Critics, audiences and art world gatekeepers have often reviled or marginalized folk, outsider or self-taught art. But the aim of the traveling exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the High Museum of Art is to not only give outsiders their due, but even link them in style, in method and in spirit to trained artists, with whom they often have much in common.
It’s a wonderful concept, and the visual proof can be persuasive. There are rooms within the Outliers show where it would be hard to distinguish the work of professional, pedigreed artists from that of the self-taught janitors and ex-slaves, ranch hands, preachers and fishermen who often composed the ranks of self-taught art.
The blurred lines between established and renegade art are nowhere clearer, or more powerful, than in a room filled with fiber art and the juxtaposition of quilts created by African-American women living in the Gee’s Bend community of Alabama and yarn-works made by a self-taught artist with Down syndrome, Judith Scott, with the conceptual work of Howardena Pindell, Nancy Shaver and Jessica Stockholder.
The show’s thesis that outsiders — often female, African-American, Hispanic, poor or uneducated — have played a pivotal role in shaping contemporary art is not an unfamiliar refrain from fans of the form.
But it is new when advocated with such an important platform, an extensive catalog of 250 artworks and backed by such exhaustive research as in Outliers. The architect of this particular appeal for outsider art’s equal value in defining American modernism is curator Lynne Cooke, who originated the exhibition at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, where she is a senior curator.
Cooke has done a superb job of questioning the value judgments in looking at art when it comes to race, class, gender, geography and education. Now more than ever, Cooke’s proposition that we lose a piece of our humanity when we separate out creativity in this way is aligning with larger cultural shifts in attitude about history and merit.
Outliers focuses on three key periods when outsider work and the established art world forged alliances and exhibited striking parallels: a First Wave in the post-Depression to World War II era (1924-1943) when American identity was often rooted in folk forms and folk artists received some institutional support; a Second Wave (1968-1992) in the 1960s and beyond when the inroads of feminism, civil rights and gay rights meant a greater embrace of other marginalized groups; and then a Third Wave (1998-2013) when distinctions between traditional and self-taught work continued to erode as other social hierarchies and paradigms were also questioned.
The show gets off to an incredibly captivating start, delivering stunning work by early outlier (a term Cooke originates for its more neutral, nonjudgmental tone) artists. There is a gorgeous, raw 1929 self-portrait by outsider artist John Kane that brings vulnerability and a degree of angst to masculinity. Similarly, heartfelt and strange, Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom (circa 1834) depicts a kind of furry storybook utopia of animals of every stripe dwelling side by side. Eccentric in the extreme, self-taught artist Camille Bombois’ circus painting Before Entering the Ring is a Fellini-esque clown painting to end all clown paintings, drenched in weirdness.
Much of this self-taught work specializes in psychologically loaded scenes that offer up the human condition in often pure, transcendent, and captivatingly odd terms. Traditional art doesn’t always yield extreme reactions, but almost all of this outlier art does.
But things tend to fall apart in the show’s final segment when art world examinations of identity, media, gender and race from Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker, among many others, often create a mismatch between conceptual, academic work and the unclassifiable (and often disconnected) self-taught work. A denouement that presents Lonnie Holley, Henry Darger and one-of-a-kind painter and sexual renegade Forrest Bess in close quarters is a head-spinning ball of confusion just when the show should be wrapping up its thesis with a pretty bow.