The term ‘Outsider Art’ was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in the 1970’s to describe works made by those removed from the mainstream art world. The Outsider Art movement seeks to expose those artists who would otherwise remain unseen. Men and women who are mentally and physically challenged, those who live and die on the fringes of society, ascetics and the self taught, most unaware of their own genius.
It was during my visit to the Shyshaki Art Festival this summer in Poltava, Ukraine, that my fascination with Outsider Art began. It was there that I personally met several artists exhibiting their work in a wood shed from a few of Poltava’s neighboring villages.
These were not your fresh and clean gallery hopping MFA graduates. These were men and women from the trenches. Moonshine drinking, tobacco smoking, dirt shoveling folk whose art is not sucked from their finger. Their kind of art is born at midnight, when the moon is full and the witches are cackling. Their art comes from dreams and is carved from talking trees. Their art is not learned but is the teacher.
After my Ukrainian experience, I was especially looking forward to the annual New York Outsider Art Fair of 2018. A grand display of young, old and deceased outsider artists from all corners of the world presented at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea. The event radiates extraordinary energy. The work ranges from the insanely cheerful to heartbreaking and disturbing. From bold scribbles to intricate filigree paintings, each artist presents a ravaging scream of the soul. I had attended the fair several times before, but had overlooked the obvious composing element which makes much of the featured art so tender – each artist’s specific biography. This year I made a point of engaging with the gallerists, who graciously devoted an unlimited amount of time to share the stories of my favorite works and their masters.
The first images to make my heart skip a beat were the majestically savage portraits of Helen Rae, based on photographs of models in Haute Couture from fashion magazines. Rae uses colored pencils to create explosive, luscious drawings of infinite depth. Rae, who has been unable to hear or speak from birth, is now eighty. She began drawing at age fifty when her mother enrolled her in art class for adults with disabilities. Since then she has earned recognition as a contemporary artist. Represented by First Street Gallery, Helen Rae is experiencing a myriad of success, including two sold out solo shows.
“Helen Rae brings to her daily studio practice an intense rigor and fierce determination. She loves showing off her work around the studio for some quick praise but is soon back to making. Her singular artistic vision has been crafted through decades of focus and discipline, producing a body of work that is forever evolving.” (Seth Pringle/ First Street Gallery)
Deep within the exhibit I found the hypnotic pencil drawn tableaus of Susan Te Kahurangi King, “Te Kahurangi” meaning “the treasured one” in Maori language. Born in 1951 in Te Ahora, a small rural village of New Zealand, King was the second oldest in a family of twelve children. She began to draw at a very young age, and although her drawings skills developed at a profound rate, she was losing her ability to speak and sing, something she had also loved to do. By age eight, she could no longer communicate, but could draw for hours without breaking concentration. The result is an indescribable body of work that seems to be drawn from a parapsychological reality. King’s works are presented by Chris Byrne and range from the early to recent years, with a twenty year break during which King, tragically, stopped drawing due to depression. During the filming of Pictures of Susan, a documentary about King’s life, she picked up her pencil once more and continued to draw from right where she left off.
In 2017’s Outsider Art Fair, I had come across the work of Foma Jaremtschuk and it has stayed with me since. This year I was especially happy to see more of his drawings from the Henry Boxer gallery archive. Born in 1907 in Siberia, Jaremtschuk never had an art education, moreover, he dropped out of school in the third grade. At the age of twenty-nine, he was sent to a labor camp during the Stalinist repressions and by age forty he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution. If not for Jaremtschuk’s doctor, who secretly collected his drawings, we would never have known that this tortured and brilliant soul once existed.
Jaremtschuks drawings seem to express hallucinatory images of grotesque experiments being played out in a deeply tortured mind. As a Russian myself, there is something innately familiar to me in the narration of his drawings- it is through his works that I imagine the tragedy of mental illness in a society that hid and isolated its sick.
Unexpected Subway Living imagines a catastrophe that finds both humans and beasts cohabiting in a provisional, underground state of abject distress. This is a frightening and challenging place, where nightmares and dreams proliferate and collide. This is, on some level, a paradigm for a reality we’ve come to know Jordan Maclachlan.
Hundreds of ceramic figurines line an endless horizontal stand, from evangelists healing the sick to embryos driving cars. Turds, turtles and what looks like an astronaut talking to a newborn rat are among the scenes truly remincinent to any commuter who has spent too much time in the God forsaken New York City Subway. Hence Unexpected Subway Living (2010-2011), created by Jordan Maclachlan, a self taught ceramics artist from Toronto, was by far wildest highlight of the fair. It took several minutes for me to embrace the magnitude of this body of work, presented by the Marion Harris Gallery. I laughed out loud several times and luckily I was not alone, because you don’t need to have a PhD to get Outsider Art, you just need to have a heart.
The Outsider Art Fair is an annual event which can be expected in New York City every January as well as in Paris in October. Please stay tuned for a more in-depth look at the Shyshaki Outsider Arts Festival in my next entry.