Outsider Art Heads Indoors

Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

This past October, famed U.K. street artist Banksy spent a month in New York City, leaving behind 31 provocative works in public spaces scattered throughout the city’s five boroughs. Each new piece threw the press and public deeper into the kind of frenzy usually reserved for pop culture events like a new Harry Potter book or Miley Cyrus’s latest fashion curveball. Art news, by comparison, tends to be more austere.

Yet by the time Banksy left a small mural on the Lower East Side, featuring a stencil of galloping stallions in steampunk goggles who looked like the four horses of the apocalypse, the piece found itself quickly surrounded by barbed wire. Its property owners apparently realized the value of the work by the sheer traffic it drew. The Post made it headline news. The Times and CNN were not far behind.

Banksy has been compared to early 20th century French conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, who once signed a porcelain toilet and claimed it “art.” Banksy gained international fame in 2002 when, in his first U.S. exhibition (in Los Angeles), he brought a live elephant, painted red, into the gallery’s main room. In a final, goodbye act to this recent stay in New York City, Banksy left his moniker spelled out in silver balloons to hang from the scaffolding above an industrial building visible from the Long Island Expressway in Queens. They were quickly confiscated by the New York City Police Department after three fans attempted to lift the balloons for financial gain. NYPD initially labeled the evidence simply as “balloons,” with the intention of discarding them after the misdemeanor was processed. However, media reports quickly made it apparent that the balloons, re-labeled as “art,” could bring tremendous value at auction.

Street art has, in fact, become increasingly romanticized and highly collectible over the last decade. Many of the genre’s artists have fallen under the larger umbrella of “outsider” art by virtue of their anti-establishment sensibility, especially in graffiti circles, where the artists tend to be self-taught. Those like Banksy have come to represent hope for a more open-door policy at the institutional level for artists working outside the system.

In recent years, art critics such as Kyle Chayka of The Atlantic and Roberta Smith of The New York Times have argued forcefully that lines between folk, street, and other forms of outsider art ought be blurred in mainstream institutions, allowing art to be judged not for its formal sophistication, but rather its emotional content. Smith, in her review of a 2007 exhibition of Mexican artist Martin Ramirez at the American Folk Art Museum in Midtown Manhattan, argued that the artist’s “scroll-like drawings should render null and void the insider-outsider distinction.” Chayka wrestled with the semantics of this potential shift in a recent piece on video artist Wendy Vainity, whose amateurish YouTube videos have proven so strangely compelling that it is difficult to know where she’s been purposefully avant-garde and where she’s simply naive.


Fascination with artists on the outside comes largely from the special hermeneutic codes and non-textbook discourse their works embody, which often catch us off-guard. Early in the 20th century, French artist Jean Dubuffet championed art brut—works he saw being made outside the boundaries of the established art culture, such as those by insane asylum inmates and children.

Edwardian tastes in England, France, and the United States had already popularized the freakish and the macabre. Such hunger for the unconventional seems to have coincided with the first Modernists and their interest in ceremonial masks from tribal regions of Polynesia, Africa, and the West Indies. They made their way onto canvases by Pablo Picasso and photographs by Man Ray, and were shown in Downtown Manhattan shows curated by Alfred Stieglitz as early as 1915. Yet works by self-taught artists who had little or no contact with the mainstream art institutions were labeled “naive art." These works remained on the margins of curatorial taste for many decades. Indeed, outsider art did not make a marked cross over into the free market until around the time of the first Outsider Art Fair in New York in 1993.

Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

One of the most talked about subjects in this debate is Henry Darger, a custodial worker who lived in relative reclusion in Chicago and whose thousands of drawings and narrative writings were only discovered after his death in 1976. Darger’s first (posthumous) exhibit came quickly and his work has since been on display in every major art capital of the world. The fact that he worked in such untraditional, “non-painterly” ways—for example, he traced many of his images from comic strips and coloring books—and that his art was meant to illustrate the novels he wrote, may complicate Darger’s place among his contemporaries. Though it seems more that his exclusion has to do with his non-engagement of the art establishment while still living. For now, Darger remains largely relegated to the world of folk art.

“The ‘folk art’ label,” insists Jim Elledge, author of Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist. “allows us to marginalize him as a naïve, uneducated country bumpkin, although Darger was none of these.” Elledge is a writing professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, a poet and a champion of the LGBT community in American arts. According to Elledge’s book, Darger was physically and sexually abused as a child, eventually labeled “feeble-minded” by the state and bounced around foster homes before he was unleashed as an adult to survive on Chicago’s near West Side, then its very worst vice district.

“The work of Henry Darger,” notes art dealer Edward Winkleman, “is not ‘Art’ because he had no intention of ever showing it to anyone. Now I can look at Darger’s work and feel my jaw involuntarily drop. I can marvel at the vision. I can delight at the composition and especially the color. But because I know these works were the result of a masturbatory effort, they don’t meet my own definition of fine art.”

Another creative type who pulls no punches is Brooklyn-based Maya Hayuk—muralist, painter, installation artist. Her work is rooted in the alternative and street vernacular found at art collectives like Secret Project Robot in Brooklyn and the Transformazium in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where Hayuk has lived and worked amongst a host of immersive artist types commonly labeled “outside.”

“If the term ‘outsider art’ means that the artist has radical politics or is mentally troubled,” says Hayuk in an email to me from Berlin, where her latest exhibition recently debuted, “then I’m far more interested in seeing what they might produce. Viewing art made by people who would be defined as apolitical and mentally stable sounds incredibly boring.”

Press Association via AP Images

Departing NYC on October 31, the aforementioned Banksy left a goodbye note on his website that read: “Save 5Pointz.” The artist here refers to the Queens warehouse structure that for two decades has housed a DIY museum of graffiti and street art, as well as classes and a legal space for aspiring artists to hone their craft in. This fall, the building’s landlords formally evicted the graffiti conglomerate with plans to replace it with a new high-rise apartment complex in the fast-growing neighborhood of Long Island City. Recently, Judge Frederic Block of New York’s eastern district court ruled in favor of the landlords.

While any number of high-profile institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Museum of Modern Art, might have stepped in financially to save the 5Pointz Center, many have wondered out loud if once more the decision has fallen to semantics. Thus far, market demand for works by even the biggest names in street art pales in comparison to the prices realized by those established in the traditional art market. Moreover, curatorial of the street art genre remains largely nonexistent in museums and art history departments. Whether this comes down to simple lack of curatorial interest, many from the street art world continue to wax conspiratorial about prejudices perceived within the larger art establishment.

“There is a lot of mistrust going around,” notes artist Antonio Serna, “People have always been suspicious about these institutions and now with WikiLeaks and Snowden, we have the proof. It's no surprise that this has spread into the art realm with institutions that want to turn [street artists] into stars or co-opt their street language into marketing strategies.”

Serna is one of the founding members of Art + the Commons, a coalition of creative types that grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Rather than hoping for integration of previously dismissed artists and art styles, Art/Commons is looking to change the entire paradigm of ownership, curation, and profitability.

I first met Serna in the spring of 2012, in the immediate aftermath of Occupy’s forced-eviction from Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street. He and a group of eight artists sat in a circle next to the central fountain in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. To open the floor to new topics, a majority vote was taken by a show of hands. Memos were read aloud by one person with the remainder repeating back each sentence. The central concern of Art/Commons, as with all Occupy-related groups, was how to reconfigure the financial structure of that industry. How eight people in a city of eight million planned to carry a revolution in art seemed beyond my comprehension.

To start, they got rid of the idea of a centralized space altogether; Art/Commons is today a loosely-affiliated group of community members who provide “care” for pieces in the collection. For instance, someone can borrow a given piece from the collection, knowing the work ultimately resides within the larger network of the community.

“I recently had a visitor to my studio,” recalls Serna. “She walked in and looked at my sculpture and said, ‘My students would love to touch and explore this work.’ I thought it was odd, but then she told me that she teaches art to blind students and then it all made sense. We got into this discussion about how most museums don’t allow you to handle the artwork. And so where does that leave her students?”

AP Photo/Frank Franklin

Back in Brooklyn, during the first days of November, the Mt. Carmel Church on N. 8th Street in Williamsburg hosted Comic Arts Brooklyn, an annual festival where the most experimental artists in comics and illustration meet to hawk their wares. I met artist George Cochrane on the second floor, where he was discussing the industry with Bernard Stiegler, a twentysomething in mop-top haircut and dark-rimmed glasses. Stiegler self-published The Reptile’s Mind, a strange, hallucinogenic comic about a boy raised by reptiles who, one day, is snatched from his reptilian domain by a well-meaning institution and thrown into the system against his will. Cochrane has his own psychedelicized comic book series, Long Time Gone. It is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses set in New York City, with the artist himself in the lead role searching for a way home.

The panels of Long Time Gone were first exhibited at MASS MoCA, near Boston, in what became a sort of comic book installation. Instead of reading the finished product, viewers saw Cochrane’s process laid out page-by-page in pristine frames, where, at the very end, the bound volume itself was available for purchase in the gift shop. 

“Museums have embraced comics where galleries haven’t,” he insists. “MASS MoCA curator Susan Cross’ interest in my work was all that mattered. A commercial gallery is very different. There are very few if any artists that make works on paper equivalent in value to oil on canvas. That is, there is a ceiling to the amount of money to be made selling drawings.”

To be certain, illustrators such as 19th century French iconoclast Honore Daumier and expressionist poster artist Henri Toulouse-Latrec have long been part of the fine-art establishment. More recently, comic artists like Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb have seen museums and galleries embrace their every new work. (Crumb’s retelling of the biblical Genesis story debuted to great fanfare at this year’s Venice Biennial.) Yet if the main issue for illustrators is the financial ceiling of papered works, the dilemna seems not that different than others in the outsider art paradigm, who, while feeling the sting of being left to the margins, have also found their works increasingly in-demand at the institutional level. In fact, as much as those on the outside may argue the finer points, it seems the change they believe in is already underway.

“Since I’m busy trying to put everything into Long Time Gone,” concludes Cochrane on the steps outside Brooklyn Comic Arts, “I can’t subscribe to the usefulness of labels. I don’t really know about anybody else on this one, but labels, like a map, are only a representation of reality. Things once named can be knocked down, only to be reconfigured again. Then to get broken by the next generation of artists leading the way.”

It remains to be seen whether the cultural authorities in New York and beyond can head-off charges of elitism going forward. The sense that much has been missed already remains prescient. This week, the revolution-based murals that graced the walls of the 5Pointz Graffiti Center were painted over white. Each morning, a new tag, angry and irreverent, was found splattered over the white paint. The vitriol seems unlikely to cease anytime soon. Into this environment, New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has promised “more equal” conditions for minorities and the poor. It is an ethos born of the previous decade’s disparity, expressed in the cautious optimism of a growing number of impassioned spirits, who remain in art as in life on the outside.

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