No, the pictures above are not from the Outsider Art Fair 20th anniversary.
Viewing the 20th anniversary outsider art fair from afar, through slide shows, it appears after all that time the field (as I hate to call it) is still confused, too inclusive and loaded with baggage. At best a misnomer, the term has been squabbled over for so long I gave up, but with distance and time, I will revisit.
Shown here is the material which first attracted my eye, the Black Folk Art show of 1982. A magnificent exhibition of material which was mistakenly included under the rubric of outsider art around the same time, but a show which to this day remains as one of the best curated art shows of my lifetime.
The true defining criteria for anyone being marketed as an outsider is a complete lack of training in the arts. No schooling and I'm not fooling. I have always felt anyone aware enough of the art world to claim to be an outsider doesn't qualify AS an outsider. I don't mind artists, dealers or collectors fighting over the definition, if they still do..but once again it is obvious a few ringers are slipping in. People who even begin to utter "I am an outsider artist" do not pass the test. And no, art school "drop-outs" do NOT qualify either. Neither does anything from an "other-worldly" environment, culture or country if it is part of the regional milieu.
The other primary criteria is that the artists work in some form of isolation. This could be as a result of institutionalization, a lack or educational opportunities, a religious fervor, an undefined particular visionary impulse...you name it...but while creating their initial body of work they have no idea anyone else is doing it, and they make it all from their own devices. No looking at Sotheby's catalogs or finding a "how to paint" brochure at the flea market. None. NONE.
However, the "trained or untrained" aspect, dicey enough, isn't the most unfortunate definitional failure of the material or the show. It is the inherent dichotomy of lumping together artists who come from no school and FIT into no school together in one place. How can a group of artists be labeled and lumped as outsiders when by definition they have absolutely nothing to do with each other?
Which is why I show the photographs above. You see, these artists DID come from a "school" of sorts. All the artists included in the Black Folk Art show had something in common...all were from fairly early generations which were descendants of slaves. They thus, to some degree or another, shared the common experience of having been displaced...and all held again, to some degree, a shared African-American esthetic which was retained, unconscious or not, in their work. They shared a common origin (to the extent that their ancestors were taken from one huge continent and brought to another) and they shared an inherent consistency of cultural artistic expression. Which is why together they formed a successful exhibition. Not really a "school" mind you, as originally none of them had any idea the others existed, but an esthetic. They lacked educational skills, formal training and awareness of the arts but that was the result of racism more than any other circumstance.
They were mistakenly included originally as "outsiders" when the field formed, and their works still appear here and there as by far the best work in the outsider show. Bill Traylor, Sam Doyle, William Edmondson. Even the lesser known and lesser skilled George Williams, whose frontal totemic carved figures look quite smart above. I say the best work, but that still doesn't mean they belong there.
There is other good work at the show...I presume the magnificent Electric Pencil work was there, and I suspect James Castle was represented, but they were true isolates with completely unique consistent visions. In other words, they qualify but they do not belong.
Unfortunately the few rare genuine articles and the Black folk artists from the exhibition pictured above continue to be presented in a forum which persists to lump together all manner of eccentrics, wanna-bees and what a good friend of mine used to refer to, with little irony, as "failed trained artists" on the walls with no intellectual validity or foundation other than a good weekend bourse. In other words, a good show to visit but not to write about.
Pair of original "installation view" photographs by Michelle Andonian 1983 Collection Jim Linderman