Every year, I go to the Outsider Art Fair, and every year, I am reminded why it is my favorite annual show. Displays of self-taught art browsed by collectors of the strange and unique—more than a few of whom are themselves bedecked in sumptuous, feathered, and outrageous artistic fashion—the OAF is as great an art scene in New York as I go to each year. It’s a place where the low and the high collide and create the sublime, and this year was no different. Indeed, over the past couple of years, the scene (dare I say spectacle?) has heated back up, and while it may be hard to recreate the halcyon days of yore about which many of the more seasoned gallerists reminisce, it’s hard to imagine a livelier show than was on display this year. Packed with people in the aisles and emblazoned with red dots on walls, the OAF popularity has surged, built by a savvy front office with singular focus as well as the growing worldwide reputation of artists like Bill Traylor, Martin Ramírez, and Madge Gill, whose works now hang in most prestigious museums around the world.
But, the OAF’s resurgence is also the result of a newer development: the expanding popularity of artists that bridge the old divide between outsider and fine art. Artists like Leopold Strobl, JJ Cromer, David Zeldis, Frank Walter (whose work on polaroid cartridges we have previously reviewed), and William Hall have found audiences in exhibitions, museums, monographs, and magazines beyond the outsider art world. The bridging effect reflects the artists’ astonishing self-trained talent, but it also, importantly, reflects the professionalism of astute gallerists who have recognized that native and self-nurtured talent appeals to people seeking authenticity in their lives and in their homes. Outsider artists are considered, if nothing else, authentic, and in today’s age, few things seem to be so highly valued. Authenticity, in the most profound sense of that word, has found its home at the OAF.
Interestingly, this year’s fair also seemed to have an embarrassment of riches for photography buffs. Photography has always had a presence, and I have continued to write about its significance in the show even as other artistic media has stolen the spotlight. Still, it’s clear this medium is getting more attention as the fair experiences a well-deserved surge of popularity. For example, Julie Saul Gallery exhibited the portraits of Nikolay Bakharev, whose intimacy and subjects are akin to Larry Clark’s Tulsa series, and Winter Works on Paper had a wall of Weegee’s documentarian photos within steps of the front entrance to the show. Once again this year, One Mile Gallery exhibited Mark Hogancamp’s war scenes. Hogancamp creates dioramas of compelling war imagery and then photographs them in cinematic ways. The results are surprisingly moving. While the project might in the hands of lesser talent border on kitsch or devolve into a juvenile, back-room project, it instead treads a line between reality and fantasy that is easy to be absorbed by. That the images remain startlingly realistic despite the large format of the print testifies to the soft hand and keen eye of the artist.
A similar keen eye could be found in the Mason Fine Art booth, which hung a grouping of the social-realist images of Oraien E. Catledge. Once the subject of books, Catledge’s work has essentially faded from public eye, but the gallerists have done us a favor by bringing this artist to the attention of self-taught art aficionados. It’s hard to see these images without thinking about people like Shelby Lee Adams, yet some of the images of children in particular have a softer touch—I would even say a deeper intimacy—than Adams’ more famous work. We are on the same level as the kids in many of the images, and without the crisp lines of a more studied artist, we get a blurry edge that conveys gentleness. These are portraits of families facing hardship, but the social condition seems secondary to the humanity of the laborers and their families. Such claims, of course, are hard to make when class distinctions obliterate the humanity of so many people, and yet here, in Catledge’s Cabbagetown’s series, the children, at least, force us to face their humanity because of their disenfranchisement and poverty. That, in turns, forces a question for us as viewers: what do we do with this humanity? How do we respond to others in need?
Of course, photography in its most powerful forms often invites these questions, and it’s along these lines that I sense a brewing question for galleries and outsider art admirers like myself to consider, one that is especially important in the #metoo era: how do we account for the cultural work of photographers whose own predilections offend and challenge? Perhaps more pointedly: should we see their artwork as a challenge to cultural norms if their work is not self-consciously created as art, but is instead the activities of a person whose motivations may be murky, unknown, or even suspect?
I think here of work by people like Miroslav Tichý. Tichý’s work might be categorized these days as “blue chip.” A standard of outsider art shows and auctions and the subject of many exhibits in fine art galleries as well as much media coverage, Tichý is a complicated figure to consider today. Tichý’s work is often beautiful and haunting. Made from a hand-fashioned cardboard box camera, they are often ghostly, the stuff of an imperfect man with an imperfect tool but a keen eye. Still, they remain also the objects of a voyeur, a man who photographed women without their consent, and indeed in places where he was sometimes forbidden to be, and who did so for his own satisfaction. These are not the images of a journalist snapping photos of historical moments for public consumption, but instead the work of a man collecting beauty for his own pleasure. When we interact with them, then, we are essentially peeking into the life of not only the women he collected with his camera, but into the life of a man unable to connect with them. They are, in that way, the very embodiment of objectification that is being so pointedly challenged today.
Of course, the fine art world has a history of negotiating this terrain. It’s hard to view Robert Mapplethorpe’s work without a sense of the objectification (and in some instances subjugation) of an image’s subject. Critics of Sally Mann made cultural hay over the images of her children (then later her husband), and Jock Sturges will likely always face similar critiques. Mona Kuhn has been granted a bit more poetic license of this front because of her home country, which has a considerably different sense of things like the “age of consent,” and yet in American markets, similar critiques are easy to imagine. Still, these artists are often protected by a sense of artistic purpose. The reasoning goes that the artist, in making provocative images, is purposefully challenging norms in order to get audiences to think through their own assumptions and broaden the sense of what constitutes “humanity.” This is not a thin veil of deception or an academic point—artists like these quite explicitly challenge cultural norms. Larry Clark, mentioned above, belongs here as well, and draws closer parallels to artists like Tichý. The difference is that unlike Mapplethorpe or Clark, Tichý, despite his training in painting, has little background upon which to ground what might be called an “art defense” against critique of the work. If Tichý’s work is reduced to simply the work of a vagrant with a predilection toward photographing unaware women, the idea of an art defense is absurd. And yet, the work retains all the hallmarks of beautiful art and was made by a person with an artist’s background, resourceful enough to cobble together his own camera, and talented enough to frame images in striking ways. That he was repeatedly arrested for taking images of women without their consent is only complicated by the fact that he lived in a Soviet state which saw art of most any form a threat to social order and as worthy of re-education. Throw dementia into the mix, and the waters become even cloudier.
Still, this is one territory ahead, I think, for outsider photography, and it strikes at the heart of what art means to so many people. Tichý’s work was shown by at least three exhibitors, and others had exhibited photographs of anonymous women in bondage or up-skirt images seemingly made without consent by someone with a mirror on the ground or on a shoe. One might even look at the work of Morton Bartlett, which we have covered before and whose work appeared in two booths this year, and wonder why the images of little girl dolls are to be taken as something other than the obsession of a person with far-from-mainstream tastes. Should we take these, in other words, as art?
I don’t mean that as aggressively skeptical, nor do I mean that as a challenge to a particular artist’s aesthetic—we might disagree on the artistic talents of one artist or the other while both agreeing they are still artists. I mean it simply in terms of the way that art represents some sort of muddy zone between aesthetic production, native talent, and artistic purpose. It’s that last part that makes outsider art so compelling but also, in cases like Tichý, so complicated and difficult. If one says that someone like the carver of an anonymous coat rack wasn’t intending to create art but made a stunningly beautiful piece of folk art, there isn’t much at stake. But if one is to say that an unkempt voyeur made stunningly beautiful images of unaware women, we are on considerably different territory than either the folk art coat rack artist or Larry Clark. We’re in challenging territory indeed, and one that will be negotiated in the years ahead, likely at times on the floor of the fair itself, where audiences see and discuss the work. The OAF allows us to encounter such imagery and to confront such questions. By making space for them and for other art that emerges from surprising quarters, the OAF is doing precisely what all artistic organizations should aspire to do—forcing us to look inward, ask hard questions, and then live our lives differently because of the answers we find.
Roger Thompson is Senior Editor for Don't Take Pictures. His features have appeared in The Atlantic.com, Quartz, Raw Vision, The Outsider, and many others. He currently resides on Long Island, NY, where he is a professor at Stony Brook University.