It’s been two years since the Outsider Art Fair last met, with over 60 galleries strong, at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan. But now it’s back and the atmosphere is, unsurprisingly, festive.
The dealers are happy to see each other again. Many participants present new material, little-known or totally unknown works. Ask them. And the more familiar works of anointed masters look fantastic in the larger stalls near the entrance: James Castle, Joseph Yoakum, William Hawkins, Martín Ramírez. These booths belong to veteran galleries like Fleisher/Ollmann (Stand A5), Carl Hammer (B6), Hirschl & Adler Modern (B8) and Ricco Maresca (A11) who are responsible for the construction of the land and who are also part of the history of foreigners.
Yet at the same time, as with so many things post-Covid, the fair is different, perhaps a little tense. Where is all this going? It is the 30th anniversary of the fair; it was a huge success and everything about art brut seems to be on the move, but is it just going to be absorbed into the mainstream?
Its very definition has become more and more elastic, its separation from the “initiated” art world has blurred. What is a foreign artist – who usually works in isolation, with no training and very little exposure to art – when the phenomenon is increasingly embraced by major galleries and museums and his greatest talents entered the canon? It has become de rigueur for contemporary art galleries, even non-major ones, to represent at least one or two foreigners, just like newcomers to the fair like Nicelle Beauchene (B10), James Fuentes (D12), Fireman (A9) and Situations (A10).
Raw art could not be stopped. Once its greatness – and market potential – understood, the insider art world opened the floodgates and here we are. You could say that the underdog fair is fighting back by getting a bit rubbery itself in a way that’s likely to be debated – at least until 2023.
Field Trip: Psychedelic Solution, 1986-1995
The most visible sign of this elasticity is the exhibition “Field Trip: Psychedelic Solution, 1986-1995”, the largest of four presentations organized by Andrew Edlin, the owner of the fair. It expands the category of art brut to include the equally marginalized genre of psychedelic art—paintings, drawings, and posters—that flourished in the Bay Area beginning in the 1960s. Such material was the focus of Psychedelic Solution , a gallery known for its groundbreaking exhibitions, founded in the West Village in 1986 by Jacaeber Kastor, a West Coast transplant. The tribute was curated by Fred Tomaselli – himself the creator of some quite beautiful and trippy art. He contrasts color-focused works like Hunter S. Thompson’s recent Joe Coleman portrait and Olga Spiegel’s abstractions with a host of ink drawings, exuding varying degrees of complexity and obsession with people like Robert Crumb, Bruce Conner, Jean Conner and less. familiar artists like Peter Spoecker, Rick Shubb and Kastor himself, seen in a wonderfully overgrown collaboration with his mother, Sue Kastor.
Acting on the mildly self-serving knowledge that an art dealer’s contribution to art history is often lost, Scott Ogden, owner and guiding spirit of Shrine, paid tribute to the art dealer exterior Luise Ross, who had a gallery in New York from 1982 to 2013, during which time she — and others — were likely somewhat overshadowed by the formidable Phyllis Kind. This show is most interesting for the unusual early works of Mose Tolliver and Minnie Evans, which Ross was among the first to champion, along with Gayleen Aiken, the great unsung narrator of her own life. Along with the exhibition, the gallery has assembled an online archive from Ross’s files containing posters, announcements, letters, and a timeline.
Portrait Society Contemporary Art Gallery
Essentially, this group show features Della Wells, a stunning, relatively unknown 1951-born collagist who seems to take Romare Bearden as her starting point. Working with small shards cut or torn from magazines, she creates dense, shimmering, mosaic-like cityscapes that are often occupied by an elegantly dressed woman. The results resemble Accelerated Cubism for modern times. Wells’ backgrounds – especially its choppy blue sky – are often punctuated with small images, which make the air seem heavy with memories.
In a section devoted to the work of Ralph Fasanella, the star is a rare full-length portrait that should be in a museum. Ever a populist, Fasanella favored crowd scenes, but in 1954’s “Seated Woman in a Yellow Dress,” he gives us a regal black woman lost in thought with relative simplicity and clarifies his love of color and pattern. Here are also Fasanella’s small close-up portraits of subway riders, distinctive faces of mid-century New York, some of them drowsy.
Melvin Way’s art was discovered by Andrew Castrucci, the founder of Bullet Space, and presented to the public at the first Outsider Art Fair. Way is a great entertainer who is undeterred by mental illness and his insistence on remaining homeless. His small ink drawings – nearly 30 of which are on display – are both mysterious and very suggestive. Their pulsing lines and numbers look like an amalgamation of mathematical equations, molecular models and computer circuits and atomic structures – they also seem to trace the energy of thought itself.
Preserved grove forest
This nonprofit land reserve in Sandersville, Georgia—a first-time entrant here—dedicates its limited exhibition space to the traveling and relatively unknown art of Owen Lee (1922-2002). In his equally tiny booth at the fair, he packed enough different works to make up a group show. Most involve a colorful and opulent combination of painting, drawing and collage with an irrepressible dynamism and resemblances to textiles being the guiding line.
Another first at the fair, this Bronx nonprofit provides support for artists with disabilities. It features the relatively unknown work of Rayed Mohamed and Bin Feng. Influenced by Chinese landscape painting, Bin’s paintings on paper exude confidence and promise. Mohamed’s endeavors – also painting on paper – are more developed and distinctive: expanses of saturated color made up of – or encrusted with – small, repetitive marks that suggest maps, battle plans, or loose private language.
One of the most singular artifacts of the fair is a dozen pages of a small handmade booklet dated 1866 whose author is not yet identified. His ironic ink drawings and fine handwriting tell the story of a once-enslaved family and their former owners after emancipation reversed their fortunes. The smiling black family prospered while the sullen whites, having lost substantial (human) possessions, fell on hard times, sometimes finding employment as nannies for their former servants.
The fair’s smallest curated exhibition, curated by artists Eric White and Aaron Guadamuz, features the drawings of artist and animator Bruce Bickford (1947-2019). But it focuses on Bickford’s personal obsession with the mystery horror TV series “Twin Peaks.” It is represented here by a detailed miniature model of the city, which was actually reconstructed from locations around Los Angeles and Washington State, including, but not limited to, the town of Twin Peaks. Fans of the series will recognize landmarks such as the falls, the lookout and the Great Northern Hotel. The rest of us can savor the tenderness of the artist’s touch, the weathered palette and the lack of straight edges that rightly give the place a life of its own.
Although not well known as a veteran outsider, this Columbus, Ohio gallery has been around for 24 years. Its list is particularly impressive for paintings by the enigmatic visionary Morris Ben Newman (1883-1980) who claimed descent from Ethiopian royalty. In his luminous landscapes, the shapes of trees, houses and land are naïve but united by a sumptuous painting that is the mark of a great artist.
Raw art fair
March 3-6, Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, Manhattan. 212-337-3338; outsiderartfair.com.