A Conversation with Phoebe Rohrbacher

  

All images courtesy Phoebe Rohrbacher

All images courtesy Phoebe Rohrbacher

Phoebe Rohrbacher is an artist and former facilitator at The Canvas in Juneau, who is currently living and working in Fairbanks, Alaska. A lifelong Alaskan (born and raised in Juneau), Rohrbacher has a unique perspective on art and disability in rural and remote communities.

Over the past year in Fairbanks, she has begun to introduce concepts of progressive art studios through a group art-making session at the Fairbanks Resource Agency day hab programs. Her groups have already begun to produce impressive works that demonstrate incredible potential, some of which will be exhibited at a Fairbanks gallery next year.

Disparate Minds co-founder Tim Ortiz recently had a conversation with Rohrbacher about her unique experiences working with artists with disabilities, her program’s upcoming exhibition in Fairbanks, and persistence in advocating for progressive ideals through the current, adverse political climate.

 

Tim Ortiz: It's sort of heroic, what you are doing up there.

Phoebe Rohrbacher: Well thank you, I guess I don't look it as heroic, but it is sometimes challenging, because the idea of progressive art studios is something that a lot of people haven't heard of or considered. Or even if they have heard of them, they might not look at them as something feasible or possible here. When I talk to other artists in town, though, they all think it's a really great idea and they’re really blown away by the work that people are creating.

I’m really proud of the artists that I work with. Over the past year, it’s been really interesting to see the work that’s developed - the developing focus and identities as artists. When I first started facilitating here, some people didn't understand. I said, “Here's a pencil here's a piece of paper, I want to see what you can make.”  Some people didn't understand what I was asking for and would ask what they should draw. I told them, “Anything - you can draw anything.”

 I think a lot of people with disabilities end up hearing from others a lot about how they’re doing things wrong. I don’t think it’s in an overt way, but that's the message that comes across, because if they’re faced with projects that don't make sense to them or that require almost total staff intervention to get the desired product, that affects a person’s self-esteem. If you’re exposed to years and years of that, and in all of your settings you have staff telling you “Don't do that”, “Make sure you push in your chair”, “Say thank you”, “Cut along the line,” etc., it affects them. So, trying to break that idea and let people know that I find the work and choices they’re making on their own valuable and important. This isn't just a free time activity, but takes a lot of focus and attention, and can be rigorous.

It’s an idea that, I think, was new to a lot of the artists and even a lot of the staff. Keeping in mind, for example, that taking breaks is part of making art, and if someone wants to go get a cup of tea, that's fine. People take breaks and don't have to be constantly working every second. They have to be able to make their own informed choices about the next step and not rush. It’s less of a product-based approach and more of a long term project and process.

The day habilitation system, through Medicaid, is always looking at skill building, and so I think, how that translates into art studios sometimes is by teaching them how to draw. I guess that's to satisfy the idea that people might have about what art is and also looking at the art as what the public might find appealing. And it all feeds into itself because part of that is that you have to have community buy-in, especially if you’re relying on donations or have to prove to the Medicaid system that people are building skills.

I’m going to be curating a show of the artists that I've been working with over the past year in Fairbanks. I think my coworkers are really excited about it, but they still have the perception that art valid or worthy of being shown is the representational work.

TO: I think it takes a lot of time and it requires the right context, but the power of the work comes through eventually.

PR: This group exhibition is going to be at a local gallery; to present this art in the larger Fairbanks art scene will be really important. The portfolio that I put together was judged by a panel of about ten local artists. The work was received very well by the panel; they were really impressed by the artwork and interested in this show and we got some of the highest scores. I feel like that just reaffirmed the work that I've been doing with these artists, to know that there was, in fact, a larger community buy in.

TO: Yes, as artists working in progressive art studios we know that there’s tremendous potential. I think you’re seeing in Fairbanks something that Andreana and I have witnessed all over the country. This isn't unique to any particular place, and it's not even a very sophisticated method - it’s just a matter of getting out of the way.  So it really could happen anywhere. There could be progressive art studios in every town in the country

If you get together a group of people with disabilities and support them to create, inevitably many of them start making fantastically interesting and exciting works of art. And over time they will develop and improve in amazing and surprising ways. It's this great solution for the core goals of inclusion and habilitation, and also the core goals of art.

But the elephant in the room with these discussions, I think, is the problem of defining success. It can be very difficult to explain and sell this idea to service providers and to the disability services community. It remains difficult no matter how clear the potential seems to us. Marlon Mullen, for example, just had his second solo show at JTT Gallery in NYC. That's an incredible achievement and statement about what's possible, but it isn’t recognized nearly enough, particularly among the disability rights movement.

Part of the problem is that even if in some utopian future there’s a progressive art studio in every small town in America, there would be so much art being produced; you could never have a significant portion of artists reach success on that level - on the level that our champions, Marlon Mullen, Helen Rae, Judith Scott, and others have. What we think of as a successful art career is someone with prominent gallery representation, who’s able to make their living solely from their art. In reality, that's very rare - only a tiny portion of even neurotypical artists ever achieve that. I think that perception has a lot to do with why people don't take it seriously as a career goal.

In the course of championing these artists, and your art group project in Fairbanks, how do you define success and how much is that a hurdle?

PR:  The way I look at is that it's a success currently. For every art group that I facilitate, I’m really excited - people are making such great work!  But also, I think that part of being successful is being valued as an artist within your own community. So I guess a success could also be having people value that artwork locally. I think being able to show it in the community, here in Fairbanks, is really important.

Sometimes others think that success would be defined by “How can we make a business out of this?”, but I would disagree and say that success would be showing the work and having it received and recognized as art. I think that's the first success I would be pleased with.

Lady Girl Woman Green & Blue Fashion Dress, 2016, colored pencil, graphite, and ink on paper, 11” x 14”

TO: Yes, it's true that progressive art studios have something to teach habilitation services at large in terms of how success can and must be detached from money.

PR:  Yeah, I think that...when people with disabilities are looked at as a “drain on society”, and burden on society, people are looking at money.  They believe that by showing that people can earn money, they’re showing that they aren't “draining society”. As if to show that…instead of having society pay for them to get care and housing and medical attention, through earning money they could somehow work their way out of that, thus proving that they have value.  Which is an incredibly problematic idea, because that's not recognizing the inherent value and dignity of each person, just based on being a human being.

Its related to the idea of trying to “cure” people… it's important to work towards independance, but i think that the way our system is setup is as though the goal is make them seem as much like they don't have a disability as possible and fit into societal norms, so that they could somehow prove to society that they’re valuable. That ends up leaving people out, and it reinforces the idea that people are not valuable unless they conform.

TO: I think a lot of people don't realize that these struggles go on, even inside of a progressive art studio environment; there’s still a lot of unresolved philosophy. And one of the ways that focus on money comes through even in progressive environments, is seen in the difficulty to keep in mind that this is a long term project and remembering that sometimes artists may need years to find their voice. It's so difficult to keep selling that. When people who aren't familiar with creative practices see somebody doing something that doesn't seem to make sense over and over and over again, it just looks like failure.

PR: Even, for myself, it's important to keep that in mind, and constantly be sort of checking myself. Sometimes I get jealous of the artists I work with because making art comes to them so naturally. The way that they draw and express…they can't help but work in such a unique way. It isn't academic and they haven't been exposed to the larger art world, but their art fits into the larger art world so well. That's something I think we've discussed before, that is unique about artists with disabilities.

Luis Hernandez, Untitled, marker on vellum, 8.5" x 11" 2015

Untitled (Dentist.Teeth.Change), 2016, watercolor and ink on paper, 7.5” x 11”

Untitled (Dentist.Teeth.Change), 2016, watercolor and ink on paper, 7.5” x 11”

TO: Has working with artists with disabilities had a big impact on your own work, as an artist?

PR:  Yeah, I’d say so.

My dad is an artist and iconographer. He makes religious russian orthodox style depictions of saints, Christ, and Mary…growing up he was the most influential artist to me, because I was spending so much time in his studio and seeing the way that he worked, so I couldn't help but be influenced by those ideas.

Iconography comes from a very long tradition of doing things in a regimented way - really having a right and wrong way of doing things. There's not a lot of innovation because it's a tradition that you’re maintaining...There are certain symbols, certain saints hold their hand in a certain way, and you always do that, you can't really deviate from that. So growing up with that, I think I had a very strong understanding of what is and what is not art. I didn't realize its influence until I had a show and someone who saw my work said that they were icons. The way that I was depicting figures was very flat, always facing forward, and the processes and colors were all influenced by iconography - I think it still is. That’s hard to break out of, but I think spending time working with artists with disabilities has a large impact. A lot of my artists now, here in Fairbanks, work in very loose ways. That's something I kind of aspire to and want to be able to tap into sometimes. I suppose it has expanded my idea of what art can be.

TO: If you look at outsider art over the past few year years, there has been this narrative of outsider art becoming more mainstream, or being allowed into the mainstream. Our position on this has been that it's not exactly true that Outsider Art is becoming more mainstream. Rather, mainstream art is merging with outsiderism because the pressure to be novel forces contemporary artists to invent art from scratch the way that outsiders do, because there are so few boundaries anymore dictating what art can be.

Recently, it's occurred to me that maybe an even more accurate way to describe that narrative is to recognize that artists who are learning about art are as alienated from art as anyone in their youth. Creative kids aren't really growing up admiring Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, or anyone like this; students in art school are coming from some form of art that is “outside” of mainstream fine art - comic books, pop culture, popular fashion, indigenous work, kitsch, or in your case, iconography. So that movement from outsider to mainstream is also a natural consequence of artists making that movement individually as they strive to bring their own backgrounds and interests into a contemporary fine art practice.

I learned how to really see art in a progressive art studio and I never would have been able to understand iconography outside of historical context, if I hadn't developed that ability to open my mind in a very real way about what art can be, to be able to take these things from history and see them in new ways. In these settings, you also learn about how art speaks across great differences in ways of thinking.

PR:  I think there is a new, really exciting, increasing understanding in the art world that art is not just an academic discipline. More of a valuing of art made by indigenous people and recognizing that a lot of those traditions are taught in people's homes and communities.

Something that's pretty special about Fairbanks is that there's an amazing native art program in the university (UAF).  A lot of people going into the art program are interested in learning more about traditional ways of making art, ways that people and their families have made art for generations.

I have a friend, Norma Charlie Runfola, from Scammon Bay (a Yupik community in Alaska) and she’s an incredible artist making traditional Yupik art. She’s able to sew parkas and use many traditional processes, which she learned that from her grandmother, her mother, and her family.  She then ended up going to the UAF and was able to study art at the university. And I suppose, being able to have society, western society, value that as equal and not just looking at art from a western perspective.

TO: That's true and progressive art studios are uniquely in a position to champion the idea that the contributions of people with disabilities to our culture are valuable independent of the societal norms in a similar way, and that’s really what it comes down to ultimately. Progressive art studios are paragons of inclusion that support that idea in a profound and important way, providing a new perspective about diversity in art in a broad sense.

But at the same time, even if a progressive art studio is not integrated with neurotypical artists, it's often a very diverse setting in every other sense.  Our recent exhibition at LAND in Brooklyn, for example, included Miranda Delgai, a Navajo artist, who makes traditional weavings. And of course The Canvas in Juneau supports several Tlingit artists. In Fairbanks I imagine you must have some of that influence in your art groups

PR: There are a lot of artists who come from indigenous backgrounds and villages around Alaska who I imagine saw a lot of traditional art and practices growing up, so they can't help but be influenced by that.

One woman I work with is from a Tlingit village in Southeast Alaska, but she moved from that community at a young age and was in an institutional setting. So she had been so removed from her village, physically and culturally. When I met her, I learned a bit about where she was from and asked her if she was Tlingit and she told me that she was and which village she was from. We were able to connect through that because it turned out that I knew some of her family members. She kept talking about her family and one person she would talk about was Jennie Thlunaut, who was a very important Chilkat weaver; she’s known as one of the people who maintained the tradition of Chilkat weaving and taught many, many people. In my understanding, most of the current Chilkat weavers’ knowledge can be traced back to her. Like Ricky Tagaban, who was taught by Clarissa Rizal, who was taught by Jennie Thlunaut. I printed out a picture of Jennie Thlunaut, and gave it to her. She became very interested and started drawing her and other family members…it seems like she was able to kind of connect to her roots and those people she’d lost contact with or hadn’t seen since she left the village. So I suppose in that way, her work is very much a contemporary way of making Tlingit art.

Another artist I work with loves masks and part of his practice is that everyday before he starts drawing he makes a mask out of paper, have me tie string to the side of it, and he wears it while he’s drawing. I imagine that is also influenced by his culture in some way as well.

 Untitled (Coyotes), 2016, ink and marker on paper, 11” x 14”

 Untitled (Coyotes), 2016, ink and marker on paper, 11” x 14”

Cleopatra The Golden Queen of Neli, Crown Egypt, Greatest Woman, 2016, colored pencil, graphite, ink on paper, 11” x 14”

Cleopatra The Golden Queen of Neli, Crown Egypt, Greatest Woman, 2016, colored pencil, graphite, ink on paper, 11” x 14”

TO:  Hanging on all of these long term ideals and principles of progressive art studios we’ve been discussing is crucial, but seems so difficult in 2017. The discussion seems to have shifted a lot as society has, in the past year really changed. Ari Ne’eman expressed hope that Trumpism would awaken a stronger disability rights movement, the way that the Bush presidency catalyzed a stronger LGBTQ movement.

PR: It’s interesting because I think within discussions about intersectionality nowadays, ableism has become a concern, and a word that is more mainstream. I feel like I hear a lot more people talking about it and the idea of ableism.

I worry that often people with developmental disabilities still aren't included. I think when people think of disability, a often they’re thinking of physical disabilities, so ableism may mean making things more accessible for those individuals. Developmental or intellectual disability is sometimes not considered in the same way. So in some ways, I look at progressive art studios as still a very radical idea - to say that all people with disabilities have value, can be a part of society, and can be integrated into society through the avenue of art.

But...just trying to maintain (even the status quo) and having to devote so much energy to keeping services that already exist is difficult. So it's hard to look at improving the system when you’re trying to just hang on to what there is. I think that's part of the struggle with presenting the idea of an art studio. People are kind of like “That would be great, but how on earth are we supposed to fund that, when day habilitation hours are being cut, and we’re trying to keep the programs open.”

At the same time though, an integrated progressive art studio could be a solution to that problem, where you can have a place where disabled artists come to make art and they can be with peers who are neurotypical and also artists; they can all work in that setting together.  This new cultural climate (and when I say new, I think it's always been there, it's just been pushed to the forefront) is discouraging...there have been times when I felt really discouraged. But, the more I do it, the more people recognize it as valuable.

When people come in and see the work that people are making and how people act in the progressive art studio setting, where they are are getting autonomy and choice…it's hard to argue with. I’ve been saving all the art created over the past year and can show the progress being made, and it's hard to argue with that.

Marlon Mullen at JTT

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, 2016

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, 2015

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, 2016

Installation view at JTT, all images courtesy JTT, NIAD, and the artist

Marlon Mullen’s second solo exhibition at JTT Gallery is an expansive collection of recent works by this San Francisco-based hero in the progressive art studio movement. Mullen’s abstractions are more delicate in terms of color and design than previous paintings, creating the effect of being more reduced or refined, although they aren't any less complex - colorful, lush, and satisfying. Heavy, intentional brushstrokes recorded in matte plastic surfaces index Mullen’s distinctive bold, but measured touch. Mullen’s mark-making isn’t concerned with appearing effortless, but leaves a record of the careful labor of seeking and defining a specific image.

The content of Mullen’s work has remained relatively consistent over the course of his career thus far, but as the context in which he is seen has changed, the significance of his subject matter inevitably has as well. Mullen is an autistic artist who is a supported by NIAD, one of the original progressive art studios founded by Elias and Florence Katz in the Bay Area. Over the past several years, NIAD and Mullen have been the quintessential example of such a studio’s role in the ongoing narrative of so-called outsiders merging into the mainstream.

Mullen’s use of art magazines as source material is in part a consequence of progressive art studios’ inherent subversion of traditional ideals of outsiderism; they have long been affiliated with Outsider Art due to disability, but in fact their core intentions are in direct opposition to the historically romanticized notion of outsider artists. NIAD, an exceptionally forward-thinking program, is an environment where artists with disabilities are not only given resources to be artists, but to be a part of the broader contemporary art community, both locally and internationally. The facilitation staff is composed of professionally trained, practicing artists and contemporary art periodicals like those that Mullen references are made readily available. A section of the studio’s gallery space is dedicated to exhibiting local contemporary artists, the intended audience for which is primarily, Timothy Buckwalter explained during a visit, the artists working at NIAD.

In the context of Outsider Art, Mullen’s translations of art periodicals are a subversive element and even an occasional subject of criticism. The way that the content of his work subverts outsiderism may never have had anything to do with his personal intentions, and likewise, the viewer can only speculate about the meaning of his work. Mullen doesn’t speak about content or intention abstract of the works themselves, as the exhibition’s press release explains:

[Mullen] is for the most part non-verbal. It isn’t entirely clear how much he can read in the same sense that you are reading this press release right now, but he certainly has his own understanding of meaning when it comes to words. Specifically regarding the content of his paintings, he has not verbally communicated at length his intent or fascination with the images that he copies. However, his paintings are sufficient in informing us of the nuances of what he sees.

Left: Marlon Mullen's Untitled (2017), Right: Mullen's reference, Kerry James Marshall's Untitled (2008) as it appeared on the cover of ARTFORUM, January 2017

Dana Shutz’ controversial depiction of Emmett Till at this years Whitney Biennial initiated a wide ranging conversation about Identity and culture, the rights of an artist, and significance of their intentions. Schutz apologists framed her as an innocent, individual voice, responding in earnest to an image that affected her. Her critics questioned her authenticity and right to commandeer and redefine something sacred, which she could never really understand. If nothing else, one insight that must be drawn from this controversy is that the narrative of the relationship of an artist’s identity to the nature of a subject is inevitably consequential, regardless of the artist's intentions. Bringing that perspective to works for which the intention of the artist can not be explicitly known, such as Mullen’s, consider how his depiction of the Kerry James Marshall painting as it appeared on the cover of ARTFORUM, provides a vantage point to rethink Mullen’s subject matter, his identity, and his place in the conversation.

From this perspective, an important component of Mullen’s current exhibition, and especially this work, is its role as a representation of the relationship of disability to contemporary art. It seems fair to see Mullen in his version as we see Marshall in the source image. To imagine or wonder to what extent Mullen (by accident or by design) exists in this depiction of a painter, and to consider what intentions and mechanisms his subject becomes a reflection of himself. Whatever Mullen’s intentions, seeing this painting in the unprecedented context of Mullen’s rising career as a nonverbal autistic artist, there are parallels between Mullen and Marshall worth recognizing. In a recent interview published by Interview Magazine, Marshall’s description of his strategy and intentions could also be applied to Mullen’s career as well:

When you see a black figure, the way the critical establishment operated, you can only imagine that figure having a sociological value. They never say the ways in which their aesthetics were equally worthy of consideration. That was the thing that always kept black artists outside of the discourse—not whether the work was relevant, but was it engaged in the modernist and avant-garde practices white artists were engaged in? I think the approach that I've taken, which is fairly instrumental and strategic, is to deploy the principles that the people who theorized the value of artwork said were important. 

Marlon Mullen is on view at JTT in NYC through May 7th, Wednesday - Sunday, 11am to 6pm

Marlon Mullen (born 1963) lives in Richmond, California, where he maintains a prolific studio practice at NIAD. Mullen is represented exclusively by JTT in New York and Adams & Ollman in Portland, Oregon. He has exhibited widely throughout the US; previous exhibitions include solo shows at NIAD (2017), Adams & Ollman (2016), Jack Fischer Gallery (2016), Atlanta Contemporary (2015), JTT (2015), and White Columns (2012). Group exhibitions include NADA Art Fair in Miami with White Columns (2014), Under Another Name, organized by Thomas J. Lax at the Studio Museum of Harlem (2014), and Color and Form at Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco (2013). Mullen is a 2015 recipient of the Wynn Newhouse Award.

 

Storytellers: Sara Malpass

We first encountered Sara Malpass’ work at NIAD in her solo exhibition What Are Words For, and have included her work in our latest curatorial project Storytellers, currently on view at LAND in Brooklyn. Selections by Malpass are featured in this exhibition in order to highlight the important perspective she offers in the discussion of narrative. Her works, particularly the daily lists on notebook paper, isolate an exploration of written language in visual art that is uncommon in that of mainstream contemporary artists, but prominent in the works of so-called outsiders. Malpass’ reductive, pragmatic language most often culls words from her current reading material or immediate interests, her piles of lists culminating as a living personal archive central to her prolific creative practice. 

These are uses of written language, not as an appropriation of typography aesthetics, but for the utility of expressing ideas - handwritten text that affords a presence to language as mark-making as well as its hermetic, phonetic, and conceptual function, as is also the case in the works of Carlo Daleo, Kenya Hanley, and William Tyler, who pair it with imagery.

Currently, text in this form is already used more by mainstream artists than ever before, notably in the works of Deb Sokolow, Raymond Pettibon, or Dan Attoe. They owe this precedent largely to artists like Malpass throughout history - Joseph Yoakum, Henry Darger, and Gayleen Aiken, among many others. Malpass illustrates that this is not just an oddity, novelty, or merely a more simplistic or didactic activity than the contemporary mainstream engagement of text. Rather, it can be understood as much broader practice, which has been overlooked.

Read in sequential order, her ink on paper works transcend a mundane list of words and become hermetic poetry; the sound, form, and meanings of the text have an undeniable aesthetic identity. In her lists there are recurring qualities, mysterious phrases such as “castle work” and “circle work”, the complex phonetics of “payment check”, or densely packed syllables of “ordinary” and “television”. Malpass’ evocative cadence is reminiscent of the listing that occurs within Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread” and ”Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary.” The reader follows along a deliberate path that feels both intuitive and intentional. Rationalizing her process, one wonders if she is considering certain concepts such as long and short syllable pairings “inside”, “on stage”, “up date”; or collecting particular kinds of articulatory forms “reasons”...“bookish”.

These lists aren't explicitly devised or executed as poems, but rather as singular objects, composed of the diligent cursive script of a writer who, as is declared in the piece above loves “...to write letters” and “...to write words”. Making this distinction could seem like splitting hairs, but is absolute and highly consequential - drawn in an aesthetic largely informed by principles and practice of penmanship, but implementing visual elements as drawing that are inextricable. Confronting, owning, or living with a Sara Malpass list establishes a relationship with a singular art object conceived with no known further intention or publication.

Malpass (b. 1967) is based in the Bay Area and has maintained a studio practice at NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California for many years. Selected exhibitions include Sara Malpass (2017), Never Shout Never organized by Jeffrey Cortland Jones (2015), What Are Words For (2014), Serenade: Lists, Poems and Missives (2013) and A Light That Never Goes Out: Continuing Traditions in Abstraction (2013), all at NIAD.

Storytellers: Living Narrative

Billy White, Jed Clampett, glazed ceramics 10 x 7 x 4", Image courtesy NIAD

Storytellers brings together works anchored in narrative from disabled artists working in progressive art studios across the country, these selections providing an expansive view of manifold and highly original approaches. The pieces featured in this exhibition provide entry points into bodies of work that construct robust narratives, representing ongoing projects and life-long dedications of twelve artists maintaining practices with the essential studio support of LAND in NYC, Hozhoni in Flagstaff, Creative Growth and NIAD in the Bay Area, First Street Gallery Art Center and ECF in Los Angeles, and Creative Vision Factory in Wilmington, Delaware.   

Much like our previous curatorial projects, this exhibition is informed by our intention to not only advocate for the continued support of these studios and the recognition of these artists as contemporary, but also to indicate the unique contributions and influence these artists have had on the contemporary art discourse and culture in general, as artists and members of our community. In this interest, we have striven to present two seemingly contradictory ideas.

Firstly, disabled artists are producing narrative work that is just as diverse in the concepts, methods, and aesthetics employed by mainstream artists. This exhibition ranges from the explicit visual storytelling of Carlo Daleo, Larry Pearsall, or William Tyler, to the more abstract explorations of Garrol Gayden, Sara Malpass, and Kenya Hanley. 

Secondly, these artists’ works originate from a unique perspective directly informed by their disability and the remarkable role that narrative plays in their daily life. Using a broad understanding of the function of narrative in visual art, even the most reductive or opaque work focused on process and materiality has a narrative element, while not explicit. What denotes mainstream artists as “insiders” is their contributions to the shared story of western culture and art history, which provides the context for their works. It’s intuitive to understand then that this common narrative is what “outsiders” are exterior to. Furthermore, it’s natural that these self-taught artists would be inclined to create narratives of their own invention to provide context in which their work may exist. Fabricating a story out of necessity or doing so in a manner detached from the shared mainstream, is essentially different from contriving one in order to interact with an existing narrative. 

Hugo Rocha, Madres Egoistas, colored pencil on paper, 24" x 18", 2015, image courtesy First Street Gallery

Considering the way that narrative art tends to interact with popular culture (a quality LAND’s artists have been noticed for), Michael Pellew’s references are diverse, but tend to focus on musicians, specifically heavy metal band members. His drawings communicate an earnest, idiosyncratic relationship with pop culture (an imagined fiction), as opposed to a reflection or commentary. Mainstream references to pop culture in the works of artists such as Eric Yahnker or Rachel Harrison are insider works due to their clever nods to art history and current politics. Although lauded as elevated commentary and critique, it is the “outsider” elements of these works, however, that is most compelling; they depend on a DIY assemblage aesthetic in the case of Harrison, and an earnest affinity for 80’s B movies and trash celebrity culture in that of Yahnker to be endearing or authentic. From this perspective, consider the Storytellers artists who employ methods to relate identity driven narratives, such as Los Angeles based artist Hugo Rocha, whose colored pencil works are drawn from screenshots of telenovelas, or Miranda Delgai whose wool weavings recall her personal history, using materials and processes rooted in memory and centuries of her family’s Navajo tradition. 

Sara Malpass, Untitled, marker on paper, 8.5" x 11", 2016, image courtesy NIAD 

Sara Malpass began compiling lists on notebook paper long before pursuing art as a career at NIAD. Her hand-written daily records, whose reductive, pragmatic language serves as a striking and often humorous personal archive, are central to her creative practice and oeuvre. Much like Malpass, many of these artists engage in inventing one's own narrative not just as an approach to art-making but to navigating everyday life, intrinsically connected to their ways of being. Ultimately these stories can function as a bridge to the viewer, creating common ground between disparate modes of thinking.

Storytellers curated by Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz opens March 2 , 6-8pm at LAND in Brooklyn. 

Storytellers at LAND

We're excited to announce our latest curatorial project at LAND Gallery in Brooklyn:

Storytellers

Curated by Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz

March 2 - April 19, 2017

Nicole Appel, Carlo Daleo, Miranda Delgai, Knicoma Frederick, Garrol Gayden, Kenya Hanley, Sara Malpass, Larry Pearsall, Michael Pellew, Hugo Rocha, William Tyler, and Billy White

Storytellers is a selection of works by artists who reimagine and reinvent the essential practice of telling stories through visual art. Each work represents aspects of a complex personal narrative, glimpses into alternate realities created with diverse materials and processes - Miranda Delgai’s reflection of Navajo tradition and identity through weaving, Billy White’s multivalent hand-built ceramics, or the effortless humor of Michael Pellew’s pop culture inspired drawings. The narratives that these artists construct are not only imaginative inventions, but broader representations of their experiences and highly original perspectives. Curated by Disparate Minds co-founders Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue, this group exhibition includes five LAND artists, as well as developmentally disabled artists maintaining contemporary practices at progressive art studios throughout the country.

Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz are the co-founders of Disparate Minds, an ongoing interdisciplinary project discussing the work of marginalized self-taught artists in a contemporary and art historical and context. Through their research, writing, lectures, and curatorial projects, Donahue and Ortiz share insight informed by extensive experience in this field as practicing artists, artist facilitators, and dedicated disability rights advocates.

Storytellers will open March 2nd and be on view through April 19th at LAND Gallery, located at 67 Front Street in Brooklyn. The opening reception on Thursday, March 2, 6 - 8pm, is free and open to the public.

Gallery hours: Monday - Friday, 8:30am - 3:30pm

Nicole Appel (b. 1990, Queens, New York) joined LAND in January of 2016. Her saturated compositions are portraits of loved ones. Nicole has drawn Israeli flags and mussels in dedication to her Israeli neighbor who has a thing for shellfish. Her drawings of animal eyes and Russian boxes are for her mother, a Russian ophthalmologist. Organized in dense rows, Appel illustrates her figures with great detail, each a world of their own.

Carlo Daleo is a talented painter, writer, animator and voiceover artist. He has been a part of the LAND studio since it was founded in 2005. Carlo’s interests and influences are incredibly diverse, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Soupy Sales, Walt Disney, as well as newscasters and librarians. Daleo has exhibited previously in the Outsider Art Fair in NYC, Facebook Headquarters, and extensively at LAND.

Miranda Delgai (b. 1969, Ganado, Arizona) has maintained a prolific studio practice at Hozhoni in Flagstaff, Arizona since 1995, working in various media (including ceramics, drawing, painting, and embroidery) but favors weaving. She uses Navajo-Churro wool woven on a traditional Navajo upright loom, reflecting the rich history of weaving in her community and family, who are well-known locally as traditional rug weavers. Delgai depicts imagery from experience and memory, detailing her daily activities, interests, or recollections of family life on the reservation in Ganado.

Knicoma Frederick (b. 1980, Brooklyn, New York) has been of member of CVF’s studio in Wilmington, Delaware for five years. A prolific visionary, Frederick’s drawings and paintings possess an abundance of idealism, realized as utopian visions of the future - proclamations from "Glory News", superhero first responders defeating armies of demons, or a “love and justice” rocket ship flying overhead. Often also reflecting more ominous narrative themes, his work is afforded a dynamic sense of gravity, conflict, and romance. Previous exhibitions include All Different Colors and Outsiderism at Fleisher/Ollman and his work is in the permanent collection of the Delaware Art Museum.

Garrol Gayden’s first love is Coney Island and every day starts with a drawing of this famous amusement park. Conversational in nature, Garrol talks about his subjects as he draws them, bringing a social element to his art experience. His unique line quality is bold and sculptural, often veering from simple and linear to a complicated cacophony of tangled lines. His self-taught abilities are truly stunning. Gayden, who creates work at LAND’s Brooklyn studio, is included in many private and corporate collections.

Kenya Hanley’s paintings and drawings most often refer to foods and lists of TV shows or people close to him. Kenya is a great draftsperson and is able to describe the volume of forms with the greatest economy of line. Hanley’s work has been the subject of an exhibition at the flagship J Crew store on Madison Avenue, and the work has since become part of J Crew’s corporate collection. Kenya’s work also figures prominently in the collection of The Museum of Everything in London as well many private collections throughout the United States. Hanley attends the studio at LAND in Brooklyn.

Sara Malpass (b. 1967) is a master list maker. Reading through books and magazines, she catalogs what she absorbs with mounds of hand-written lists. At other times she notes emotions or creates other diaristic entries. Her missives to the viewer seem to be serenades of her daily encounters with the world. Malpass sustains a creative practice at NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California.

Larry Pearsall's body of work narrates the ongoing saga of a dark place called "Apple Bay". Inhabited by characters such as "The Overall Team Club" (a group of overall wearing prepubescent boys and girls), guardian animals (cats, possums, rats), a one hundred year old bearded pedophile named "Bon", and hundreds of others, Apple Bay is a place where demons reside in ubiquitous places. Pearsall has been developing the fictional Apple Bay narrative for the past ten years while working at one of ECF’s studios in Los Angeles. He is represented by their affiliate DAC Gallery.

Michael Pellew's drawings and sculptures are humorous ruminations on pop culture. His playful line quality and imaginative cultural observations are simple and succinct. With one pass of his hand he can depict joy, humor and clever character. Pellew’s subject matter includes NYC trains and buses, fashion design, “punk funk freaks from the East Village and around the Tri-State area”, and portraits of favorite singers and performers. His characters capture a direct sense of style and spontaneity. Corporate collections include Citi Bank, JCrew, and PAPER Magazine.

Hugo Rocha’s drawings are based on a deep interest in and knowledge of the telenovela television genre. Carefully selected stills from Rocha's favorite episodes provide the content for these elegantly odd works on paper. Their melodramatic and staged compositions offer a subtle theatricality which creates a surprising harmony with Rocha's hard-edge abstract figuration. Rocha was born in 1976 and has maintained a studio practice since 2007 at First Street Gallery Art Center, a progressive art studio of the Tiera del Sol Foundation in Claremont, California.

William Tyler (b. 1954, Cincinnati, OH) has been working at Creative Growth Art Center since 1978, one of the longest attending artists in the studio. He is a productive, dedicated artist whose precise, ordered black marker drawings on paper reflect a fascination with fantasy and reality and the sometimes thin line between the two. The intricately rendered landscapes and interiors are built through repeated patterns, figures and dialogue boxes into psychological narratives. William draws images from both his personal experience and his opinion of the world and its cultural icons to create a symbolic place where order reigns over emotion but the world of make-believe rules equally with reality.     

Billy White (b. 1962) is a natural storyteller. He weaves tales throughout the scenes he creates in drawings, paintings, and ceramics, explaining the narrative that forms in his head while he is working. Often dredging up long forgotten gems of African American popular culture, White’s subjects range from film and television celebrities to hip hop artists and soul singers, as well as imagined characters like “Count Dracula, the Wrestler.” White has been making art at NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California for twenty years.

LAND Studio & Gallery

67 Front Street (view map)

Brooklyn, NY 11201

(917) 670-9322

Evelyn Reyes: Ritual, Rules, and Abstraction

Evelyn Reyes, Carrots, oil pastel on paper, 11" x 17", 2009

Evelyn Reyes, White Carrots, oil pastel on paper, 11" x 17", 2009

Evelyn Reyes, Carrots, graphite and oil pastel on paper, 11" x 17", 2009

My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent. It is really wonderful to contemplate the experience and the works.

But with regard to the inner life of each of us it may be of great significance. If we can perceive ourselves in the work - not the work but ourselves when viewing the work then the work is important. If we can know our response, see in ourselves what we have received from a work, that is the way to the understanding of truth and all beauty. - Agnes Martin 

 

San Francisco-based artist Evelyn Reyes has been diligently creating robust series of minimalist drawings at Creativity Explored for the past 15 years; over this time she has consistently maintained a presence in the contemporary outsider art discourse. Significantly, she was included in the important 2011 traveling exhibition Create, organized by Matthew Higgs of White Columns and Lawrence Rinder of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, has been exhibited at the Museum of Everything in London, and remains a recurring presence at the Outsider Art Fair.

As “outsiders” have merged with the contemporary art world, works that reflect the direct and authentic consequence of an artist’s way of being are permitted to exist in conversation with contemporary works and concepts devised by mainstream culture in service of a body of work that fits into an ongoing discourse - a growing faith in the agency of the viewer to see the works on either terms, or on their own terms, without having to abandon reverence for the intention or voice of the artist.

Reyes stands to provide an important example of how this confluence can result in something greater than the sum of its parts. There’s now an opportunity for a contemporary art space with a focus on minimalist art to offer Evelyn Reyes a solo exhibition, not only because she is defined by her minimalism more than her outsiderism, but because she exemplifies ideals of reductive abstraction while bringing forth essential insight about its true nature, origins, and purpose as a result of her distinct perspective. Reyes is ritualistic and repetitive to an extreme; to understand this as a creative practice rather than pathology is a paradigm shift that closes the gaps between the artist, her works, and the world she’s in communication with. 

Reyes' placement in the outsider art conversation isn't unwarranted; it's important to recognize that she has arrived at a reductive approach to art-making without any academic familiarity with minimalism. But this ritualistic way of being that is so easily pathologized and misunderstood (especially as it manifest in daily activities), isn't out of place among minimalist artists. Olivia Laing discusses the disciplined nature of Agnes Martin: 

Ironically, Martin’s reclusiveness, her spartan existence, contributed to her growing status as the desert mystic of minimalism, something she simultaneously resisted and fed...Learning to withstand emptiness was her own specialty, her given task. Her years in New Mexico were marked by a profound withdrawal from worldly things, a life of renunciation and restriction that often sounds punishingly masochistic, though Martin insisted the intention was spiritual...over the winter of 1973 she lived off nothing but preserved home-grown tomatoes, walnuts and hard cheese. Another winter it was Knox gelatin mixed with orange juice and bananas.

Evelyn Reyes, Three Orange Carrots, oil pastel on paper, 11" x 17", 2012, all images courtesy Creativity Explored

When viewed in person, Reyes’ remarkable drawings have a striking physicality; they appear labored, with every part of the surface revealing a history. Initially delineated with a straight edge, she continuously emboldens triplet “carrot” forms until the entire oil pastel stick is exhausted on one sheet of paper. While these works are relentlessly repetitive, restrained in palette, and uniformly sized, there’s nothing particularly pristine about them; her evident mark-making calls to mind the painterly brushstrokes and wavering watercolor surfaces within the precision of Agnes Martin’s grids. There arises the notion that Reyes’ drawings aren’t the origin of the forms they depict, but rather forms that are absolute which the methodical process of drawing has made visible. The smudged pastel edges of each shape strive to estimate the true underlying form, whose truth precedes the drawing itself.

This ongoing, extensive series of drawings is the result of a ritualistic process that she engages in with great consistency. Reyes’ ritual, documented by Creativity Explored below, is a highly personal mystery - not a performance, but an ongoing aspect of daily life. It's a regimented routine she engages in not as art or even expression, but clearly as the pursuit of an act she believes in.

Minimalism is very often based on establishing and adhering to a system of rules. Explicit examples are Robert Ryman’s adherence to white or Sol LeWitt’s works as written sets of rules. In a broader sense, this is quite intuitive; to be reductive requires the invention of a set of priorities to define the boundaries of the reduction, or to establish its premise.

The relationship of rules to ritual may be just as intuitive. Rituals like Reyes’, or those associated with religion and spirituality, are series of acts defined by specific directives. An important revelation in considering the comparison of minimalist works to spiritual or religious rituals, is that their intention in employing order is essentially the same, which Reyes seems to demonstrate by using the approach of the former to achieve the results of the latter. Rules become the higher power beyond the self, guiding the acts of the practitioner. For minimalists, the source beyond the self which defines the rules resides in the nature of materials or math, geometry, systems, and patterns.

If we continue to follow Reyes to extend our understanding of minimalism to include an appreciation of rituals as minimalist acts, then we may continue blurring the line between minimalism and spirituality, to discover that artwork closely related to spirituality is inevitably minimalist in its core principles. Minimalism is most obviously comparable to aesthetics and ritual associated with eastern religion, but consider also the process and aesthetics of Navajo weaving, Amish quilts, Shaker furniture (“work as prayer” is beautifully discussed here), or even in the manner Catholic Iconograpy is controlled by srtict systems of mathetmatics that dictate its geometry and proportions. Walter De Maria's use of geometric systems to seek an aesthetic understanding of the kilometer is not essentially dissimilar in intent from those of Mayan or Aztec calendars that sought an aesthetic understanding of years and eras.

Permitting ourselves to abandon the conclusions about the specific nature of the higher purpose which works like these strive become informed by allows us to consider the raw compulsions and emotions that drive humans to create work of this nature across culture and throughout time. Evelyn Reyes manifests an idiosyncratic impulse toward relevant, ritualistic work in service of a set of convictions. From this perspective we can understand her as the sole practitioner of a personal reductive practice that is an end in itself. For Reyes, a ritualistic life inevitably leads to progressively more reductive work - the distillation of truths, drawings of great conviction, and authenticity worth total devotion.

Evelyn Reyes (b. 1957) is included in the permanent collections of Le MADmusée (Liège, Belgium) and the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (Berkeley, California). She has exhibited work internationally, most recently at the 2017 Outsider Art Fair and previously in Super Contemporary at Creativity Explored in 2015, Outside In at the Crawford Art Gallery (Cork, Ireland) in 2013, Three Forms at Ampersand International Arts (San Francisco), Exhibition #4 at The Museum of Everything (London) in 2011, and Paper!Awesome! at Baer Ridgeway Exhibitions (San Francisco) in 2010.

 

Patrick Hackleman with Bruce Burris

  

Patrick Hackelman with his model of the USS Monitor

Patrick Hackleman is an artist based in Corvallis, Oregon (near Portland), best known for his highly detailed diagrams and models of ships which strive to improve on historical designs, reaching backwards in time with a humanity and romanticism to avert disasters long past. These works were recently exhibited by Andrew Edlin Gallery at the Outsider Art Fair and will be included in an upcoming exhibition this year in Lexington, Kentucky.

Bruce Burris currently works with two overlapping projects in Corvallis that support Hackleman and other artists. ArtWorks, an art program provided by CEI (a disability services provider), and his own project Outpost 1000, work in conjunction to provide the supports of a progressive art studio in an innovative way. Bruce explains his methods briefly:  

“...based upon community partnerships and with the goal of supporting an artist who is navigating their entire community...so my programs unlike [older progressive art studios]...are out the door programs as well as studio programs...and they are somewhat more expansive in terms of creating self advocacy platforms for/with artists etc. Also we employ art forms such as performance, etc to more fully engage the community. Our intention is to help to move an artist's career forward - providing only the most necessary and most innovative supports...leaving the path up to the artist as much as possible.“  

Burris, also an artist, has been a dedicated advocate in this field for nearly four decades, well before it can be said that this field even existed. In the 1980s he bagan leading informal workshops at a state institution in Delaware, supporting disabled artists not only to create, but to be seen. Starting up and leading workshops of this kind eventually led him to work for a few weeks at Creative Growth, where he met Florence and Elias Katz. He then moved on to Lexington Kentucky, where he participated in the establishment of several other programs, including the co-founding of Latitude Artist Community.

This special guest contribution by Patrick and Bruce is a discussion of Hackleman’s lesser known body of work - a robust recreation of the narrative surrounding a video game character, recreating by hand comic packaging with the same benevolent ambition to alter history that informs his ships. 

Sonic the Hedgehog and filled out stories

By Patrick Hackleman with Bruce Burris


Patrick: It is important to me that this is my own story, and while I made this with Bruce, it’s all stuff that I approve of. Because we want to talk about my work here, I want to be able to do it in my own way. My work is important to me and that’s why I do it. It’s my way of saying the bad guys are going to get it. I don’t want to see or hear my heroes suffer. I want to make sure that when people see my comics, they understand. So this is why we made this article like we are talking to each other. Some of it is written and some is an interview. 

Bruce: Patrick Hackleman lives and creates in Corvallis Oregon, which is about 90 miles from Portland, which has become a hotbed of comic book culture.  Dark Horse has been a part of the Portland comic scene for many years. Image Comics, the industry’s 3rd largest publisher that is known for The Walking Dead series and Oni Press, recently moved to Portland. Many comic book creators also live in area, and Patrick is not immune to the momentum and energy they contribute to the comic scene.  In addition to being a regular attendee of Portland’s Rose City Comic Con, Patrick is often a vendor at regional zine fests.  He also has been amassing a comic book empire of his own. 

About 5 years ago, Patrick began to create original works based upon particular Sonic the Hedgehog comic stories. With two complete boxed editions representing 16 “stories” each, Patrick’s accumulated work hovers around 750 pages of original content. Currently Patrick is seven comics into his newest series based on Sonic the Hedgehog numbers 142 and 143. 

Patrick is a multi-talented artist whose coveted ship models have been exhibited at New York’s Outsider Art Fair via the Andrew Edlin Gallery and will be seen later in 2017 in an exhibit in Lexington, Kentucky. Most recently his technical ship drawings were shown at the Corvallis Arts Center. When not working on these projects you will most likely find him adding to his Sonic the Hedgehog re-creations. These go far beyond typical fan tributes and seem comfortable residing in an area inhabited by the likes of Mike Steven’s “Mingering Mike”, who created a catalog of soul music inspired record ephemera such as unplayable records, album covers and such. 

As he describes them, Hackleman’s Sonic the Hedgehog adaptations are altered to give his subjects “an optimal chance of survival”. As described by Patrick, “I include characters of my own creation to show what I would do to help them have the opportunity and courage. They are based on myself and my friends”. It is Patrick’s belief that the original Sonic comics usually do not have endings which he views as sufficiently “positive.” His impulse then is to change that. “After reading Sonic [number 230] in which I saw terrible things happening, I realized that I had to make my own comic books. I wanted to show that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Sonic and his friends. I like to keep the casualties on the hero side as close to 0 as possible.”                                                                                                        

Similar to Mingering Mike’s creator, who exhibits some concern at revealing his identity, Patrick has a concern over copyright issues related to his characters’ likeness and storyline. To counter this anxiety, he distributes his works to friends for free and places them anonymously within the stacks at local book and comic book stores. 

As he works, various story lines occur to him and Patrick commits these to memory to insert at certain junctures. Patrick chooses colors for his work which are intense and radiant. Though he understands that the markers he uses and the copy process he chooses contribute to this look it is his intention to inundate his work with the most vivid colors that he can. “My concept is that these are the colors that are most realistic, or you can say that they are the colors that bring my work to life”. 

Patrick color photocopies the many hundreds of pages required in each series with money he has earned himself. His various comic series, each 16 issues long, are then carefully packaged in detail rich boxed sets, somewhat akin to Lp tribute sets. On occasion a friend from his workplace helps Patrick to scan his work onto disks which he also distributes to friends in boxed sets. 

Recently Patrick collaborated in framing some questions which he felt would help to explain his creative interests. The interview took place at ArtWorks (CEI), which is a progressive art studio in Corvallis, Oregon operated by Collaborative Employment Innovations, an organization which links job seekers considered to have disabilities with employers.

Bruce: Patrick, what inspired you to begin this series of comics?

Patrick: Lots of people and artwork have influenced me, especially movies, comics, tv shows and other neat stories and people. My biggest influences include anime, Sailor Moon, Yu-Gi Oh!, NUKU-NUKU and BUBBLEGUM CRISIS -  to name just a few. I also watched those “How to Draw” commercials on Nickelodeon and paid attention to many cartoons and various animation methods. After a while I was satisfied with my own work and had the guts to share it with others. I started by watching Sonic the Hedgehog on Saturday mornings on ABC, this was between 1993 and 1995. I started reading the comics around Easter in 1997. I stopped reading them after what happened to Sonic’s ace girl Sally in issue #230. She was mechanized by Eggman’s evil creation the Death Egg Mach 2. So I started writing my own story after seeing Dr. Eggman about to “improve” Mecha-Sally in issue #232. When I saw that happen to Sally I said “I’m not going to take that anymore” and I started to write my own stories. This was back in 2011.

Bruce: Do you play Sonic video games? 

Patrick: Oh yeah, I started playing them after seeing the tv shows. I liked them a lot but I wanted to add to them to make sure that the heroes were doing the kinds of things of things we could all be proud of. Eventually I started to make the comics myself. At first it was hard to make them. I wasn’t sure about it. My characters are in Sonic but also I make my characters up or invent them, so it’s both that you will see. My stories are ones I made myself, they are mine, and they are about the hero or heroes. 

Bruce: You are engaged in a body of work which spans ship models, technical drawings and finally your comics. The comics are so different from the rest of your work, how do you keep these things separated?

 Patrick: Good question, I don’t really know. 

Bruce: What do people need to know about your comics? 

Patrick: I draw my comic books to let people know we have this world worth visiting someday. They are my reaction to my life or all life. I’m trying to make sure that people know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

All images courtesy the artist and Bruce Burris

Bruce Burris is an artist living in Corvallis, Oregon whose work was recently included in the Portland 2016 Biennial, curated by Michelle Grabner. Burris has been a collaborator, ally and advocate in the field of arts and disability culture for over 35 years. He has served variously as founder, director and owner of a number of agencies and programs recognized for creating innovative supports which enable people to assume esteemed roles within their communities. 

Patrick Hackleman is an artist living in Corvallis, Oregon. Hackleman’s work is well known having recently exhibited at New York’s prestigious Outsider Art Fair via the Andrew Edlin Gallery and in various local and regional venues such as the Arts Center in Corvallis and the University of Washington. His work has been the subject of several newspaper and magazine articles. He is looking forward to an exhibit in Lexington, Kentucky later in 2017. 

 

Holiday Giving - Supporting Disability Rights

   

William Britt, Untitled, oil on board, 21.4" x 27.4", 2010, courtesy Pure Vision Arts

Since our recent post-election essay regarding art and disability advocacy, we've received several inquiries about supporting disability rights and national organizations that are working for this cause.   

First and foremost, your local progressive art studio is a great place to start; the progressive art studios listed in our directory are primarily small non-profits that depend on the support of their local community to exist. Donating directly to these organizations, attending exhibitions, and buying artwork are great ways to support these studios and this important work. Going to these programs with discerning criticism, and finding works of art that you love to collect and live with is a powerful way to integrate disability (disparate thinking) into your life in a manner that’s personal and authentic. If there’s a progressive art studio in your community, you will almost certainly find that some of the most original and authentic art being made locally is being created in that studio and is remarkably affordable.

Apart from progressive art studios, there are many organizations throughout the country that provide services, research and education, or public policy advocacy. It's often difficult to differentiate between which organizations to endorse and support, because they sometimes espouse regressive ideas and practices. Philosophically, there are many areas where advocates are far from a consensus, and worse, there are non-profits that are actually exploitative; researching an organization's mission and history beforehand is vital. 

Two important measures of the quality of a disability service or advocacy organization are:

  1. How prominently disabled individuals, their ideas, and voices are included in the organization's composition, message, and presentation
  2. How prominently the organization focuses on inclusion, acceptance, and support services, as opposed to prevention, intervention, or “cures” 

Andrew Hostick, A Million Single Moments, colored pencil on mat board, 14" x 11", 2013, image courtesy Visionaries + Voices

Our recommendation on a national scale is to direct your support to an agency advocating for disabled people that is a paragon of these principles and an ideal example of what a disability advocacy effort should embody: the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

Although ASAN’s foundation is specific to Autism, they’re the most progressive disability rights agency of their type and scale in the country that we’re aware of - by and for disabled people, an essential principle expressed in their slogan “nothing about us without us.” Co-founded by dedicated advocate Ari Ne’eman, it’s a fantastic resource for detailed information and news regarding disability advocacy. Donations to ASAN will support public policy advocacy, and disability advocacy education that you can trust to serve the needs of the disabled. 


“ASAN advocates specific policy positions on issues of importance to Autistic people and others with disabilities. In so doing, we seek to ensure the meaningful involvement of Autistic individuals in making policy at all levels, to promote a culture of inclusion and respect for all, to enforce the rights of Autistic people to equal opportunity at school and at work, and to improve funding for community services and supports along with research into how they can best be provided.”

 

Another great project to support is the Disbability Visability Project:

Whereas ASAN focuses on affecting policy, the Disability Visibility Project focuses on activism, media, and affecting culture by publishing stories and organizing conversations - a fierce and ambitious effort to place disability voices at the forefront. Founder Alice Wong explains:

A Conversation with Sophia Cosmadopoulos

Sophia Cosmadopolous (right) and LAND's Rudy Bansraj (left)

Our conversation with Sophia Cosmadopoulos is the first in a series of interviews with dedicated leaders, advocates, and facilitators within this field - those directly championing the great works of artists maintaining creative practices in progressive art studios. Cosmadopoulos is currently a coordinator and facilitator at LAND Studio and Gallery, a progressive art studio provided by the League Education & Treatment Center in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Her valuable perspective is also informed by an uncommonly dynamic career in this field, with direct experience at several other studios including Creativity Explored in San Francisco and Pure Vision Arts, YAI Arts, and the former HAI in New York CIty.

Sophia graduated from Oberlin College in 2006 with a degree in art history and a focus in studio art. Sophia has worked in art studios for adults with developmental disabilities for over 10 years. She joined the LAND team in May of 2015. In her free time, she is a freelance writer focusing on Outsider Art. She also teaches independent art classes to artists with disabilities at YAI Arts.

DM: How did you become involved in this work?  Meaning, both : How did you become interested in art? and How did you get started working with people with disabilities?

SC: I have made art since I was young. I took particular interest in high school where I was enrolled in a higher level studio art class though the International Baccalaureate program. I continued studying studio art and art history at Oberlin College, but became somewhat disenchanted by how exclusive and alienating it could be. In 2006, I volunteered for a month at Creativity Explored where I fell in love with the open, exciting and creative atmosphere it offered its artists. The experience inspired me, and left me looking for similar communities that were creating art in such free environments. When I graduated from college, I began volunteering at HAI working with artists with mental illness, and from then on, have worked in the outsider art field at Pure Vision Arts, AHRC, YAI and now LAND, concentrating primarily on artists with intellectual disabilities.

DM: Artists who work in progressive art studios sometimes experience a distinct moment of revelation, in which they discover that, as artists working with artists with disabilities, they're accessing a peer relationship with people with disabilities that most neurotypical individuals can't imagine, don't understand, or would even deny. Was there a particular moment in your career in this field that you can identify as pivotal, when you first realized that understanding people with disabilities through their art was a profoundly powerful and important thing?

SC: Yes absolutely. I had a moment of “revelation” when I started volunteering at Pure Vision Arts (an art studio in Manhattan for adult artists with intellectual disabilities). It occurred with an abstract artist named Alba Somoza who is quadriplegic and is non verbal. I had been working in the studio with her for over a year, observing her making her large drip paintings. Because she was non-verbal, I had limited interactions with her and spoke in short sentences, asking her yes or no questions which she was able to answer with a shake of her head.  Outside of the studio, she volunteered for an organization supporting children with CP. One day, Alba was preparing for a tour she would lead in the studio and needed to use her communication device. The device followed the direction of her eyes and responded to the tapping of her head on the chair. I distinctly remember when her assistant plugged in the device. It was quiet in the studio and suddenly I could hear Alba’s voice through the machine something I had never heard before. I was blown away by her intricate thoughts related to her art and her process. More than anything, it exposed my own assumptions and misunderstandings of disabilities. I had assumed that someone who was nonverbal must have mental impairments too. It was this moment that made me realize the boundless possibilities of artists like Alba. Since, I have become struck by how essential the medium of art is. I felt strongly that I wanted to dedicate my work to helping others negotiate their voice through art when words fell short.

Sophia with LAND artists Stephon Bryce, Christine Lewis, Michael Pellew, and Kenya Hanley

DM: As facilitators, we're always learning simultaneously as we strive to provide guidance and support to the artists we work with. We wonder, how would you describe the process of facilitation; what is your role as a facilitator and how has your understanding of it changed over time?

Studios like LAND, that service adults with intellectual disabilities, operate in a variety of ways. Over the years I have realized my preference is a hands-off model where artists receive little instruction and instead work independently using the media and subject matter of their choosing. When given this freedom, I see the quality (and authenticity) of their work increase exponentially. I prefer my role as a facilitator to be predominantly behind the scenes. My job, in addition to the roles of a day hab coordinator, is essentially one of curator and promoter. I work to increase the artists’ visibility by marketing their art to contemporary galleries, museums, fairs, and publications. Our goals as staff are to assist our artists in discovering the depths of their capabilities and passions. Instead of redirecting them from their fascinations, we are here to celebrate and encourage expanding upon them. We have an artist named Michael Pellew who is a heavy metal fanatic, making drawing after drawing of the members of Metallica, Megadeth, Slipknot, etc. As a result, we play metal in the studio. We send cards to his favorite musicians including Dave Mustaine who returned the favor with a photo of himself with Pellew’s art. The staff take him to metal concerts to see his favorite bands live. We even organized (with the help of Ace Hotel’s Ben Sisto) LAND of Metal, an entire evening of live metal music at St. Vitus in Brooklyn to celebrate Pellew and his love of music. The artists thrive in this nurturing and supportive environment, as does their work.

DM: How do you foresee Land developing or expanding over time as a progressive art studio? What sort of impact does our current post-election uncertainty, especially in this field, have on these long term goals, as well as your immediate concerns as an advocate for these artists?

SC: I believe progress primarily lies in inclusion. I have worked in a number of studios and art programs for "at risk" populations. A concern of mine is that programs like these, and the work that comes out of them, often remain in isolation. My goal is to continue to shed light on our artists’ essential cultural contributions and to move away from such insular models. I believe their art is some of the most creative, contemporary and exciting art being generated today. Through constant exposure, I hope the work produced at LAND is not just included in outsider art venues, but in contemporary art spaces as well. It’s time we diversify the artists represented in major museums, galleries and fairs! In this current political climate, I fear that our most vulnerable populations, like those with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, will be at risk of losing the services they rely on. Our program is funded entirely through Medicaid which is being threatened under the incoming administration. If I were to try find the positive in all of this, I would say it might encourage programs like LAND to find alternative and more secure funding sources. We have been astounded by the outpouring of support we have received since the election. Perhaps, in the end, we will see people getting more involved with social services like LAND.

LAND has partnered with many prominent galleries, museums, and other non-profits for the exhibition and collection of their artists' work; they will be exhibiting in the upcoming 2017 Outsider Art Fair, January 19 - January 22 at the Metropolitan Pavilion in NYC.

Sophia as depicted by Kenya Hanley. Sophia explains: “He only ever does these portraits when the sitter is wearing blue jeans and he usually signifies which train you live off of- that's why there's an A on mine.” All images courtesy Sophia Cosmadopoulos

Alan Constable

Untitled (Movie Camera), glazed ceramic, 2008, 14 x 45 x 32cm

Untitled (Three Cameras), glazed ceramic, dimensions variable

Halina Slide Viewer, glazed ceramic, 2015

Alan Constable has been creating and exhibiting work in various media for the past thirty years, including painting and drawing, but it is the extensive body of ceramic works he has formed over the past decade that has increasingly garnered attention and acclaim. Constable has the ability to realize captivating representations of still and video cameras out of inert lumps of clay - intimate monuments to an enduring fascination. One is immediately struck by their marvelous hand-built tactility, seductive wet-finish glazes and gestural exaggerations of the most salient characteristics: wobbly apertures, pronounced shutter releases, vacant viewfinders, and inscribed component details.

Constable’s 2011 retrospective Viewfinder, organized by Arts Project Australia and curator Dr. Cheryl Daye, coincided with the recent resurgence and expanding investigation of ceramic sculpture in contemporary art. Like many art world trends, an essential part of Post Disciplinary craft originates in contemporary artists, such as Sterling Ruby or Joakim Ojanen, exerting themselves as “outsiders” to disrupt technical conventions by implementing intentionally naive aesthetics, a generalized appeal to the primitive. As we have argued many times before, as contemporary art exhausts boundaries to break down and traditions to subvert, artists are obliged more and more to invent from nothing, as those historically termed “outsiders” always have.

This methodology for Constable has been a lifelong endeavor that predates this trend by decades, setting him apart from many prominent practitioners of post-disciplinary ceramics and asserting his relevance. Constable has been making art at Arts Project Australia since he was deinstitutionalized by accident, as the result of a bussing mistake that first brought him to the Melbourne studio 30 years ago. He in fact began fashioning camera replicas long before this, from cardboard cereal boxes as a child.

Constable doesn’t use verbal or written language, so his intentions are ultimately elusive. A valuable insight may come his blue-chip contemporary Tom Sachs, who engages concepts surrounding authenticity and sympathetic magic. Sachs often cites an early clay camera sculpture he made as a gift for his father (at age 11) as an important and prophetic object for his oeuvre. Sachs discusses this early work as an important example of the central intention that is still maintained in his current practice, which is to create undeniably hand-made objects in response to personal aspirations - not necessarily to create what he desires to have, but using art-making as a means to capture the unattainable, seeking its power through detailed and diligent mimesis.

Tom Sachs, Untitled (Nikon FM2), ceramic, c. 1977

In Sachs’ case, he was initially attempting to replicate things he couldn't afford to own, such as various cameras, fine art and design objects, architecture, and eventually the entire American space program (his own NASA). Parallel to Constable’s fixation with cameras, Sachs spent two years obsessively attempting to achieve the perfect chawan (traditional Japanese tea bowl), which resulted in hundreds of variations of hand-shaped porcelain vessels. Sachs uses his own childhood example of this approach to art to illustrate that this relationship of art to aspiration is inherent to art-making on a fundamental level, as essential as expression or exploration. As such, it’s almost a ubiquitous quality found in art that is genuine, if not always so explicitly.

As Constable works, he is hunched over with his face very close to the slab-built structures, intensely studying the relationship of the surfaces to actual cameras or carefully selected advertisement reference photos. Articulated at a slightly enlarged scale, a finished piece most often conceals the internal architecture of its make and model, painstakingly constructed by Constable in the early stages of his process.

To consider what meaning cameras and photographs hold for Constable is compelling, as someone who is hearing impaired and legally blind, only able to see clearly a few inches ahead. For him, looking at a photo may be similar to seeing into another dimension, cameras as machines that reveal the world by flattening it for him to see. Curator David Hurlston writes:

A camera’s ability to act as an extension to our eyes and to capture and preserve images renders it a potent instrument. In the case of Alan Constable, and his compelling ceramic reinterpretations of the camera, this has particular resonance and added poignancy. Living with a profound vision impairment, Constable’s hand-modelled sculptural versions of this device, which is sometimes itself referred to as the “invented eye” possess an altogether more powerful presence...Constable, through his insightful recreations, reveals another aspect to a camera’s purpose and challenges perceptions that its role is simply as a functional device. He gives it spirit, character and life.

Whether reverent tributes, curious explorations, or less rationalized expressions of wonder, they are in effect the highly personal artifacts of a relationship between man and machine. The spontaneous marks left by Constable’s hand (finger impressions, imprecise slabs, and commingling colored glazes) aren’t just exposed, but proclaim a genuine purpose to access capacities of the camera that transcend the merely utilitarian - a world of mystery and magic.

Constable in the studio at Arts Project Australia, all images courtesy the artist and Arts Project Australia 

Alan Constable was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1956 and has maintained a studio practice at Arts Project Australia since 1987. He currently has work on view in Group Show at Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney. Previous selected exhibitions include Exhibition #6 at The Museum of Everything (Rotterdam) 2016, Renegades: Outsider Art at The Arts Centre Gold Coast (Queensland) 2014, Melbourne Now at National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne) 2014, Polaroid Project at Horsham Regional Art Gallery (Horsham) 2014, Outsiderism at Fleisher/Ollman (Philadelphia) 2013, Alan Constable/Ten Cameras curated by Ricky Swallow at South Willard (Los Angeles) 2013, Viewfinder at Arts Project Australia (Melbourne) 2011, Exhibition #4 at The Museum of Everything (London) 2011, Connected 09: Black Box at Victorian Arts Centre (Melbourne) 2009, and Bloodlines: Art and the Horse at Qut Art Museum (Brisbane) 2009.  

Disabled Artists Show Us a Way Forward Against a Trump Adminstration

The rise of Donald Trump over the past year has been for us, like many, a growing dread - not wanting to believe that America would really elect an unfit candidate, while watching both political parties and the news media self-destruct in the face of a changing world. To witness  a depressed and disenfranchised electorate, distrustful and paranoid, simply fail to show up for unsatisfactory candidates has been deeply troubling. We’ve watched this unfold not only as concerned citizens and advocates for disability rights and inclusion, but as witnesses of the excellence and potential of those with disabilities across America, and as friends and fans of artists we’ve had the privilege of meeting over the course of our careers. Combined, we (Disparate Minds co-founders Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue) have two decades of experience working in this field, not only as facilitators and studio managers in art programs, but in various organizations and positions, ranging from locked down psychiatric facilities, assembly workshops, vocational coaching, case management, and home or community based services, working hands on and providing direct care.  From within a system that supports people who depend on well-functioning public support, the cavalier attitude that the failure of America is a better option than an unsatisfactory candidate is a disturbing betrayal to those for whom failure just isn’t an option. 

From the inception of this endeavor in 2014, we’ve described our mission as “an american journey for a viable future”; our core belief has always been that the practice of supporting those with disabilities represents everything we must aspire to as a culture in order to survive and progress. What artists with disabilities offer to teach us about how to proceed in this uncertain time, is that the advancement of social justice can no longer compromise. Our issues and concerns can no longer be ignored, ostracized, suppressed by taboo, or left to fester.  More than ever, it’s essential that the world is able to experience the incredible work of our most marginalized and vulnerable fellow citizens. 

The existence of individuals with disabilities, especially those who excel, is absolutely at odds with the vague conflation of physical ability and human worth that has been central to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. His disdain for perceived “weakness” was most egregiously expressed in his infamous mocking of reporter Serge Kovaleski who has arthrogryposis, but has been consistently the foundation of his message - defining worth physically in terms of strength, stamina, energy, and genetics:


In this Huffington Post video, Trump’s lauding of his “german blood” at the end of a montage of thinly veiled endorsements of eugenics is a fairly obvious suggestion of Nazi beliefs. The reality that we must face, however, is that these ideas are more mainstream than we would like to admit. It’s impossible to argue that being a winner isn’t innate to German genetics or that being a criminal or rapist isn’t innate to Mexican genetics, without fully embracing the truth that a person's value shouldn’t be determined by a measure (such as genetics) of their physical resemblance to an imagined ideal. This principle doesn’t seem controversial until we consider that almost two thirds of unborn fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. The women who make that difficult choice do so for a wide range of complex personal reasons, but undeniably, this statistic tells us that from that position, they overwhelmingly see a world that isn’t sufficiently hospitable and accommodating to those who deviate from what is considered “normal”. The unfinished work of the civil rights movement and feminism is evidenced by our failure to defeat the insidious allure of eugenics. 

Keeping this in mind, it shouldn't surprise us that in that same inhospitable, unaccommodating environment, Black Lives Matter is met with vehement opposition and crowds cheer for mass deportations and a ban on Muslims entering the country. Drawing a parallel between these phenomena feels almost excessively radical, but provides a perspective from which to understand that as a culture we’ve simply failed to reject the idea that a physical assessment of a human being is a sufficient measure of the value of their life. The success of neurodiversity and disability rights is our best measure of all diversity and all human rights. 

To be radical in this regard was not a choice for an artist like Judith Scott, who couldn’t make any of the concessions or compromises of the social justice movements that preceded her.  She could not assimilate, speak a familiar language, or stop being essentially different. Judith Scott was born with Down Syndrome and despite enduring decades of our society's failures against her, proved to be an incredible example of the value of true diversity - connecting with millions through her work and contributing to our culture without ever becoming any less different than she was at birth.

Artists with disabilities who are receiving recognition in the contemporary art world directly defy Trump’s movement against diversity and inclusion on an intellectual and philosophical level. The “alt-right” white supremacists, misogynists, nativists, etc. have risen up around the President-Elect to cheer for his defiance of “political correctness” because they believe that misguided politeness and concern for the “weak” is an impediment to the advancement of the strong - that those who are born superior (according to their rules) deserve to succeed, while the inferior deserve to fail. 

In her beautiful essay published by The New York Times earlier this year, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes the defiance of this brutal sentiment as a “coming out“ for someone with a disability:

As we manage our bodies in environments not built for them, the social barriers can sometimes be more awkward than the physical ones. Confused responses to racial or gender categories can provoke the question “What are you?” Whereas disability interrogations are “What’s wrong with you?” Before I learned about disability rights and disability pride, which I came to by way of the women’s movement, I always squirmed out a shame-filled, “I was born this way.” Now I’m likely to begin one of these uncomfortable encounters with, “I have a disability,” and to complete it with, “And these are the accommodations I need.” This is a claim to inclusion and right to access resources.
This coming out has made possible what a young graduate student with a disability said to me after I gave a lecture at her university. She said that she understood now that she had a right to be in the world.
(source)

Few groups are guilty of convoluted quibbling over politically correct language more than the disability rights movement, but this is because such discussions are the byproduct of an unfinished endeavor to parse the attitudes and ideas within our culture that inhibit the “right to be in the world” for many. So, when Donald Trump talks about “PC culture”, we must understand that he’s not criticizing the debate over identity-first vs. person-first language, he’s fully rejecting our obligation to provide accommodations and access to resources, not only to those with disabilities, but also people of color, women, and individuals with low-incomes. 

What artists with disabilities have to teach us is that providing access to resources and accommodations is not a burden that the strong bear to support the weak. It’s the essential purpose of organized society; the survival of the fittest ends where civilization begins. We don’t live in a world where, like animals, the fastest, strongest, and most brutal among us are the most prosperous. We live in a world where some of us farm so that others can write computer programs or become doctors. Our reward for this is a society comprised of divergent minds working together to share incredible human achievements with each other such as advanced medicine, space travel, or the breathtaking drawings of Susan Te Kahurangi King. In progressive art studios, the most marginalized, discounted, undervalued and underestimated citizens in our country are empowered to create some of the most celebrated and highly valued works in their communities, through the provision of accommodation and access to resources. 

The progression of contemporary art to include artists with disabilities who are being supported in progressive art studios definitively demonstrates that access and accommodations that enable diversity don't preclude competition or undermine excellence. It demonstrates that the opposite is true; art and culture has only been able to progress as it has expanded to include a more diverse range of perspectives. This is not the consequence of a desire to be compassionate or fair, but because we are enriched by new ideas, which inevitably come from those who think differently. Despite often being by way of uncredited appropriation, American art has always been defined by the sourcing of concepts from outside and continuously breaking down barriers. The fact that more artists with developmental disabilities than ever are currently represented by prominent galleries and museums should be a source of great hope and optimism, not only for those who are physically or genetically different, but also culturally and neurologically. 

In Trump’s America, progressive art studios for artists with disabilities can no longer view the obligation to be more integrated as an inconvenience to their well-established operations. Every American city needs a progressive art studio, but producing nationally recognized artists shouldn’t be their first priority or measure of success. Progressive art studios are uniquely equipped to be champions of neurodiversity in their local communities. A central priority of these studios must be to share (not just with the broader art world, but with as many people as possible) the revelatory experiences that come from examining a Joe Zaldivar map or browsing a folder of drawings by Roger Swike - moments in which we see with sublime certainty that there’s no greater or more worthwhile investment than to provide accommodation for a human being to exist, express, create, and excel.

There is a lot to fear, not only as a result of Trump's dishonest, divisive, hateful rhetoric, but also in anticipation of the concentration of conservative power that may pass destructive, extremist legislation that has been restrained for the past eight years. Paul Ryan’s Medicaid Block Grant proposals present a devastating reduction in resources for even the most basic daily services - a potential decrease in funding by a trillion dollars over the next ten years, resulting in the loss of life-sustaining support for millions of this most vulnerable and at risk population. For people with disabilities, this setback comes at a time when, despite major progress and victories, they needed a champion. The progress of the disability rights movement has been enacted primarily behind the scenes, through the direct engagement of policy-makers and abstract of a significant social movement. It has been absent from the discussion of police violence despite the fact that as many as half of those killed by police are disabled (source), and the discussion of mass incarceration even though more than a third of the population in US prisons are disabled or mentally ill. (source

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and one of President Obama’s appointees to the National Council on Disability, voiced urgent concerns about essential disability services and legal protections (such as the right to medical confidentiality) after Trump’s election. Ne’eman insists that we need to remain committed to action and our progressive vision:

...And yet, as in all such things, there is opportunity in disaster. Our imminent Trump presidency is likely to be a calamity for a broad swath of Americans — and liberal and progressive activists will respond by seeking to attack Trump on every front available. For a disability rights movement that’s often seen as the orphan stepchild of progressive advocacy, there’s a chance to better integrate disability into the liberal pantheon of diversity, identity, and protected class. By better highlighting how disabled Americans will almost certainly suffer under Trump policies, disability activists can familiarize the advocates and policymakers who will form the nucleus of the next Democratic administration with our needs and our values.
Just like the George W. Bush administration’s crusade against same-sex marriage helped to normalize the role of the LGBTQ movement under the civil rights umbrella (and within the Democratic Party’s political coalition), it may very well be that disability rights activists will achieve greater solidarity from other progressive groups after four years of shared opposition to the outrages of President Trump. (source)

Moving forward under this uncertain and alarming transition of power, our advocacy and activism efforts must be redoubled rather than stalled in despair. Improved outreach and integration are imperative, in tandem with diversification of revenue through private fundraising to brace against potential disaster. It's necessary for all of us to connect with and become invested in one another and our local communities with the goal of understanding and valuing each other while raising awareness; this certainly includes supporting and working with other social justice initiatives and maintaining communication with local and state elected officials (especially in states with a Republican majority). Our obligation is to make possible the victory that Ne’eman describes through vigilance, tenacity, and continuing to champion the great works of this population, while ensuring they have the best possible time, space, and opportunities for their voices to be heard.  

Dale Jackson at White Columns

Dale Jackson, Untitled, ink on posterboard

Dale Jackson at White Columns presents a significant selection from the Cincinnati-based artist’s extensive body of work for his first New York exhibition. Brimming with a disarming sincerity and candor, Jackson’s imaginative missives are a breath of fresh air. Throughout the main gallery is an immersive installation of Jackson’s marker drawings, in excess of one hundred works, on brightly colored sheets of poster board. Inherent in this presentation is the proposition to ignore the most intuitively significant aspects of the show; it isn’t intended as a large-scale series of neon rectangles. It’s quite likely color is incidental to Jackson and even more likely that the sequence within the grid is entirely incidental. Instead, the starting point for this exhibition is the content as described by White Columns:

Typically completed in a single sitting, Jackson’s sequential drawings present a fragmentary, staccato-like form of storytelling where aspects of his daily life intersect with remembered scenes from movies and television shows or song lyrics. Despite being created as sequential works (e.g. each successive sheet in a multi-part work is identified as ‘Page 1’, ‘Page 2’, etc.) the individual drawings invariably close with the words ‘The End’, suggesting that each ‘text’ might be considered as an autonomous statement.

Endearing yet disorienting, Jackson’s writing can be difficult to penetrate. Investing time in the space and parsing the poetic, fragmented passages is rewarded with particular moments that summon vivid flashes of imagery. In Jackson's emblematic collaging of pop culture and invented phrases, there’s the sense of a deep relationship to hip hop (although his writing is not overtly similar to rapping) and consequently the incorporation of similar language devices in unfamiliar ways. Jackson’s “2009 LINCOLN TOWN CAR LIMOUSINE SIX DOOR HARDTOP” parallels Rick Ross’ echoing of “Aston Martin Music”, but abstract of an overt appeal to status. Jackson’s is a more nuanced evocation of culture - an elusive quality specific to his identity, but undoubtedly coherent. Similar in effect, Jackson repeatedly references various types of shoes that he wears, “THAT WAS MY HOUSE SLIPPERS I HAD ON LAST THURSDAY” and “MY FEET WAS MADE FOR NIKE TENNIS SHOES.” This comparison provides a good perspective from which to interpret the effortless narrative that unfolds from a stream of fragmented, yet often connected ideas. As “Make you remember how to smile good” rises out of the flow in Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings (Reprise)”, Jackson’s visual moments are a crescendo, emerging on page 2 of 10:

2009 LINCOLN TOWN CAR LIMOUSINE SIX DOOR

HARD TOP THE YEAR OF 1986 DARK SKIN GUYS -

DRIVING DOWN MITCHELL AVENUE WITH NO -

SHIRT ON A GUY AT THE CORNER -

GOT THE 47 WINTON TERRACE SOAKING

WET ON THE BACK OF HIS NECK -

WEARING SANDLES ON HIS FEET-

BIG HEAD NELSON FROM -

METRO WONDER WHERE HE AT -

THE END

The unmistakable visual aspects of Jackon’s hand-written text and physicality of his process become successful linguistic constructs. Mechanisms typical to typography design are instinctively employed, such as variations in the size of his distinct capital letters, leading, and kerning, as well as visual cues employed by poets, such as dashes and line breaks. In Jackson’s deftly intuitive drawings, these devices are reinvented and combined with those of his own invention to become a robust and fearless engagement with written language.

Jackson’s choice of paper size accommodates an arm's length scale, the writing surface resting reasonably within reach as the artist sits or stands in front of it. The scale of the text provides generous room for large, bold handwriting articulated at the elbow and wrist rather than at the fingers. Consequently, variations in size and density are consistently expressive as smaller text is fit in, larger letters and broader spaces between lines seek (or rise to) a conclusion as they progress toward the writer's body and the close edge of the paper.

Jackson has been actively making art for over ten years, which initially began as customizing his sneakers and baseball caps, and then progressed to covering his apartment with his daily writings on the vibrant poster board purchased from Kroger. Over the past few years, he has completed hundreds of text-based drawings. Jackson has maintained a regular practice at the progressive art studio Visionaries + Voices in Cincinnati since he began attending in 2003.

Visionaries + Voices’ Skip Cullen elaborates on Jackson’s process in the studio:

He comes in once a week for a few hours before work; he has been working full-time at Kroger for years. The short time that he is in the studio (1-3 hours), he creates 10-20 drawings at once and without reference material. Everything comes from his memory, which as you can see from the work, often focuses on common themes of motown, the beatles, classic cars, movies, and daytime television shows. His work is aesthetically very powerful at a cursory glance, incorporating the messaging techniques of a handmade sign with vibrant color. Once you get past the immediacy of the message, there is a slowing down that occurs in looking at the sentence structures bend and make unique spacings and alterations. The references mixed together create a honest and humorous look at how we filter information around us in the world.

Dale Jackson is a Cincinnati-based artist who has shown previously at Visionaries + Voices, Thunder-Sky, and the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. Upcoming exhibitions include a reading at Chase Public in Cincinnati and Rob Tufnel Gallery in London, where his work will be exhibited alongside Dieter Roth’s Daily Mirror Book. Dale Jackson at White Columns is on view through October 22.

Dale Jackson, Untitled, ink on posterboard

Dale Jackson, Untitled, ink on posterboard

Susan Te Kahurangi King: Drawings 1975 - 1989

Untitled, n.d., graphite, colored pencil, and crayon on paper, 15.25 x 17.3 inches

Untitled, n.d., graphite and colored pencil on paper, 17 x 10.5 inches, courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery

Susan Te Kahurangi King’s current exhibition marks her second, highly anticipated solo show at Andrew Edlin, following the critically acclaimed debut of the New Zealand-based artist with the space in 2014, Drawings from Many Worlds. Known for her vibrant and frenetic biomorphic abstractions, Drawings 1975 - 1989 curated by Chris Byrne and Robert Heald features a lesser known series from her prolific and consistently impressive practice (spanning thousands of works over the majority of her 65 years). While more minimal, understated, and pattern-based than King's earlier work, this selection of graphite, colored pencil, and crayon drawings is just as captivating.

Without any distinct imagery visible from a distance, King's works initially resemble faded topographical maps, hand-drawn in subdued colors; this quiet and unassuming aesthetic is a quality shared with Alessandra Michelangelo's exhibition at Shrine, another compelling Chris Byrne curatorial project. While engaging with King’s (or Michelangelo’s) drawings, the viewer is immediately struck by their incredible originality and depth. Whereas Michelangelo's impact is defined by a striking, beautiful strangeness, King’s is the result of the inexplicable power of certain passages to provide glimpses into the enigmatic world her work inhabits.

Closer inspection of King’s work reveals disorienting allover compositions crowded within the confines of the surfaces, often emphasizing the torn corners or existing stains on found paper. Curator Chris Byrne interviewed Susan’s sister, Petita Cole, for the artist’s recently released monograph The Drawings of Susan Te Kahurangi King. Cole provides valuable insight into King’s process, which is driven by memory and imagination:

The ways she starts and finishes her drawings to some extent may depend on the type and condition of paper used. When starting with a totally clean sheet of paper she may approach it in one of many ways, including starting from the bottom corner, spreading in a radial manner, or making quick broad strokes spanning the entire drawing surface. Sometimes her drawings totally devour the white of the page, while other times figures may be left suspended with plenty of space to spare...sometimes she creates a number of starting points around the edge of the page. Building from each one in turn, often interchanging the pencils or pens used at each of the starting points, working from the outer edge inward, the drawing closing in on itself, not unlike the shutter of a camera. If the paper selected is already marked, whether it be a crease, stain, image, or mark of any kind, Susan often uses these as her starting point. At times she has picked up other peoples’ discarded drawings, old invoices, envelopes, cereal boxes, all manner of things, responding to each in a unique way.

Untitled, n.d., graphite on paper, 12 x 18 inches, courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery

Untitled, n.d., graphite and colored pencil on paper, 12 x 18 inches, courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery

King’s highly inventive engagement of drawing is one in which she is proficient in rendering living form, but doesn’t prioritize this over any other use of line while implementing a wide range of approaches - non hierarchical transitions from loose, meandering marks to economical yet perfectly descriptive lines, to simplistic doodles that loop-de-loop, to tiny, scattered dashes, all blend together across a confounding continuum. King’s complex pictorial spaces become aerial views of alien landscapes or subterranean caverns populated with peculiar, shape-shifting cave-dwellers that tumble through space or slowly reveal themselves as mounds of body parts embedded in the foundation. Bugs Bunny is and is not at once, surrounded by fragments of reiterated information (as if numerous versions of the same animated still have been chopped up and cobbled together) - a contorted mass that never quite becomes coherent. In these moments, cartoon imagery is portrayed as organic phenomena comprised of definite limbs, visages, phalluses, white gloves, or duck bills, depicted in various degrees of loosely suggested form.

Untitled detail, graphite, colored pencil, and crayon on paper

A true visionary, King's appropriation and transmutation of cartoon imagery predates the postmodernist musings of Paul McCarthy, Sue Williams’ psychedelic masses of appendages and internal organs, and Arturo Herrera’s amorphous mash-ups. Her conceptual investigations of cartoon tropes echo those of Herrera, conjuring memories of familiar pop-culture icons while deftly imposing them upon fragments of unrelated imagery in order to establish new meaning and narratives. An emotional connection to the source remains intact, yet the familiar is disguised and disfigured to an unsettling degree, often envisioning dark, latent tendencies of benign Disney or Warner Brothers characters. King and Herrera further distort and collage significant characters into subsequent works, expanding upon their rich personal lexicons. King’s oeuvre has developed in a similar trajectory to Herrera's; the overloaded networks of information characteristic of earlier work have become increasingly minimal and abstract over time.

The magic of King’s intricate drawings lies in the sense that she lives within the picture plane, an explorer traversing each ordinary sheet of paper to unearth its fantastical potential. At times her choices are relatable (even careless) and at others describe complex visual concepts with virtuosity. Certain moments, such as the detail below (representing a one inch wide section of this drawing) offer a revelatory confrontation with what it means to live for the practice of drawing - a heap of impossibly small and mysterious forms, nearly lost during the process of mark-making.

Untitled detail, graphite on paper

King's choice to stop speaking at a very young age provides an important insight into her biography; from that point on art-making became her primary mode of communication. A lack of verbal language is commonly misunderstood as evidence of a deficiency (in ability or intelligence) to communicate, in a broad linear sense. For many with developmental disabilities, verbal language is difficult or prohibitively counter-intuitive, but it’s clear in the way that this challenge is engaged that it’s just a small aspect of the broader endeavor to communicate. Choosing to be non-verbal in these cases isn’t an exercise in discipline, but a matter of leaving language behind, perhaps because it isn’t found to be useful or sufficiently effective. It becomes a way of asserting control over how one is understood and requiring interpretation through other means. When artists make this decision, their works become, in a very genuine and profound way, a much greater portion of the total sum of their expressions, not only as artists but as people. Meeting Susan for the first time at the opening of this exhibition, this effect was clear and immediate; she was present, but these drawings are her voice.

Drawings 1975 - 1989 is on view at Andrew Edlin Gallery in NYC through October 30th and runs concurrently with her first solo museum retrospective at the ICA in Miami. King’s work has previously been shown at the Outsider Art Fair in New York and Paris and Robert Heald Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand. Her work is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Wallace Arts Trust in Auckland.

 

The Eloquent Place: Harald Stoffers and Josef Hofer at Cavin-Morris Gallery

Harald Stoffers, Brief 163, 2010, Waterproof felt tip pen on cardboard, 39.375 x 27.5 inches

The Eloquent Place is a powerful exhibition featuring intimate works on paper by Harald Stoffers and Josef Hofer, currently on view at Cavin-Morris in NYC. In a compelling pairing of these artists Cavin-Morris proposes:

Both artists seek to establish a sense of internal and external Place by creating worlds that unfold within and around their own bodies. The act of drawing is a method of controlling survival; in Hofer's case figuratively, and in Stoffers’ case by emotionally charging the written words with visual intensity. For both the art becomes a conduit toward a way of balance and self-placement in the world.

The dialogue between the two bodies of work results in a rich commingling of concepts and earnest explorations of representation versus abstraction through drawing. The opposition of systematic processes with highly personal subject matter reveals a strong connection between the work of Stoffers and Hofer, while exposing a candid vulnerability.

Josef Hofer’s partially clothed and fully nude figures originated as self-portraits drawn from memory of his reflection in a small mirror (with a substantial, ornate wooden frame) placed on his bedroom floor. The priority of his images resides in the recollection and expression of sections of the body, connections of limbs and folding flesh - not reflecting a moment in time or visual representation of the figure, but rather a narrative of observation. He captures a series of moments spent noticing the body, which is then recalled as drawing. Abstract of the obfuscating influence of rendering, likeness, or proportions, Hofer’s marks are naked as they describe the truncated contours of the body he recalls.

An important element included in every portrait, is the frame around the perimeter of the drawing surface (always alternating in bands of orange and yellow colored pencil, outlined in robust graphite). Speculations surround the origin or purpose of this frame; it's generally understood as a depiction of the frame of Hofer’s mirror, although it’s included in every piece, not just the drawings featuring figures. Hofer doesn’t discuss or explain his work since he’s primarily non-verbal - ultimately the genesis and nature of this device remains unclear.

It is certain that, much like its presence in Martin Ramirez’s drawings, the frame is an integral element and not merely a decorative one; Hofer has included it consistently since 2003, though in various iterations. Created slowly and deliberately (as evidenced by the labored impressions of his blunt implement), the frame often becomes quite elaborate and is even more time intensive to develop than the current variation of figure within. Elisabeth Telsnig, who worked with Hofer (at the creative program he attends) in Ried, Austria from 1997 until recently, states, “He draws a figure again and again, looking for ‘the perfect figure’, ‘the perfect position’. Only, when he has the impression, he has found it, can he stop the series. He seems to like to to be under constraint.”

The drawing of the frames is formally opposite to that of the figures (using a straight edge) and bound by consistent rules across all of his works - always orthogonal (even when they evolve to deviate from the rectangle of the perimeter) and meeting at a diagonal, as a frame does.

It's important to notice the use of a straight edge by an artist whose figures are drawn in such a personal way, in which his hand is exposed. The use of a mechanical tool or process to contrast with (or justify) this exposed hand is almost universal throughout art history. From the explicit use of geometric and mathematical rules to restrict the influence of the artist’s voice in catholic iconography, to JMW Turner’s bits of architecture providing an armature for an ethereal expression of light and air, to Gerhard Richter’s squeegee obscuring his hand-painted marks. Chuck close’s grids, Gabriel Orozco’s checkered patterns, the frame itself, or the smooth white walls of a gallery space all strive to achieve the same end as a pencil guided along a straight edge - respite from the expressive responsibility of mark-making, submission to something sure, inert, and objective. In Hofer’s work these methodical choices build inward towards his figures, sometimes working their way around, completely enveloping them. The interactions of these opposing processes is a highly original visual and procedural poetry.

Josef Hofer, Untitled, 2007, pencil and colored pencil on paper, 17.32 x 23.62 inches

Josef Hofer, Untitled, 2014, Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 19.69 x 27.56 inches

Josef Hofer, Untitled, 2005, Graphite and colored pencil on paper, 17.32 x 23.62 inches

Josef Hofer, Untitled, 2005, (detail)

Harald Stoffers’ cascading rows of horizontal lines and text are hand-written letters, most often addressed to his mother. Deeply diligent and well-meaning, his notations describe in great detail ordinary daily events such as his choice of clothing, travel schedules, or activities, yet also embody a more romantic personal narrative and the endeavor of carefully poring over increasingly monumental letters that are rarely sent. This daily ritual of letter-writing has dominated his practice for over twenty years. They have increased in scale since Stoffers began working in the Hamburg studio at Galerie der Villa in 2001; previous to that he would freely give away very small notes to anyone around him.  

Stoffers generously establishes a preliminary, wavering framework that mimics ruled paper, which is then loosely used as a guide for the placement of text. In a palette even more restricted than Hofer's, his erratic script primarily appears in black ink, with an occasional rogue excerpt in blue. Inconsistent in spacing behavior, the text expands, contracts, and sometimes much taller letters span several lines. Stoffers very often draws over every line repetitively, with some words receiving more emphasis than others; original text is often obscured by the subsequent layers of mark-making, ultimately rendering it illegible.

In Stoffers’ work, a similar contrast between the systematic and personal are engaged with in a different manner than Hofer’s corporeal vernacular. In his works, which resemble sheet music or unraveling textiles from a distance, the striations and the text itself provide his objective process, where his unsteady hand and his vision through language provide the contrasting expression. Where Hofer uses a system of structured marks to assert a rigid context for his figures, Stoffers appeals to a familiar methodology to assert himself dutifully, not inventing a system, but engaging in common, learned systems - penmanship, list making, and the organization of language.

The conversation between Stoffers and Hofer in The Eloquent Place compliments the dialogue between vision and process within each artist’s work. The association that relentless drawing, manipulating, or obscuring of text has to the content and intention of that text can be understood in terms of the relationship of Hofer’s systematic straight lines to his divulging recollections of the figure, and vice versa. The intellectual depth of these parallels isn’t in the specifics of their implications, but in the quiet emotional power of their coexistence in this installation. These bodies of work are typified by genuine intention, vulnerability, and a complete faith in the meaningful act of drawing to validate their messages through diligent labor as draftsmen.

Harald Stoffers and Josef Hofer will be on view at Cavin-Morris through October 8th.

Harald Stoffers, Brief 295, 2014, Ink on paper, 11.5 x 8 inches

Harald Stoffers, Brief 336, 2014, Waterproof felt tip pen on paper, 16.5 x 11.75 inches

Harald Stoffers, Brief 192, August 12th, 2011, Ink on paper, 19.75 x 19.75 inches

Harald Stoffers, Brief 192, August 12th, 2011 (detail), all images courtesy Cavin-Morris Gallery

Essential Fall Exhibitions

Helen Rae at KARMA, March 24, 2016, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 24" x 18" 

Harald Stoffers at Cavin-Morris, Brief 163, 2010, waterproof felt tip pen on cardboard, 39.4" x 27.5"

Throughout 2016, a shift in tone and approach to presenting and discussing artists who exist outside of the traditional or mainstream (that has been crystallizing over the past few years) has continued in force. An unprecedented range of artists working in progressive art studios are being sought out by forward-thinking curators and featured in prominent galleries, including several exciting solo exhibitions - Marlon Mullen’s first solo shows at JTT and Adams and Ollman, Zinzinnati Ohio USA: The Maps of Courttney Cooper at Intuit in Chicago, and Helen Rae’s incredible second solo show at The Good Luck Gallery in LA. This trend continues and accelerates with an impressive array of current and upcoming shows that shouldn't be missed during the fall exhibition season - a great triumph for artists with developmental disabilities working in progressive art studios and other unconventional environments.

Billy White, Figures at South Willard in LA, September 2 - 16

Figures, organized by Celia Lesh, features a selection of narrative ceramic sculptures and drawings from the mysterious and magical oeuvre of NIAD’s Billy White. From Lesh’s curator statement:

Billy recurrently creates clay busts that begin as Vincent Van Gogh and morph into several different characters while retaining qualities of each previous personality – a hat, a mouth closed around a cigar, a mustache, a particularly muscular bicep. Vincent Van Gogh becomes Peter Sellers who becomes Redd Foxx who becomes Billy himself. Little Richard and Richard Pryor are married into a single body whose portrait is titled “Little Richard Pryor”. Sculptures of his father wear a hat that is WC Field’s, Yosemite Sam’s, and/or Jed Clampett’s. Identities are both specific and fluid, and exist in a sort of pantheon where the historic, celebrated, anonymous, and personal share a landscape.

Billy White at South Willard, Untitled, glazed earthenware, 7.5" x 5" x 3.5"

Outside at KARMA in Amagansett, NY, September 3 - September 25

Curated by White Columns Director Matthew Higgs, the extensive roster of great artists in Outside includes Joseph Yoakum, James Castle, Helen Rae of First Street Gallery, Marlon Mullen and Danny Thach of NIAD, William Scott, Aurie Ramirez, William Tyler, and John Hiltunen of Creative Growth, among many other contemporary artists. Participating artists (both conventionally trained and not), represent a wide spectrum of processes and media, while all investigate notions of landscape or sense of place.

Alessandra Michelangelo at Shrine in NYC, September 7 - October 9th

The first exhibition of Alessandra Michelangelo’s work in the United States (curated by Chris Byrne), is currently on view at Shrine, New York’s newest space specializing in both self-taught and contemporary art. Michelangelo’s pastel and colored pencil drawings employ contrasts in hue rather than value, which gives these abstracted figurative and architectural works a visual subtlety that softens the tone of their expressive intensity. Previous to her death in 2009, Michelangelo maintained a studio practice at Blu Cammello, an Italian progressive art studio for artists living with mental illness.

The Eloquent Place: New Works by Harald Stoffers and Josef Hofer, Cavin-Morris Gallery in NYC, September 8 - October 8th.

Featuring Harald Stoffers’ abstracted text-based drawings and Josef Hofer’s nude self-portraits, The Eloquent Place is poised to be a raw index of unspeakable vulnerability. Stoffers engages concepts similar to Dan Miller’s, but with a much more romantic tone of personal narrative; his drawings manifest as daily hand-written letters to his mother, which document his activities (both mundane and meaningful) in great detail. These two artists, well-established in the outsider art discourse, both create work in proto-progressive art studio settings in Austria and Germany.

Dan Miller, Click at Diane Rosenstein in LA, September 10 - October 16

A solo exhibition of works on paper by Creative Growth’s Dan Miller, Click includes Miller’s well-known layered text drawings and paintings, as well as selections from a lesser known body of work executed by typewriter, which are essential in understanding the true nature of Miller’s work and process. In these typed works, Miller’s hand, color, and space are reduced, revealing his message and the rhythm of his voice, which are typically obscured by his repetitive layering process while painting or drawing. This is Miller's first exhibition at Diane Rosenstein and in Los Angeles.

Dan Miller at Diane Rosenstein, Untitled, 2013, ink and acrylic on paper

Dale Jackson and Danny Thach at White Columns in NYC, September 13 - October 22

Visionaries and Voices’ Dale Jackson and NIAD’s Danny Thach both have solo shows currently on view at White Columns. These exhibitions feature a large installation of Jackson’s poetic, text-based work and a collection of Thach’s re-interpretations of Keith Haring works, which recreate the images faithfully, but are characterized by more personal and exposed paint handling. Matthew Higgs, one of the earliest champions of artists working in progressive art studios (co-curator of the seminal Create exhibition in 2012 with Lawrence Rinder and early supporter of Creative Growth’s William Scott) has continued to support Bay Area studios while also seeking out artists at Gateway Arts, Visionaries and Voices, and other small studios in the Northeast.

Charles Steffen at The Good Luck Gallery in LA, September 3 - October 29

This marks the first exhibition of Charles Steffen’s work in Los Angeles, in cooperation with Andrew Edlin Gallery. Steffen’s graphite and colored pencil drawings on found paper “resemble pages from an idiosyncratic self-referential field guide with sunflowers, crucifixions and figures complemented by scrawled diaristic ruminations. The figures are often transparent, as if their nerve cells and fibers were on display, and surrounded by aureoles of gray light; bodies and flowers often merge into each other.” Steffen originally began a prolific drawing practice during a fifteen year stay at the Elgin State Hospital in Illinois, which continued until his death in 1995.

Susan Te Kahurangi King: Drawings 1975 - 1989 at Andrew Edlin Gallery in NYC, September 16 - October 30

The gallery’s second exhibition of New Zealand-based artist Susan Te Kahurangi King, curated by Chris Byrne and Robert Heald, is highly anticipated and runs concurrently with her first solo museum show at the ICA Miami. Byrne’s 2014 exhibition of King's work, Drawings from Many Worlds, was widely revered as one of the best exhibitions that year. Known for her colorful, frenetic abstractions of invented characters and appropriated Disney icons that predate Arturo Herrera, Drawings 1975-1989 features a lesser known, primarily monochromatic series of pattern-based drawings in graphite. While more minimal and understated than King's previous work, they remain highly original and compelling.

Courttney Cooper at Western Exhibitions in Chicago, November 12 - December 31

Visionaries and Voices’ Courttney Cooper has a well-deserved first solo exhibition with Western Exhibitions, one of Chicago’s best contemporary art spaces. Cooper's complex bic pen drawings document his intimate experience with Cincinnati, accumulating across increasingly massive surfaces (created by gluing together scrap paper that he gathers while working at Kroger). Cooper creates an authentic network of specific places and structures; his streets are intensely composed of details from memory or observation, cataloging expressions of particular moments or time of year. The relationship of these moments to each other in space is approximated, as in memory - all of which culminates in a dizzying realm of overlapping information that becomes a living record, adorned generously with nostalgic, commemorative expressions of community and identity.   

 

 

 

Miranda Delgai

We first encountered Miranda Delgai’s unforgettable work on our initial trip west, during our first studio visit outside of Nevada at Hozhoni in Flagstaff, Arizona. We were able to meet Delgai and see many of her weavings in person - work that’s technically astonishing and distinctly singular. These transporting works are defined by imagery that is compelling because of its minimal, idyllic, and genuine nature, while also conveying conceptual elements of materials rooted in tradition and storytelling that Delgai has a direct connection to through her heritage.

Delgai was born in Ganado, Arizona on a Navajo reservation in 1969, the daughter of a schoolteacher and medicine man. Delgai has maintained a prolific studio practice at Hozhoni since 1995, working in various media including ceramics, drawing, painting, and embroidery, but favors weaving. She uses Navajo-Churro wool woven on a traditional Navajo upright loom, reflecting the rich history of weaving in her community and family (who are well-known locally as traditional rug weavers).

Ella Earl, Miranda’s mother, elaborates on the presence of weaving in their immediate family history:

She has both maternal and paternal grandmothers who wove Navajo rugs as well as several aunts and cousins. Miranda’s maternal grandmother, Annabell Earl, specialized in several style of rugs double weave saddle blankets, and Wide Ruins and Klagetoh designs. She used wool from her own flock of sheep and prepared the wool from shearing the sheep, the many steps of making the wool to yarn, and collecting natural dyes that created the awesome natural colors of the yarn. Annabell and her sister at times would combine their talents on the exceptionally larger rugs. One comes to mind, a chief’s blanket at 8’ x 12’ which took them approximately six months. Miranda witnessed most of her grandmother’s activities as a child, and her grandmother never tired of explaining what she was doing. I’m sure as young as Miranda was at that time, she still remembers a lot. Her paternal grandmother, Helen Dalgai, is a weaver of rugs and she also makes sash belts which is done on a loom almost like a rug. Mrs. Dalgai specialized in the Ganado style of rugs, and she too prepared the wool from her own sheep from start to finish.

Navajo weavings are executed from bottom up on an upright loom that has no moving parts; the warp is one continuous length of yarn, that does not extend beyond the weaving as fringe. Unlike traditional Navajo weaving designs which are primarily based in pattern and fourfold symmetry, her work is more akin to the pictorial Navajo weavings of Mary Kee or the Begay family. Delgai constructs a highly personal narrative by depicting imagery from experience and memory, detailing her daily activities, interests, or recollections of family life on the reservation in Ganado; present are birds, domestic landscapes, occasional figures, and sheep. The recurrence of sheep in her work is significant, considering their prominence in the Diné (Navajo) culture:

Diné philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined like wool in the strongest weaving. Sheep symbolize the Good Life, living in harmony and balance on the land. Before they acquired domesticated sheep on this continent, Diné held the Idea of Sheep in their collective memory for thousands of years...In the high deserts and wooded mountains of Diné Bikéyah (Navajo Land), Diné pastoralists developed the Navajo-Churro breed, which assumed a central role in the People’s psychology, creativity, and religious life. With songs, prayers, and techniques taught to them by Spider Woman and looms first built by Spider Man [using sky, earth, sun rays, rock crystal, and sheet lightning], traditional Navajo weaving evolved to utilize the special qualities of the glossy Navajo-Churro wool. source

 

Delgai’s work proclaims not only a technical prowess with this medium, but also the joy of making. Focused and committed in her practice, she meticulously works on one piece with few interruptions until it reaches completion (usually spending 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in the studio). The process of weaving is an inherently repetitive and intensive endeavor; inevitably, Delgai’s pieces evoke the virtues of labor, time, and dedication to hand craftsmanship.   

Anni Albers articulates fundamental concepts and methods surrounding this medium in On Weaving:

The horizontal-vertical intersecting of these two separate systems of thread is of great consequence for the formative side of weaving. The more clearly this original formation is preserved or stressed in the design, the stronger the weaving will be in those characteristics that set it apart from other techniques. Just as a sculpture of stone that contents itself to live within the limits of its stone nature is superior in formal quality to one that transgresses these limits, so also a weaving that exhibits the origin of its rectangular thread-interlacing will be better than one which conceals its structure and tries, for instance, to resemble a painting. Acceptance of limitations, as a framework rather than a hindrance, is always proof of a productive mind.

There is endless potential for experimentation and design within the limitations of the grid, so weaving requires much planning in order to achieve the desired visual outcome. Delgai creates a preliminary drawing in color, which she places behind her loom as a visual aid, but isn’t rigid in its translation; she has an improvisational approach to imagery and color choices while working, indicating an incredibly intuitive and skillful relationship with this slow and systematic process. Delgai has a natural ability to balance both the complex structure and flexibility inherent in weaving, successfully allowing the material to “just be” within this system, indelibly marking the object as hand-made.

The viewer is drawn in to closely examine the surface of the weave and rewarded by Delgai’s intricate work. Each work openly exhibits the origin of its making; the weft often wavers and is quite exaggerated, causing imagery to distort and shift perspective (at times verging on abstraction). Glitches and striations emerge in deceptively simple compositions, highlighting the identifiers of her inventive, idiosyncratic vision - a sheep with five legs, birds perched on a corn stalk in her unconventional re-interpretation of the Tree of Life design, or the placement of a horizon line that is both an elegant expression of the vertical weaving process and the southwest desert landscape in which she lives.

Problematically, most research of Native American traditional arts has been dominated by an anthropological discourse rather than an art historical one, without an emphasis on technical or artistic excellence. As a result, much of the work has been presented at encyclopedic museums in a manner that perpetuates a static history and colonialist point of view. Only recently have some installations started to reflect a more accurate, contemporary context. Much like Jeffrey Gibson or Wendy Red Star, Delgai is an artist whose work is grounded in identity, place, an authentic current experience, and liberated processes - a definitively contemporary perspective that transgresses the expectations of a Native American aesthetic and the traditional.

 

Gateway Arts

  

Gateway Arts, in Brookline, Massachusetts (just outside of Boston) is one of the largest and, arguably, the oldest progressive art studio in the country, originally founded in 1973 (just prior to the 1974 creation of Creative Growth by Katz in Oakland). Whereas the Katz west coast programs closely resembled the model we consider most progressive for a fine arts program from their inception, Gateway grew into this model over time and continues to do so. Today Gateway is an exicting and important program, home studio to many great arstis including Roger Swike (who was included in “Mapping Fictions” at The Good Luck Gallery), Joe Howe (recently noticed by Matthew Higgs for a potential solo show at White Columns) Yasmine Arshad, Michael Oliveira  and many, many, others. The studio currently provides workspace and facilitation to over 100 artists.

Gateway was initially founded in direct response to a deinstitutionalization initiative (then named “Gateway Crafts”) as a weaving and ceramics studio for 10 individuals. Over the past 43 years, the program has grown, evolved, and maintained an effort to stay in touch with progressive ideas. A detailed history of Gateway and their relationship to the emerging progressive art studio movement is detailed in the essay “Outsider Art: the Studio Art Movement and Gateway Arts” by Rae Edelson, who has been the program’s director since 1978.

Yasmin Arshad, Untitled, marker on paper, image courtesy Gateway Arts

Gateway’s rich history is evidenced in their exceptionally dynamic approach to every aspect of what they do - the populations they support, the kind of art created, and methods they implement to promote and sell artists’ work. Even as they participate in fine art exhibitions at high level galleries, craft continues to be an important part of their program in a way that may be somewhat subversive to traditional ideas of fine art. More effectively than any other progressive art studio in the country, Gateway sells handmade craft objects in their own retail store, while also supporting the professional fine art careers of several of their artists.

The studio (a space they have been using since 1980) is separated into several sections, each of which is lead by a staff facilitator; artists rotate among the various work spaces from day to day on a regular schedule. This approach is conducive to (or strongly encourages) artists to work in a wide range of media. This isn’t uncommon, many studios have workspaces for various uses, usually based on media (ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, etc.). Gateway has an exceptionally large number of spaces, providing a wider range of ideas, which have come into being over a long period of time and aren’t necessarily defined by media in the typical sense.

Gateway’s main studio includes workspaces for “Pottery”, “Folk art”, “Fabric”, “Paper, “Weaving”,  and “Art Making”; in addition to the main studio, “Studio A” provides various creative supports and resources for those with psychiatric disabilities. Each area has a supervisor/facilitator who specializes in its respective media and each artist has a weekly schedule that determines which area they work in daily. A potential problem with this complex structure is that it could distract from an artist’s ability to develop a consistent, independent method of working within any one medium. An artist like Roger Swike, however, demonstrates that Gateway leaves room for artists with a well developed vision to operate independently from this structure when they’re prepared to do so.  While Roger may sometimes dabble in other media if he chooses to, he’s free to engage with his own practice of working on paper, that he has developed over the course of his long career with Gateway.

Learning to understand the unlimited potential value of a work of art is an important aspect of being an artist, and an important concept for progressive art studios to endeavor to communicate to their artists. Intuitively, one might imagine that the creation of lower value craft objects in the same space as fine art may undermine the studio’s ability to communicate that concept (and uphold that principle). For many programs, the fine art standard is considered to be directly in conflict with craft for this exact reason. Craft in Gateway’s studio, however, is rooted in a tradition of understanding craft as art on a higher level. Artistic director, Steven De Fronzo explains that during Gateway’s formative years in the 80s, the creative community in the Boston area embraced craft as an alternative to an art world that felt inaccessible, or elitist. In this way, craft was akin to the outsiderism of the time.

The fine art vs craft conundrum has a complicated history in progressive art studios; at its most problematic, craft programs are designed and operated on the assumption that individuals with disabilities aren’t capable of making fine art. In these cases, the studios can become assembly workshops that produce crafty “handmade” objects. In their best form, however, providing resources in a progressive art studio to engage in craft diversifies the opportunities available to artists in a way that is essential. Programs that don’t have an admissions process based on a portfolio review inevitably have many artists who will find craft processes and creativity with functional ends as a more intuitive or appropriate path.

In practice, what's most essential is how the artist chooses one path over the other, and how the standard is maintained - creative projects of any kind are created with as much independence and creative freedom as possible. As the the art world progresses, new facilitators bring new ideas to Gateway - as the use of craft processes becomes more prevalent in contemporary art, the use of craft processes become available in their studio on those terms. Staff facilitators present concepts about art-making in terms of their own expertise; ultimately at any progressive art studio, the onus is on artists to staff as examples, not authorities, with artists making choices about their approach to art independently. The critical element is that this relationship is understood by the staff, and independence or divergence from the structure is encouraged when it begins to emerge.

 

Recent Press

Mapping Fictions, the exhibition we recently curated for The Good Luck Gallery in Los Angeles (featuring text-driven, narrative work by Roger Swike, Joe Zaldivar, William Scott, and Daniel Green) has been recognized by both KCRW and Curate LA as an essential show to see this summer, and reviewed by the LA Times:

It also received a fantastic review Charting Experience: Four Artists with Developmental Disabilities Map Singular Visions by Sola Agustsson on ArtSlant. Agustsson provides a thoughtful, in-depth discussion of this exhibition and its compelling artists. An excerpt from ArtSlant:

“The process of creating art always involves transmitting one’s singular sensory experiences into a discrete vision. The Los Angeles exhibition Mapping Fictions brings together four contemporary artists who organize information and experience through text and images, charting popular culture, physical space, and personal knowledge in painstakingly detailed work.” - Read More

Mapping Fictions is on view through August 27th at the Good Luck Gallery in Chinatown.

On Identity Politics and Self-Taught Artists

i can't imagine ever wanting to be neurotypical

In a recent essay “How Identity Politics Conquered the Art World, An Oral History”, Jerry Saltz and Rachel Corbett strive to make sense of our current pluralistic era of contemporary art by constructing a narrative in which the 1993 Whitney Biennial marks the establishment of a new direction for art-making, a movement they describe as “the art of the first person”.

“After the ’80s, we seem to have lost the reflex to recognize or name new art movements — maybe because in the sprawling new art ecology there were so many isms sprouting at once; plus we’ve always categorized things by formal, medium-based, and geographical attributes. But something has happened here, over the last 25 years, that I am sure will be recognized with great clarity by art-history students very soon. Art in this era has veered dramatically toward an approach that hasn’t been seen in the West for more than 1,000 years: a concerted urge, almost a rage, to be totally communicative to the largest possible audiences, addressing cognoscenti, novices, and newcomers in the same register, telling stories of social, political, and philosophical conditions. Of course, not everybody today is making this kind of work. But taken together, it does constitute a real aesthetic movement, one that is biographical, autobiographical, personal — the art of the first person.”

In this narrative, "the art of the first person" is the product of an increased focus on identity politics in contemporary art. The ‘93 biennial was “reviled” with an intense rejection of the perceived abrasiveness of its political works, but Saltz and Corbett describe a significant shift that occurs in the 90s as a result of what was underlying a new approach to thinking about art and identity.

“For the first time, biography, history, the plight of the marginalized, institutional politics, context, sociologies, anthropologies, and privilege have all been recognized as “forms,” “genres,” and “materials” in art. Possibly the core materials.” 

The history that Saltz and Corbett lay out is elaborate, well researched, and very compelling. However, there is a crucial piece missing where the emergence of “new forms” and “materials” derived from marginalization and identity is conflated with the “Rage, to be totally communicative to the largest possible audiences”; that missing piece is "Neurodiversity". This concept, which has been used in recent years to describe the goals of disability rights advocacy, often goes unmentioned in the identity politics discourse. In an essay regarding identity politics and disability studies Anna Mollow writes:

Paradoxically, the construction of disability as a minority identity is often impelled by the desire to gain recognition for disability as a concept of universal importance: Siebers, Davis, Thomson, and other disability scholars have called attention to the marginalization of disability within academic conversations and then argued powerfully for its inclusion within these conversations. Following their example, we must continue to foreground academic inattention to disability. At the same time, we must insist upon the relevance of disability to a wide range of contemporary theoretical and political discussions. (source

The concept of Neurodiversity emerged in the late 90s from the Autism Rights Movement and its intention to catalyze the recognition and acceptance of those who are neurologically divergent from the majority of the population. Furthermore, it asserts that neurological differences should be respected as a marginalized social category equal to those of ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. What Neurodiversity proposes, though, is much broader and more profound than autistic self-advocacy or even disability rights advocacy. It sets a new standard for what it means to appreciate the tangible power and value of diversity, leaving no room for the concessions or weaknesses of past identity politics movements. Neurodiversity doesn’t permit the possibility of assimilation; it requires that individuals in our society not only coexist while being essentially different from one another in profound ways, but actively strive to accommodate those disparities. 

The context of Neurodiversity allows us to understand that "the art of the first person" is actually art made for a “broader” audience as a consequence of making art for an “other” audience. It’s not necessarily the case that an “other” artist aspires to appeal to a “broader” audience, but a “broader” audience becoming more diverse as it includes “others” that has the effect of making the their audience broader.  An “other” artist appealing to an “other” audience was an “outsider” artist, so the “the art of the first person” works toward dismantling the possibility of outsiderism. 

David Hammons, described by Saltz and Corbett as the godfather of the identity politics movement, has created work that addresses a broader audience in as much as it engages social issues that we're all familiar with. At the same time, though, it expresses concepts that people of color can understand and experience, but that white viewers can only speculate about. This sets a precedent for including artists who are engaging concepts that not all viewers can experience equally, or with the same directness, which permits a new way of thinking about the work of artists like Thornton Dial or Lonnie Holley (who are still marginalized and lumped into outsider categories) - no longer as artifacts from a separate world, but work created by an artist who is present and participates in our world, which we appreciate across a significant disparity of mind or circumstances. While the marginalization of Dial and Holley is the result of race, class, or geography, in the case of artists with disabilities, it's due to brains that function differently. 

David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993, currently on view in Non-Fiction at The Underground Museum in LA

Whereas, artists like David Hammons actively strive to create a bridge to a broader audience by making works that appeal to mainstream contemporary art (the broader audience) that simultaneously speak in distinctly black voice (to the “other” audience). On a deeper level ,the inclusion of this work isn't driven by social justice alone, but rather the drive of contemporary art to rethink and break down its boundaries in search of ideas and practices that are more deliberate, absolute, innovative, and unrestricted by convention or culture. 

Often described loosely as an outsider by critics and dealers due to his ambivalence toward and rejection of art world protocol, Hammons has always been open about his appreciation for self-taught artists and the influence they’ve had on his work. Outside Insight, a ground-breaking yet under-appreciated 1988 exhibition at MoMA’s Clocktower (that Hammons co-curated with Ed McGowin), championed the work of outsider artists that they sought out in rural North Carolina. 

Although “Outside Insight” has received relatively little critical attention, the exhibition captures an important chapter in the development of Hammons’ artistic sensibility. “Outside Insight” evinces his identification with vernacular African-American cultural forms, self-effacing relationship to authorship, and profound sense of the value of everyday objects and gestures. (source)

Creating compelling contemporary work now requires an extreme abandoning of convention due to the expectation of producing “art of the first person”, which requires contemporary artists to fully re-invent art for themselves - finding new ways of thinking and being while teaching themselves within this new context (such as Theaster Gates' urban planning research). 

Installation view of Marlon Mullen's recent solo exhibition at Adams and Ollman in Portland, Oregon, image courtesy NIAD

Strangely, progressive art studios aren’t recognized as fitting into the increasingly popular social practice/socially engaged fields of art, even as artists who come from this radical model (notably Judith Scott, Marlon Mullen, William Scott, Helen Rae, and Julian Martin) are being represented by and exhibited at prominent galleries and museums. Unlike Hammons, many contemporary artists seem hesitant or uncomfortable citing these artists despite obvious influences in their work, or worse, find it unnecessary. Critics, with the exception of Saltz, David Pagel, and a few others, are hesitant to write about current work by self-taught artists, especially through the lens of contemporary art. As a result, the art historical canon still doesn’t accurately reflect the contributions of these artists (especially those with disabilities). 

Understanding the emergence of “the art of the first person” is incomplete without including the convergence of outsiders into the mainstream, as well as the shifting focus within outsider art to living artists, especially self-taught developmentally disabled artists facilitated by trained, neurotypical peers in progressive art studios, where the most extreme disparities between the contemporary mainstream and the “other” are simultaneously transgressed and maintained.

Mapping Fictions at The Good Luck Gallery

We recently had the honor of guest curating an exhibition at The Good Luck Gallery, an important, new space in Los Angeles. Founded and directed by former Artillery publisher Paige Wery, The Good Luck Gallery is the only space in LA dedicated to showing the work of self-taught artists. Wery fosters the burgeoning careers of artists such as Helen Rae and Deveron Richard, who maintain studio practices in progressive art studios, as well as artists like Willard Hill, who fall into the Outsider, Visionary, or Vernacular categories.  Mapping Fictions, curated by Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz, opened on July 9th and will be on view through August 27th.

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