The following essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art, on view at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, July 11 through August 31, 2014. It was reprinted in Resource Library on July 29, 2014 with permission of the author and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, which was granted to TFAO on July 17, 2014. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Laguna Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Seeping into the Mainstream
by Mary-Kay Lombino
Over the last few years, the distinction between art made by professionally trained artists and those who have never attended art school, insiders and outsiders, is being challenged in the arena of contemporary art and criticism. The notion of outsider art came into being around seventy years ago and has taken many names including art brut (first used in the 1940s by French artist Jean Dubuffet to denote the raw or naïve style of untrained artists); the more controversial but still commonly used "outsider art" (coined by British art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972); and the more descriptively accurate "self-taught art." Today, the terminology continues to vex as it attempts to encompass work made by artists working outside the academy, artists with some form of physical, social, or psychiatric disability, or those with distinct life situations such as extreme poverty, time spent in a mental institution, or time spent in prison.
A number of recent milestones in the blurring of the somewhat arbitrary boundary between insider and outsider can be recounted. The first was in January 2013, when the New York Times published art critic Roberta Smith's article "Curator, Tear Down These Walls," advocating for the inclusion of work by self-taught artists in mainstream museums and exhibitions. Then, in the summer of 2013, Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London who is known for his inclusive method of curating, organized The Alternative Guide to the Universe: Mavericks, Outsiders, Visionaries, a survey exhibition that featured self-taught architects, artists, photographers, engineers, and scientists?all investigating "larger systems of knowledge or developing particular disciplines in idiosyncratic directions." According to the catalogue, the exhibition offered "possibilities so profound that they suggest an alternate reality." 
Even more notable was the 2013 Venice Biennale, organized by Massimiliano Gioni, which featured an unprecedented number of so-called outsider artists -- a reflection of the growing integration in the art world of alternative and mainstream practices. "The Encyclopedic Palace," the Biennale's main exhibition, which included over 150 artists from 37 countries, took its title from (and included a model of) the self-taught artist Marino Auriti's utopian project Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo ("the Encyclopedic Palace of the World"). Gioni stated that the point of the show was not to feature outsider artists per se, but to question the very notion of what it means to be inside or outside, which, he argued, is potentially a political line of enquiry. The show embraced curiosity pushed to the point of "obsession," of "delirium," he said. "More and more, I'm interested in visual culture, or figurative expression, rather than just contemporary art. This is to expand the dialogue and to move away from the accepted canon." Gioni deliberately complicated the issue by focusing on the imagination of artists and by integrating art that resembles outsider art but is made by art-world insiders, further enmeshing the two designations.
As evidence of this softening of the edges between these categories, in recent decades, many mainstream art museums have added self-taught art to their collections and exhibition programs. Vassar's museum is no exception. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center has a collection of more than one hundred works made by self-taught artists, most of which were given to the Art Center in 2005 by the late Vermont-based collector Pat Parsons (Vassar College class of 1951). In 2009, the Art Center presented the exhibition Faith and Fantasy in Outsider Art from the Permanent Collection, which featured works by thirty-nine of the artists that express their personal convictions and singular visions, ranging from spiritual visions to apocryphal exhortations and humorous depictions of daily events. This year, a new exhibition, Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art, will explore work that takes the human form as its subject. The strength of the artwork lies not in its adherence to reality but in its refreshing deviations from it. The human face, the apex of the figure, takes on a strange other-worldliness that at times has been compared to children's art, mythology, or pure fantasy. In some cases the difference between inspiration and obsession is tenuous as the artists give themselves entirely to the creative urge resulting in an unselfconscious style. The exhibition will feature aspects of self-taught artists' treatment of the figure including typically dense compositions and obsessive mark-making, a child-like or naïve rendering of the human body and face, and a direct expression of the artist's imagination. Drawn from the Art Center's collection as well as nearby institutional and individual collections, the show will also emphasize shared characteristics between emerging contemporary art and self-taught art. Some of the highlights of Faces and Figures are Henry Darger's elaborate paintings of young girls caught in a vicious war, the sacred art of the prolific Reverend Howard Finster, and the raw power in Thornton Dial's turbulent compositions as well as works by such artists as James Castle, Dwight Mackintosh, Martín Ramírez, Janet Sobel, Mose Toliver, and Inez Nathaniel Walker, among many others. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Pat Parsons, who inspired the Art Center to invest in the future of self-taught art through the collection and exhibitions.
1 Roberta Smith, "Curator, Tear Down These Walls," The New York Times [New York] 31 Jan. 2013, Art & Design.
2 Roger Cardinal et al., The Alternative Guide to the Universe: Mavericks, Outsiders, Visionaries (London: Hayward Publishing, 2013).
3 Coline Milliard, "Massimiliano Gioni's Urbane Biennale Is the Most Dazzling in Memory," Blouin Art Info 29 May, 2013.
About the author
Mary-Kay Lombino is The Emily Hargroves Fisher '57 and
Richard B. Fisher Curator and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning
at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Ms. Lombino wrote the above essay
concerning the exhibition, which was earlier published in Art at Vassar.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art, on view at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, July 11 through August 31, 2014. It was reprinted in Resource Library on July 29, 2014 with permission of the author and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, which was granted to TFAO on July 17, 2014.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Dr. James Mundy, Director at Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
In the transmittal of the essay to Resource Library, Ms Lombino noted that the Art Center "...did not publish a brochure with a curator's essay." Instead, the Art Center "... created a blog with all the information and images from the show. The artist bios are the type of text that might ordinarily be found on wall labels." She added that the Art Center placed an iPad in the galleries with a link to the blog. A link is at <http://pages.vassar.edu/facesandfigures/>.
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