The Outsiders

More icons than the cover of 'Sgt. Pepper's': A collage by Richard Saholt
Richard Saholt

The Elliot Park neighborhood of Minneapolis feels like a demilitarized zone. A flat expanse of empty lots and buildings that are posted "For Lease," it separates the great castle spires of the downtown to the north from the desolate Safwan of the Phillips neighborhood to the south. The warehouses and dilapidated Victorians hold tenants that may not be particularly wanted elsewhere: light industrial shops, learning centers, halfway houses, the Assembly of God.

The Elliot Park building that contains the new Outsiders and Others gallery has the look of a hastily abandoned war-zone safe house. And in a sense that's what it is--a sprawling 10,000-sqaure-foot arch-vaulted home that housed the Hands on Cedar Hill Academy alternative school for at-risk youth until the institution lost its charter six months ago and had to flee in the night. Since April, Outsiders and Others director Yuri Arajs has occupied the building--or at least the front and side rooms of the house, as the rest of the edifice still needs to be cleaned up. As he prepares to mount the gallery's second show, he acknowledges it's a rather uncertain time to start such an endeavor.

"Given everything going on, in rational theory we're idiots for doing this now," says Arajs. He's speaking of the recent budget siege on arts and social programs for just the sort of people his gallery intends to serve--local outsider, naïve, self-taught, contemporary, intuitive, folk, primitive, and visionary artists. "But we intend to create a space for everyone," he continues, "for artists who would never have their work shown otherwise."

Arajs is well drilled in the logistics of running such a gallery. For several years he worked as gallery director at the Interact Center's Inside Out Gallery for outsider art in Minneapolis. Since leaving Interact nearly three years ago, he has directed the Minnesota Fringe Festival's visual exhibition for outsider artists, the Visible Fringe.

"It's all creative work," he says. "For me, it's not about philosophy; it's about the work itself. We all know what we like when we see it. It strikes a chord. What we're trying to do in a sense is to erase the labels."

Each of the gallery's current slate of 10 artists has some form of mental illness (as the show celebrates mental-health awareness month). The work itself is all over the map: angry, underground-like collage; delicate watercolors; goopy and dark abstractions; happy, primitive-looking portraits and flowers; even crop art. Not all of it deals directly with mental illness, though most of it is compelling and perhaps gives a sense of what's it's like to live now with such a disease. For example, a homeless artist, Barbra von Ahsen, makes small, moody pen drawings of faces and trees that seem bent with suffering. Joy Purchase's wraithlike, two-foot stoneware figures stand in various evocative postures, seemingly weighted down and desiccated but struggling to thrive despite it all. Michael Thomsen's abstract paintings are thick with impasto paint, and as midnight-dark as a late-show Vincent Price movie.

The most intriguing and unsettling work in this show is by Richard Saholt, who suffers from schizophrenia. Saholt cuts or photocopies found text snippets and pictures from magazines and the like (of Hollywood slasher films, Salvador Dali paintings, celebrity profiles), and collages them in whirlwind compositions of expressionistic colors--red and black and orange. The resulting images are harsh fragments that depict torment and unease with the world. In this, they are reminiscent of passion icons of saints from the Middle Ages, which depicted the various torments that saints miraculously survived at the hands of heathens--boiling in oil, disembowelment, impaling, and so on--before being given peace by God.

One can only wish that Saholt, who began making artwork 40 years ago as a way of documenting his disease (and to fight for army benefits he was denied due to a "pre-existing condition"), will find a saint's peace someday. Maybe after the dust of war has settled.

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