Yoakum was probably the first "outsider" artist to be discovered by fellow Chicago artists such as Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson. Perhaps because of their own remove from the brouhaha around Abstract Expressionism and Pop art in the 1950s and '60s, artists in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit were more open to the discovery and appreciation of artists who existed even further off the art-world grid than they. So it is that the geographical factor in Off Center is not just an arbitrary limit of the show's range, but an acknowledgement that the Midwest was at the forefront in discovering and supporting "outsider" artists in the U.S.
In the end, whether these artists live up to various definitions of "outsider" art is not really important. Even Jean Dubuffet, the French artist who was perhaps the most zealous champion of "Art Brut," eventually realized that strict qualifications were ultimately pointless. They were, in fact, a prime example of the art-historical fixation on terminology, categorization, and rigorous analysis that "outsider" art inevitably confounds.
Which is why Todd Bockley, the independent curator who organized Off Center, would just as soon do away with "outsider" as a qualifier. "It's a hard thing to talk about without sounding kind of flaky," he says of this genre of art, likening it to jazz because both forms "feel so much like they're from the inside." Still, art is art--so what makes one disenfranchised person's drawing better than another's? Despite their often humble origins, these artists are not part of some democratic, everyone's-an-artist ideal. (Not to mention that the reclusive or obsessive natures of many an "outsider" artist can lead to the treadmill of repetitive shtick as readily as any New York artist-of-the-moment.) "There has to be a gift," insists Bockley. "You can't just give any grandma or mental patient a pencil and paper and call them an artist."
Ultimately, the most interesting thing about this genre may not be the art itself, but our growing appreciation of it as something "pure" and "authentic," standing apart from both the mainstream and the avant-garde. In a late 20th-century world where art (and so much else) often feels debunked, deconstructed, or just plain depleted, there's a desire for creative expressions unencumbered by confines of culture--both on the part of the artist and the viewer. Art that's considered purely personal in the making, after all, allows us a purely personal response. CP
Off Center: Outsider Art in the Midwest is on view at the Minnesota Museum of American Art through October 20.