What is an outlier? Is it someone outside conventional norms, beyond the commonplace? In art, both are almost certain true, and among outlier artists are the seeds of innovation, change, and a fearless evocation of what constitutes art. Boundaries are pushed, both in terms of content and creation. We may love this art, be drawn to it, seek out individual artists, but it is rare to see a wide-ranging collection of these works in a major museum. With that in mind, the west coast presentation of the National Gallery of Art-curated Outliers and American Vanguard Art at LACMA is in and of itself an outlier of an exhibition.
Seeing the mix and mingle of avant-garde and outlier artists is exhilarating, as is the breadth and depth of the media and artists presented. There are over 250 works and over 80 artists represented, including Henry Darger, Sam Doyle, William Edmondson, Lonnie Holley, John Kane, Greer Lankton, Jacob Lawrence, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Matt Mullican, Horace Pippin, Martín Ramírez, Betye Saar, Judith Scott, Charles Sheeler, Cindy Sherman, Bill Traylor, Kara Walker, and Joseph Yoakum, among many others.
Focusing on American artists, the exhibition was initially researched and curated by the National Gallery’s Lynne Cooke, touching on outsider art within three defined eras stretching from the mid-1920s up to the present. Each time period covers years of social and political change, periods well-suited to appreciate the cultural significance of these works. At LACMA, Rita Gonzalez, curator and acting department head of contemporary art coordinated the exhibition. It’s interesting to note that LACMA has been expanding its collection to include outlier art, and along with this exhibition, focusing on the historical importance of marginalized artists of all kinds. In short, it’s a good fit.
The entire exhibition is packed with works that are “outside” the mainstream art world, not only because of the status of those who created them, or their gender, race, or sexual identity, but in terms of their uniqueness of technique, subject, or both.
In the first section of the exhibition, which includes artists from the years 1924 through 1943, there is an emphasis on techniques that reflect historic folk art, naïve art, and children’s works.
Self-Portrait, a 1929 piece by John Kane, is oil on canvas work over composition board. It resembles a religious icon, as if Kane were a minor saint. Rather than a halo, an art-deco-like arch rises over his head; nude to the waist, the gold cast to his skin also recalls icon imagery. Both in the recall to works as early as the 8thcentury, and in its fresh, folk-art approach to the titular figure, Kane is altering the usually traditional approach to portraiture while still deeply capturing his own spirit in the image.
Horace Pippin’s Interior gives viewers a domestic scene out of a folk tale, naïve style, vibrant colors, and skewed perspective offer an appealing look at what was even then a disappearing/disappeared family lifestyle. If the technique is both naïve and charming, so too was the cozy narrative it depicts.
Jacob Lawrence’s Sidewalk Drawings, from the same time-period, is more modern in approach. The artist partially uses a child-like style in a gouache on paper work that simulates a sidewalk with chalk drawings positioned in a wonderfully complex grid. Two figures of young artists, created in a more fully realized style, are caught in the act of creating the drawings. The vibrant sense of immediacy in the work is striking, enhanced by the bright full colors used in the clothing of the young artists and the vivid blue lines separating the sidewalk squares.
In the second main section of the exhibition, the focus turns to art created between the years 1968 to 1992, when the environment, feminist and civil rights, and alternative lifestyles were concepts depicted through outside art. This was the time period in which African American artists, female artists, regional artists, and activists broke barriers with their art, creating groundbreaking work from fresh artistic perspectives.
Just as Kane’s self-portrait from 1929 offered a new and different approach to the concept of self-portrait, Joseph Yoakum’s 1969 Briar Head Mtn of National Park Range of Bryce Canyon National Park near Hatch, Utah U.S.A., re-defines landscapes forty years later. The aqua, blue, green, and gold pen and colored pencil work resembles some of David Hockney’s recent digital works. It is as much patterned mosaic as it is a depiction of an actual place or time; as such it exists outside of time and space, an illustrative work that depicts nature as something from a fairy tale. At the same time, the piece also resembles a geographic map, a puzzle piece that fits within a farther-reaching story about the natural world.
The sculptural mixed media work of Betye Saar in her Indigo Mercy is both a celebration of African-American heritage, and a work that feels mystical, holy. It is an altar of sorts, with candles and a central, feathered element hanging from the work’s mid-section. It evokes both voodoo and Catholicism, stained glass, and tribal art. The darkness of its palette gives viewers an image that seems to have arisen out of the night sky, or from the ashes of the soul’s fire.
Alan Shields’ Shape-Up, created a year later, uses acrylic, thread, and beads on canvas belting. It’s grid-like structure resembles an architectural design; the repeating pattern, the rainbow hues of different grids fading into black, and the beaded elements that are woven together, all bind or redefine the grid, and soften the overall work. It could be an urban landscape or a modern take on a quilt.
The unique photographic vision of artists such as Cindy Sherman and Lee Godie are also included in this section; the inclusion of photography as an art form was relatively new in this time period. The recognition that photography reaches beyond simple documentation was a bracing and igniting concept; photography, like other art could offer social statements, illusion, and fantasy as well as recording “just the facts.”
Also in this section are representative works by artists in the then-seminal 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. Who these artists were, as well as their wide range of work, represents a seminal breakthrough in recognition for artists of color during this period.
Along with the art exhibited in this section, there is also a slideshow revealing site-specific art, including Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, completed in 1955. It took the untrained Italian-American immigrant 30 years to build the structure, using found materials. The work is iconic in Los Angeles, and is the epitome of outsider art: visionary, like nothing that came before it, and utterly unique.
The inclusion of art forms that were previously considered crafts is a strong take- away from the most modern era of the exhibition, stretching from 1998 to 2013. Quilting, weaving, and other techniques previously disregarded as mere women’s work came to the fore.
Judith Scott’s Untitled is a lush mixed media fiber work in pink, salmon, burnt sienna orange, and red. A striking foot-like appendage juts from the bottom of the work, with strands of blue woven in. The drum-like shape is topped with a smaller cylindrical element, creating the overall look of a living creature or robot, both part of and perhaps contained by, the material in which the work is created. It seems like a being in gestation. It’s thickness and dimensionality seems like a tangled outgrowth from Shields’ much earlier work, a redefinition.
An almost-abstract fabric work, Rosie Lee Tompkins’ Untitled uses a mix of materials from cotton to flocked satin, velvet, polyester velour, and several different types of embroidery to create a work that is both flag and emblem. It encompasses religion, assimilation, and cultural throw-backs to previous eras of outsider art, as witnessed by the naïve-art style of dancing figures and quilt squares.
As diverse and exciting as this exhibition is, and as fascinating as the inspirational links between outsider artists and the avant garde, if we are to learn anything from this immersive and vast body of work – beyond its own intrinsic beauty and inspiration – it is that as viewers, it is up to us. It is up to us to embrace, to champion, and to expose the works of those that do not fit into a conventional box, that are not, “formal” or trained artists, whose medium or message transcends or redefines what we’ve come to expect. Today’s outliers are tomorrow’s artistic consciousness.
Genie Davis is a multi-published novelist, journalist, and produced screen and television writer based in Los Angeles. Publisher and writer of www.diversionsLA.com, she also writes for a wide range of magazines and newspapers.