The annual Outsider Art Fair is, rather clearly, in transition, and I think it’s turning out to be a productive and exciting transition. Recent murmurings of discontent have hardly been murmurings at all, with some exhibitors openly wondering about the value of their time spent at the show. While it is hard for anyone other than the exhibitors themselves to know the financial value, the cultural and aesthetic value has never really waned—it is always a wonderful and interesting show, and, in terms of ensuring broader conceptions of artistic expression are seen, an incredibly important one. So while the buzz or purchasing power of the attendees may have diminished in recent years, this year’s show should turn that around. There is a lot to say about it, and it promises to return the show to the type of energy it once enjoyed.
The OAF this year was apparently focused on positioning itself as a global event (not that it wasn’t in the past, only that this year it seemed self-consciously so), with exhibitors highlighting international offerings. Even so, the representation of domestic artists was strong, varied, and captivating. On the international front, Angaskapura at both Cavin-Morris and Henry Boxer galleries was a stand out, as was Jim Work at the Pardee Collection on the domestic side. American Primitive featured JJ Cromer’s incredibly detailed work, and Judy A. Saslow, Rizomi Art Brut, Carl Hammer, and Webb Gallery ensured their exhibits did not fail to impress. Plenty of Traylor, Martinez, and Darger to make the show as impressive as a visit to any museum.
Besides the rather self-conscious turn toward international artists, however, the OAF also included more photography than usual. This likely has something to do with the broad interest in found and vernacular photography and the widely covered discovery of Vivian Maier’s work, some of which hung in Cavin-Morris’s exhibit, each an intimate portrait that was worth a look. Winter Works on Paper had an impressive hanging of all manner of vernacular photos, mug shots, and, interestingly, press photos. The mug shots featured surprising facial expressions of accused criminals, but the press photos presented some of the most compelling images in the booth. A photo of a UFO and a photo, “Jumper,” made just a moment before a person leaping to his death was about to hit the ground were paired and were as captivating as they were disturbing.
The vernacular photographs, however, were not the highlight for visitors interested in photography. That distinction goes to Kent Fine Art’s installation of John Brill’s work. The back wall of the exhibit was set up to be a kind of study or library, almost Victorian in its aesthetic, but scattered along the top of dressers and a desk and pinned to the wall and wallboards, dozens of haunting, alluring images by Brill.
Brill is a self-taught photographer who, since childhood, has pursued his craft. He was at the exhibit, and his passion for not only the imagery and aesthetic was apparent, but so too was his unbridled joy in discussing the technicalities of making photos. He reveled in different types of paper, recalling histories of the photographic print-making industry as it has continued to shrink in the shadow of digital media. He lamented the mounting difficulty securing silver emulsion, and he spoke like a caring father about the texture, feel, and image-making capacity of his favorite paper—long since lost to production roll backs. His love of the process is apparent in his work as he shamelessly pursues new methods of printing and takes risks in creating his work. Some images he prints repeatedly, others he covers in wax, and still others he forms in a process of development that nearly overexposes his subject. In a few cases he has even manipulated images digitally to experiment with the process further. The result is images rich in texture but almost veiled in a glowing light. They work their way into your mind, ghostly but insistent, and they walk a thin line between disturbing and soft. I get the sense that Brill is working with memory and remembrance.
The images might be family snapshots, outtakes from a life that was never really settled but that nonetheless is held close like tattered quilt. Something is slipping away in them. Knots have come undone and the little squares are fading and dropping away, but they don’t disappear. They linger, last images of a life or lives that, when grouped together as they are in the installation, don’t so much tell a story as remind us that somewhere in our families are shadows whose boundaries are difficult, if not impossible, to find. We can see each figure in Brill’s images, and we can feel that they need to be remembered, but we will never know their features, their clean lines, or their lives’ details. All we will have are the impressions they have left, most lingering like the smell of smoke after a long-extinguished fire. We want that fire back, but we have only the persistent and invasive presence of smoldering ash. What Brill’s work asks us to do, I think, is to set aside the certainty and heat of flame and live with the dark residue of our histories. When we do, as Brill’s work demonstrates with remarkable power, we meet ourselves as caretakers of histories, both real and imagined ones, that we often would rather avoid. For Brill, I think, and anyone who sees his work, avoidance of our past is simply not possible. Or even desirable. All we can do is poke around in drawers and see what faded memories we can stir up and hope that we can see them for what they are and what they have become.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.