Saturday, August 10, 2013

Outsider Art Ins and Outs

By Winfred Rembert, dye on carved and tooled leather

"If you think you are an Outsider Artist, you aren't," said Robert Bullock at the Pop-Up Outsider Art Show in the Philly area a couple weeks ago.  He should know.  He is Director of The Coalition Ingenu Self-taught Artists' Collective, which arranged the pop-up for Outsiders Art & Collectibles, a gallery from Durham, North Carolina.

The gallery's owner, Pam Gutlon, told a story about a supposed Outsider artist who turned out to be a fake.  Someone had made up a persona of a down-and-out black man, whose work had gained a certain notoriety, cachet, and sales.  Outsider art is  getting more and more art world recognition, even at the 2013 Venice Biennale, with prices to match.  It's unknown who made up the fake personna.  It could have been a starving art school student who needed the cash and was good at imitating a certain style.  "I don't carry his work anymore" she said. 

Now the current New Yorker magazine has an article about Bill Arnett (a white man), who has created the world's most comprehensive collection of art made by untrained black Southerners in his Souls Grown Deep Foundation.   "...the genre of art he collected had cycled through names:  folk, self-taught, visionary, outsider, and vernacular, the term Arnett (now) uses."  The article raises many questions about the relationship of the artists to the art world and the people who create and facilitate that interface.  Are they exploitive if they provide materials or stipends?  What about being a promoter, patron, curator, and dealer all at the same time?  Is the artist being manipulated?  The article ends with innuendo that the recent visit of curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new division of modern and contemporary art to Arnett's Souls Grown Deep Foundation may lead to acquiring part of the collection.

One reality not addressed in The New Yorker article is that the generation of vernacular artists who were oblivious to the wider art world when they were discovered is dying out.  Younger self-taught outsider artists, no matter how geographically isolated, still are internet savy.  Even if they have little education, they are not naive.  They have cell phones.  The lines have blurred.

by Hawkins Bolden,  a blind artist from Tennessee, 1914 - 2005
Smithsonian American Art Museum

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