The Outsider Art Fair, held at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea, kicks off a busy winter art fair calendar in New York City. It is shortly followed by the Park Avenue Armory Art Show that begins the end of February and the Spring Break Art Show, Armory Show, Scope Art Fair, and Independent, all of which begin during the first weeks of March. Last weekend, forebodings of winter storm notwithstanding, the Outsider’s Fair’s 2019 attracted droves of art enthusiasts who flocked to see what’s new in the world of outsiders.
The expression “outsider art” is a creative translation of the French term art brut that was introduced in 1972 by Roger Cardinal in his book under the same title. Cardinal in turn picked it up from the French artist Jean Dubuffet, whose hostility to the artistic establishment inspired his interest in artistic expression that is unaffected by mainstream culture, compelling him to seek it in the works of those excluded from the mainstream, namely those confined in mental hospitals and prisons.
The Anglophone mis-translation of the term art brut as “outsider art” transferred the distinction from the art itself to the social status of the individuals who produce it, framing the quandary around the “outsider art” concept in the authenticity of the participant’s outsider status. This year is no exception, as the exhibition presented works coming from a wide range of artistic celebrity: from Jim Carrey, who, aside from his Instagram page, had never before exhibited his work to Valentino Dixon, whose biopic-ready story of wrongful conviction and exoneration by virtue of art and selfless journalism became a headliner this fall. Among the art presented by 68 galleries were obligatory works by psychiatric patients, represented by Shrine gallery, photographs by Mark Hogancamp, a hate crime survivor and an inspiration for the recently released Robert Zemeckis feature “Welcome to Marwen,” and Stepahanie Wilde, a self-taught, but well established artist with work in the permanent collection in Victoria and Albert Museum, among others.
Phillis Kind, who died last year, championed outsider art in New York
One of the curated spaces at the Metropolitan Pavilion was dedicated to Phyllis Kind (1933-2018), a founding participant of the Outsider Art Fair and a decades-long champion of the outsider art. The endurance of her legacy is especially important now, when art is seen as an investment asset class with ballooning prices that command skyrocketing insurance costs, whereby even museum giants struggle to put together comprehensive retrospectives of important art. The enthusiasm and connoisseurship that stood behind the creation and development of the Outsider Art Fair is a necessary condition for leveling the playing field and creating an avenue for new discoveries. New discoveries are all about art, which transcends the human-interest story, however fascinating, heartwarming, and poignant it might be. Some of the “outsider” works that stood out the most were large-scale paintings by a by a virtually unknown Robert Kippur, a bus driver by day and an artist by night.
Art school reject Robert Kippur (1944-2015), who died in his Chelsea apartment surrounded by over forty of his paintings, is represented by Humbaba Fine Art. At the Outsider Fair only four of his large-scale works were shown: City Scene, Jukebox, Ace of Diamonds, and Bear. As told by the gallerist Douglas Gold, Kippur’s story is that of a recluse; estranged from his family and friendless, Kippur reenacted his nightmares and anxieties in his art. Yet, his canvases that invoke macabre mood of Hieronymus Bosch’s portentous portrayal of human struggles and his bold brushstrokes, which are reminiscent of the visceral affect of the works of the German expressionists, require no backstory – Kippur’s art speaks for itself, stopping a viewer short in her tracks.
Valentino Dixon, who was released from Attica correction facility last fall after serving twenty-seven years for the crime he did not commit, more than most could appreciate Joseph Beuys’s one-liner “art [is] the science of freedom”. The first golf course drawing that began the series of his lush golf landscapes was created as a retirement gift for one of his prison wardens. It was Dixon’s art that drew attention to him and his story (first published by the Golf Digest), ultimately leading to his exoneration and release from prison. Dixon’s serene landscapes, represented at the Fair by Andrew Edlin Gallery, provided much needed shelter from the grim reality of maximum-security prison.
For Mark Hogancamp, who is represented by One Mile Gallery, art became therapy that restored him after a hate motivated assault left him physically and mentally impaired. After the real world nearly killed him he created an alternative version, which he could control – 1 to 6 scale dioramas of fictional World War II town Marwencol, inhabited by dolls inspired by real-life characters, his friends, neighbors, himself, and even the men who attacked and left him for dead. His realistic and vivid photographic depiction of the scenes from Marwencol soon invited attention from the art world, with host of exhibitions and award-winning documentary Marwencol to follow.
Dubuffet’s fascination with pure – “innocent”– creativity led him to amass a vast collection that included children’s art, in addition to the works done by psychiatric patients. To be sure, interest in the so-called “primitive” art predates Dubuffet’s coinage of the term art brut– children’s art was an object of study for both Paul Klee and Vasiliy Kandinsky, not to mention the captivating allure that the “primitive” art held for Picasso and other avant-garde artists of the early 20th Century. But Dubuffet was after something bigger than the search of the new aesthetic or style – his contention was philosophical in nature and focused on distinction between the natural and artificial – art for Dubuffet and his adherents is an innate impulse for creation common to the whole human race. While this notion may be debatable, the Outsider Art Fair is a living proof of art public’s innate thirst for creative sustenance.