a master of your craft, like Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, or even someone like Harvey Weinstein who championed art house films we’d otherwise have missed, but somehow the accomplishments and accolades vanish when they’ve become personae non gratae (in the art world, think of Chuck Close). Brigades of uptight women, promoting a scary new puritanism, even scout the past for figures like Balthus and Picasso who can be posthumously castrated.
But with the floodgates open, and regardless of their backstory, we do get to meet a number of intriguing artists. In fact, this is kind of a visual freak show, with the Siamese twins and snake ladies and sword-swallowers of the art world.
Maybe because I’ve always relished sideshows with their two-headed babies and the human pretzel, I’ve never regarded outsider art per se as inferior in the sense of failing to provide ideas and inspiration. Normal people make normal art, and so the outsider is actually the insider. Furthermore, true artists aren’t picky about where and from whom they get their concepts, their subject matter, or their motivation. In this manner, all artists find their way, and it makes no difference whether they’ve had 30 years of schooling or not one.
Even so, it’s surprising to see a few pieces in this show by Henri Rousseau, the darling of French Impressionism or Post-Impressionism, depending on where you place him. How did he wander in here? The same might be asked of yet another Frenchman, Dominique-Paul Peyronnet, although admittedly the latter’s “The Ferryman of the Moselle” (c.1934) is one of the delights of the exhibition.
The answer, at least where Rousseau is concerned, could be this: He’s here because he serves as the prime example of a modern primitive or so-called naïve artist who is hailed for what he or she has achieved, in part because the grasp falls far short of the reach. It’s odd to say this, but their technical limitations (and how they compensated for or circumvented this) have served to make them the artists they are and whom we admire (like the fellow with no hands or feet but paints with the brush between his lips). Had Rousseau’s skills paralleled Caravaggio’s perhaps he wouldn’t be so endearing in the sense that he has been. You can think of Darger, or even Grandma Moses. Even better, think of Morris Hirshfield, a Rousseau-like neo-primitive from Brooklyn who was feted during the late 1930s and early ‘40s (Richard Meyer, an exception here, writes smartly and clearly about him in the catalog).
Rousseau also fits into this context because he embodies a clarity and simplicity that we also find in the work of Horace Pippin. On the other hand, now leaning too far the other way, some of the artists here have created work that seems too simplistic, but which may have been chosen for inclusion because of the artists’ personal histories, handicaps, etc., such as Bill Traylor who was born into slavery or James Castle, who was born deaf and never learned to read or write. Judith Scott is in “Outliers” because of her disabilities, not her abilities.
However, in a show of this size, where the new politically correct diversity is perhaps the prime calling card, we’re going to get passing looks at such people as (like ‘em or not) Betye Saar, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Senga Nengudi, Noah Purifoy, and Bruce Conner. They all deserve a glance or two. Here and there something jumps out, like Conner’s “Crucifixion” (1960), in which the artwork itself seems to have been brutally tormented and crucified.
Other pieces subjectively arresting include: Janet Sobel’s “Milky Way” (1945), which seems like early Pollack but with enhanced color; Joseph Pickett’s “Coryell’s Ferry, 1776” (c.1914-1918), with its appealing impasto; Jim Nutt’s “Toot-Toot Woo-Woo” (1970) for the cutouts embedded in the frame, down on the lower left; and a few of Steve Ashby’s figural assemblages (not dated), primitive to be sure but oddly compelling. I’m drawn to the paintings (1917, c.1918) of Louis Michel Eilshemius, a Symbolist or late Romantic in the style of Albert Ryder, which are soothing to the eye and the imagination. But in this case I’m sorry to confess that I found them more appealing in the catalog than in person.
Who else? Patrick J. Sullivan exudes a visionary outlook, perfect for an outsiders show, as does P.M. Wentworth. Howard Finster, a man out of time (or tune?), also fits the bill, as does Simon Rodia, whose Watts Towers is represented in one of the short videos. Jacob Lawrence, a Harlem Renaissance mainstay, whose “Sidewalk Drawings” (1943) graces the cover of the catalog (I think that Romare Bearden might have been a nice complement). In a class of her own is Greer Lankton with her photos, drawings, and her creative doll sculptures, “Candy Darling” and “Jackie O” (both 1985). We read that Lankton “underwent gender reassignment surgery” while a student at Pratt Institute in New York. Is the writer of this biographical snippet trying to say that Lankton had a sex-change operation? At any rate, the artist died at 38 or 39, whether as a male or female, neither or both.
On the one hand, Marsden Hartley’s work feels like it could have been influenced by Mexico’s los tres grandes (Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco), and on the other by Germany’s der blaue reiter. Kara Walker, whom I generally admire very much, has work here, sort of hidden away, but it’s borderline impressive. Is she an “outlier”? I’ve never seen her in that light. Joseph Yoakum does not strike me as a great artist, but his style is unique and is reminiscent of the paintings of Torrance artist Hung Viet Nguyen. Gladys Nilsson’s work recalls that of Astrid Francis of Hermosa Beach, colorful biomorphic forms squiggling this way and that. Which makes me think of other various South Bay artists, such as Peggy Reavey, Ron Pippin, Wilfred Sarr and Scott Trimble, whose work would not be out of place here, and I especially think of the late Harold Plople who would have been perfect for the West Coast edition of “Outliers.” Plople, who had his advocates, truly deserves to be better known.
Perhaps to a large extent it’s prejudice, but the last gallery, its walls hung with quilts, seems a bit of a stretch. Quilts? Aren’t they something that grandma makes that you throw over the bed on cold nights? The article about them by Jenni Sorkin is informative but a little too defensive, and it’s clear that if one dismisses them as mere craft, or labels them folk art, then that person must be racist and sexist to boot.
I’ll give a pass to those bedcovers by Mary Lee Bendolph and Rosie Lee Tompkins, but I see no reason for the textile constructions by Jessica Stockholder, Judith Scott, and Nancy Shaver. It’s outsider art only in the sense that it belongs outside, in the recycling bin. No, not really, but the work’s appeal or significance eludes me. Maybe there’s an answer in Sorkin’s explanation:
“Textiles have the capacity to shape both individual and collective identity in that they are integral to mediating issues of representation within contemporary art practices. They have long functioned as a material stand-in for otherness, specifically race, class, and gender. One of the metaphoric potentials of quilts is that they have literally absorbed difference, cushioning and protecting painterly abstraction from the crossroads of geopolitics and the social contaminants of marginalization.”
Huh? I’ll say this again, eschew the big words, worship clarity, and write in a manner befitting your subjects and their work. The above paragraph would (again!) insult most of the artists in this show. In Sorkin’s high-handed approach, when she’s referring to poor black women, she has to gussy it up and say stuff like “low-income women of color” (what’s next? “financially challenged”?). Her final word on the topic: “Distinctions between craft/applied arts and the so-called fine arts have always been patently false.”
Actually, what’s patently false is thinking that these blankets and scraps of carpet belong on display. I’ve seen too many exquisite tapestries to be taken in by this nonsense.
If you can survive the horrible, self-reverential essays in the catalog you can enjoy the reproductions and then the extensive artist biographies, which are readable because they were written by another set of writers. I wish I had better images to share, but LACMA didn’t provide much.
Now, and lastly, one of the things about these artists is that they weren’t necessarily in it for the money or the fame. They didn’t want the outside world to pollute their visions by slapping values or expectations upon what they created. They had integrity. Here are three excerpts pulled from the catalog that also imply why the essayists should have been more sensitive and considerate in their approach to writing about them:
Of David Butler: “Butler stopped reproducing (his kinetic objects) after many were stolen and collectors’ demands overwhelmed him. He had no interest in displaying the work outside of his own self-curated property.” Of Morton Bartlett: “Bartlett worked privately, never intending to sell or exhibit his works. When a 1962 magazine article brought unwelcome interest from readers, the reclusive artist packed away his sculptures and related photographs, which remained hidden until after his death.” Of Florine Stettheimer: “Despite numerous invitations to exhibit her work, she reserved her intimate paintings for a close circle of family and friends, thus remaining outside mainstream narratives of modern art.”
Outsider artists, often fragile and misunderstood, deserve to be recognized and encouraged. At the same time, one must not try to change or unduly influence them. Personalities of every kind have their work on view here, with a range and depth that is just as vast as one might expect and hope for. And, as artists, they should be written about with clarity.
Outliers and American Vanguard Art is on view through March 17 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Admission, hours, etc., at lacma.org. ER