The 18th annual Outsider Art Fair took place this year from February 5-7 in Manhattan. For the second consecutive year, it was held at 7 West 34th Street, in the shadow of the Empire State Building. Inside, there was an endlessly engaging – in fact, overwhelming – array of “outsider art” pieces. The genre’s loose and controversial definition covers the artwork of a wide variety of untrained, self-taught, significantly disabled or otherwise outside-the-mainstream artists. The hours can pass quickly at an event like this.
The first artwork to be seen, though, was being sold on the sidewalk by Ionel Talpazan, a Romanian refugee and self-described “UFO artist” who has been selling his work in front of the fair for years. He’s been there since the days when numerous artists’ tables and vehicles were a common sight outside the Outsider Art Fair. Talpazan is the last holdout. During Talpazan’s difficult childhood, he had a strange experience which he speculates was an encounter with an alien craft. This incident inspired a body of work that typically depicts UFOs and their hypothesized inner workings, though in this art-unfriendly economy, he also includes cityscapes in hopes of generating some sales. He has been featured in the Outsider Art magazine Raw Vision; covered by CNN; his work appeared in the 2002 film K-PAX; and he speaks of a faculty member of the University of Oregon who started a book on him. Whether by luck or by his mistrust of those who would sell his work, Talpazan has not found consistent success. His images, though, are both eye-catching and engaging. Trying to catch the eye of collectors and others on their way to the fair (and selling at prices substantially lower than those seen inside) is the most exposure he gets.
Inside, though, the offerings of more established and emerging artists were just as engaging, and, as usual, endlessly varied. As was the case last year, the fair is much improved over the last few shows at its previous location, the Puck Building in SoHo. There, it had become a showcase of the same artists, the same pieces, and the same emphasis on the big names of the Outsider Art scene – Darger, Wolfli, Ramirez, etc. These are fantastic artists, but part of the appeal of outsider art is that it points to there being so many artists out there. With this kind of event, there is much more a sense of a fluid influx of work that is both engaging and accessible than there is with the typical gallery/museum experience. Going to the Outsider Art Fair, or to one of the day programs for disabled adults often represented at the fair (including local establishments like Brookline’s Gateway Arts and Medford’sOutside the Lines Studio), one has an unexpectedly rich experience – there is work hiding in almost every corner. In that sense, the Outsider Art Fair is like a good flea market or antique store. But at the fair, one doesn’t just look for diamonds in the rough – everything comes with its own story and attendant body of work.
It’s hard to know where to begin in describing the work at the fair. Disparate media – ceramics, photography, sculpture, assemblage, fabric, weaving, drawing, painting, digital work – were represented. Many of the artists were represented by galleries and dealers (from California to the UK), while others’ work was handled by day and art programs for disabled adults like Brooklyn’s League Treatment Center (a fledgling Brooklyn program of just three staff set up in the corner of the Fountain Gallery’s space), Chelsea’s Pure Vision, and Richmond, CA’s Creative Growth.
The result is a flood of work: the fair featured handpainted African-American hair salon signs, animal carvings from the American south, tattoo designs from the 1940’s, variously sculpted ceramic heads, pool balls rendered in embroidery, and scores of drawings and paintings. Dean Millien sculpts wild and domestic animals out of aluminum foil. Fumiko Okura draws small, neatly-rowed fruit shapes in drawings like American Cherry. Charles Benefiel draws rows of tiny symbols in Random Numeric Generator, covering a sheet of paper that is roughly 3’ x 4.5’. Petey Wingo and others make bold, stuffed fabric figures, some slightly amprphous. George Widener exactingly draws calendars and other arrangements in red and black on fragile, quiltlike surfaces made entirely of napkins. Mercedes Kelly stuffs canvas boards full of painted dog and cat faces. A. G. Rizzoli’s meticulous drawings of architectural pieces were on display, along with samples of his 300-sheet Amte’s Celestial Extravaganza, a succession of texts surrounded by carefully drafted borders and conceived as a Third Testament of the Bible. The Ames Gallery, which currently holds the work, will only release it as a whole – so that it may happily avoid the fate of Henry Darger’s life work, In the Realms of the Unreal, which is now distributed amongst many collectors. Big-name outsider work from Bill Traylor, Morton Bartlett, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was presented as well.
Admittedly, the fair was a bit frustrating, because this work was somewhat difficult to absorb in its totality. And the inevitable existence of simply too much work is a problem in the art world to begin with. Many art enthusiasts will privately (or publicly) admit that they are not interested in the majority of the work that they see – as if an influx of mediocre, inaccessible or otherwise unappealing work were necessary to spawn the few artists that are worth their time. But this is just the remedy that the outsider art world offers: so much of the work that it espouses is widely accessible, and no less compelling for it. One could argue that the overall effect of this work, despite the solitary and personal nature of some of the artists’ output, is that of a more organic and less deliberate mentality than that widely found in the mainstream art world.
Despite the daunting volume of work, one leaves the fair energized, wondering what else there is to discover. Even as I left, though most artists’ sidewalk displays of years past were nowhere in sight, Ionel Talpazan was still there, reminding me that there was much more to be found outside the glass doors.
"Outsider Art Fair 2010" was on view with Sanford L. Smith & Associates from February 5 - 7, 2010 at 7 West 34th Street off 5th Ave, New York, NY.
For more photos of the event, visit the author's Flickr photostream. All images are courtesy of the author.