Now in its 24th edition, theÂ Outsider Art Fair has found a new home this year at the Metropolitan Pavilion, currentlyÂ filled with the fairâ€™s largest number of exhibitors yet. Of the 64 galleries participating from seven different countries, 24 are first-time exhibitors, with a large number of dealersÂ whoÂ represent self-taught artists arriving from the nearby Lower East Side. The resulting presentation is incredibly diverse and sprawling. Most booths featureÂ walls hungÂ with artworks andÂ shelves or pedestals covered with curios; you wonâ€™t find any sleek light boxes, digital screens, or colossal sculptures that make for easy Instagram fodderÂ here. Rather, the fair is dominated by works that suggest a dedication to handicraft orÂ an intimate fixation on a subject. This attention to detail â€” tantamount to a reverence â€” is what makes much of theÂ fairâ€™s art so intriguing and, simply,Â great.
The materials these artists use to realize their visions tend to be simple, mostly everyday items, manipulated and transformed with devotion. Many artists just engaged withÂ what was available to them:Â pages ripped from notebooks, recycled paper, paper bags, fabric scraps, bits of wood, found objects. These materialsÂ suggest a shared disregard for glamour and an eagerness or need for personal expression.
Cardboard panels serve as the backing for two colorful paintings by the self-taught artistÂ Eugene Von Bruenchenhein,Â on display at Andrew Edlin; what wasÂ once discardedÂ is revived with dynamic, fluid landscapes. Wire-bound and taped sculptures stand like miniature industrial mummies at Fleisher/Ollman gallery, their unconventional bindings wound tight around items like coins and bolts, concealingÂ theÂ small objectsÂ like preciousÂ treasures. Made by an unknown artistÂ dubbedÂ â€œPhiladelphia Wireman,â€ the group of six sculptures is part of about 1,200 in existence, abandoned and found in 1982 â€” a physical remnant attestingÂ to aÂ ritual of creation that wasÂ deeply significant to someone. I was reminded of these wrappings when I sawÂ the colorful cocoon works ofÂ Tony Pedemonte,Â on view at Cavin-Morris, that are also made of whatever material he has available, from wood fragmentsÂ toÂ bicycle wheels. These sculptures by theÂ Creative Growth artistÂ are incredibly charged, disarming in theirÂ resemblance toÂ a spiderâ€™s dying prey but beguiling in their suggested warmth and vibrancy.Â (Curiously, they also resemble veryÂ closely the works of the lateÂ Judith Scott, also represented byÂ Creative Growth.)
More explicitly menacing isÂ Galerie Anne de Villepoixâ€™s series of drawings on tracing paper byÂ Annette Barcelo, who has a story for those searching forÂ theÂ stereotypical narrative of the psychologically troubled outsider artist. A 73-year-old Swiss native,Â Barcelo claims to be haunted by demons and uses markers to draw vignettes of the peculiar beasts, each oneÂ carefully borderedÂ by a thick line of color, as though sheÂ were attempting to contain these visions in her art. AÂ series I found just as puzzling but much more compelling is a crowdÂ of painted clay sculptures by Susan Gerard at Fred Giampietro Gallery. Easy to overlook because ofÂ their small scale, they stand as an expressionÂ of bizarre human interactions and deserve prolonged examination. The figurines â€” for whatever reason almost all male â€” are carrying outÂ medical treatments, but others are also being harmed, formingÂ an eerie collection. TheÂ self-taught Gerard is a physical therapist, and I wonderedÂ ifÂ her visualization ofÂ these themes was aÂ way to find relief from constantly working with the pain of others.
One uniqueÂ aspect of the Outsider Art Fair is that not all the art on view was initially intended as art. Perhaps the most delightful surprise isÂ aÂ series of largely anonymous 18thâ€“21st-century drawings from India on view at newcomer Magic Markings. Likely created by monks or religious leaders who reused paper scraps such as old ledgers, the illustrations include diagrams of planetary positions and intricate patterns used as meditation devices. TheÂ inclusion of artifacts that showcase the spiritual beliefsÂ of a non-Western community is refreshing, and also exemplifies theÂ ever-broadening definitionÂ of outsider art.
MuchÂ more recently, the Memphis-born Hawkins Bolden, blind since the age of eight, constructed metal â€œscarecrowsâ€ out ofÂ objects he collected aroundÂ his neighborhood, in an effort to keep birds away fromÂ his garden. Out of his practical pursuitÂ emerged a groupÂ of whimsicalÂ metalworks taskedÂ with keepingÂ watch over andÂ rejectingÂ the outside world. Humanoid because of their strategically arranged holes that look likeÂ eyes, the sculptures occupy the entire space of Shrineâ€™s booth, standingÂ on and around a patch of grass. Facing these rusting sentries, one has a sense of Boldenâ€™s resolve to bar unwanted visitors; stepping into the booth seems like it would be an act of transgression, of floutingÂ one manâ€™s fervent pursuitÂ of his own secured space.
Many of these artists arenâ€™t household names, but as figures like Henry Darger prove, outsider art isnâ€™t always so â€œoutsider.â€ This yearÂ marked the passing of two well-known artistsÂ of the genre: Paul Laffoley and Ionel Talpazan. While the formerâ€™s works are absentÂ at the fair, organizers pay tributeÂ to the latter, who died last September and was known for his long-term obsession with depicting UFOs. Near the fairâ€™s entrance is a memorial exhibition that features an array of Talpazanâ€™s enigmaticÂ spaceship paintings and plaster sculptures that balance on their basesÂ like enlarged childrenâ€™s spinning tops. Seeing years of his cosmicÂ artÂ together underscores his relentless devotion to exploring unsolvedÂ mysteriesÂ of the universe. This gathering ofÂ Talpazanâ€™s lifeworkÂ nods to the personal natureÂ of outsider art that makes it especially appealing and that shines at this fair: the need to create primarily for the self, no matter how otherworldly the focus.
Outsider Art Fair 2016 continues at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 24.
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