By JOHN DRURY January, 2020
As has been proven time and time again, it is most often artists who are first to recognize the talents of fellow makers who sometimes languish at the oft-tattered fringes of creative enterprise—those perhaps forgotten, simply ignored and worse, purposely excluded by the hand of ignorance and elitism. It was artist Charles Shannon who shone light on the genius of the now legendary, ex-slave Bill Traylor and members of the Hairy Who group of artists in Chicago, that fostered attention to now Internationally recognized artists Joseph Yoakum and Martin Ramirez. Google ‘em.
Although often remaining unsung for their discoveries until well after the fact, this year’s Outsider Art Fair in New York City celebrates a diverse list of contemporary artists through the works of the self-taught artists that they have collected, as compiled by Whitehot’s own contributing editor Paul Laster.
Laster’s thoughtful curatorial effort, Relishing the Raw: Contemporary Artists Collecting Outsider Art, features a Who’s Who list of self-taught artists with works that are often the quirkiest of the quirky, as well – artists just roll that way, recognizing genius in even the most idiosyncratic paintings and objects from the edges of any given artist’s greater body of works.
It could be argued that those not late to the game (and purchasing through dealers) have kept some of the best for themselves. These collectors are unafraid of the most bizarre, politically rambunctious and perhaps devious, even as they shun the simply decorative. These are the “keepers”, and Laster has visited the homes and studios of this generous bunch of artist collectors to skim the proverbial creme.
A disclaimer of note—several objects from my own collection are included in his kaleidoscopic gathering of the tribes, this cacophonous mix of expression. Born in Dayton, Ohio, and educated in the visual arts, I was once labeled “the Lower East Side’s folk avant-gardist” by Artnet’s founding editor, the artist Walter Robinson, who also gave us the term “Zombie Formalism.” And while I landed in New York City in 1989, I am still surely the artist molded in Columbus, Ohio, which was a magical place in the early 1980s. Superstars of this genre—the painter William Hawkins, carver Elijah Pierce and others of infamy producing at the time, were still very much alive and active in what was then a very modest gallery “scene” in the capital city. These were my creative kinfolk—the artists relevant to my own growth and aesthetic interest (working as I do, intuitively and from the heart), and it was at this time that I began collecting beneath the long shadows that these artists cast on that town. These artists were our royalty, and I imagine some insight might be garnered, into the aesthetic choices that the entire list of lenders to this show have made, as revealed in the works that they champion.
Blue-chip, the work of Hawkins is of course present, and artist Kurt Lightner (coincidentally, also born in Ohio) loans a great example of what an “artist on artist” eye can bring to the table that differs. While we’ve come to expect stunning depictions of buildings and larger than life zoological specimens from a Hawkins painting, here a drawing from Lightner’s self-professed “Hawkins stash” of an up front, high-kicking and in-your-face Charlie Chaplin confronts and aggrandizes with impish, and hat askew, charm.
Highlights from Relishing the Raw also include Kenny Schachter’s loan to Laster’s premise, a pair of sculptures by Curtis Cuffie, a homeless artist who graced the streets of downtown Manhattan with his visionary prowess. Schachter long championed the work of Cuffie, harvesting his works from the street—where Cuffie worked and procured his limitless materials from its trash heaps, alleyways and business dumpsters—and bringing it to the attention of the art world. Cuffie’s work was also exhibited during the 1990’s at the legendary alternative art space Exit Art and at Aarne Anton’s celebrated American Primitive Gallery. Tough, gritty works, these surely come from the not-for-everybody category, but most exemplify the testing of boundaries and rules that’s if not best for all of us, it’s certainly best for art.
Art need not be pretty. What Paul Laster has put together in his Relishing the Raw—in its variety and inclusive nature—is what we too often lack in life, and sometimes in love: equity. WM
The Outsider Art Fair takes place at the Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18 Street, New York, NY through Sunday, January 19, 2020.