What kind of art deserves--or is denigrated by--the term "outsider"? For about a hundred years now, since avant-garde European artists began to turn to folk art, African art, and the art of the insane for inspiration, many have offered their criteria. Outsider art, it's been said, should be anti-intellectual--that is, naive or visionary, uncorrupted by influences from theory, aesthetic traditions, or other artists. Outsider artists don't often think of themselves as artists; they live far from cultural capitals like New York or Paris. Instead of hanging out with other artists, they are reclusive or eccentric in some way: They may be intensely spiritual, socially marginalized or economically disenfranchised, or perhaps out and out crazy.
And yet to look at the work from the seven artists in Off Center: Outsider Art in the Midwest and to know something of their lives, it's quickly apparent that these standards don't always apply. The late Lee Godie's "Portrait of a Man (after Picasso)" has a postcard reproduction of the drawing that inspired her sewn right onto the canvas, and is signed "ARTisT GodiE." Her work includes drawings and paintings of plants, birds, and flowers--"Bicentennial Daisies" is a wonderful combination of pop and folk art--but mostly she tends toward portraits of beautiful, thick-lashed people who, despite their glamour, have an edgy air of tragedy about them. Moreover, Godie's work has been among the most sought after in Chicago; though frequently homeless, she had an art dealer, and often sold work herself in front of the Chicago Institute of Art.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein also declared himself an artist, but unlike Godie, his efforts to be affirmed as such by others were fruitless. His is an especially sad case, because despite working full-time as a horticulturalist and a baker, he was an incredibly prolific artist; the more than 8,000 portraits of his wife, Marie, are just part of a body of work that includes sculptures, paintings, and small chairs made from painted chicken bones. For the portraits, a couple dozen of which are on display in Off Center, Von Bruenchenhein and Marie devised all kinds of guises: In one double negative print, her face framed by clouds and trees, she's like an all-seeing goddess. But mostly she appears as a kind of movie starlet, in semi-sultry costumes and poses; or else a queenly figure wearing crowns her husband fashioned from gold-colored tin and Christmas ornaments. Marie was a beloved muse and an almost equal collaborator with Von Bruenchenhein, to judge from the enthusiasm she expresses here, head tilted back, basking in the adoration. Von Bruenchenhein's photographs are so intimate that it's almost embarrassing to be caught looking at them. But voyeuristic guilt aside, there's an honest delight and innocence to his art that was meant to be shared.
Just as it's easy to see how Von Bruenchenhein took cues from movie queens of the '40s and '50s, certain influences in the art of Prophet William Blackmon, Simon Sparrow, and Tyree Guyton are also undeniable. As latter-day instructional tales on how to live a Christian life, Blackmon's paintings convey the intensity of his belief through their crude figures, unmodulated colors, and a seemingly feverish pace of execution. Most striking are the hierarchical and compartmentalized compositions of Blackmon's work, similar to those of Medieval and early Renaissance art--which had a similar function in that they forcefully communicated the gospel to those who were illiterate and/or unschooled in it.
Sparrow and Guyton directly acknowledge their debt to African art, with Sparrow, a preacher born in West Africa, billing himself as the link between African and African-American art. Both artists imbue everyday objects with an animated spirituality: Sparrow's best-known works are iconic figures created from layers of glitter, costume jewelry, buttons, and other baubles. Like the art of Baroque Catholic churches, his collages are meant to dazzle the viewer with a visualization of an invisible realm. Guyton is represented in the show with "Funhouse" and "Dotty-Wotty House": two dolls' houses covered over in household junk and miniature toys, and large, colorful dots, respectively. They're essentially models of works in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, a run-down block of houses that Guyton and others made over into works of public art (in a similar fashion, Guyton and dozens of volunteers have created "The Shoe House" in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood). Indeed, there's a talismanic power to all the craziness and chaos, one that some art historians trace back African art made from commonplace objects that's meant to ward off evil.
Cora Meek is perhaps the only artist in Off Center who would seem to adhere to "outsider" definitions--at least based on the biographical information provided about her. Instead of using set geometrical patterns in her quilts, this 107-year-old has spent her life embroidering her own vision onto fabric, laying out over a celestial background of blue denim a personal iconography that includes martians, rockets, angels, and amoeba-like forms, as well as more mundane fish, leaves, and bunnies.
Contrary to another criterion of "outsider" artists, Joseph Yoakum was hardly a recluse, having spent his life traveling the world with various circuses. It was only at the age of 76 that he began to make colored-pencil landscapes identified with remarkably precise locations ("Lebanon Mts. near Sidon Phoenicia Asia"), ostensibly places he'd visited. There's no mistaking that these eerie, fantastical worlds are dreamed up from Yoakum's idiosyncratic visual symbolism, however. Stands of green trees are usually overwhelmed by mountainous masses of dirt and striated rock, vibrant and almost anthropomorphic, and some drawings offer separate, pocket-sized views into other realms.
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.