Kerry Damianakes

Over the past 35 years, Oakland-based artist Kerry Damianakes has amassed an extensive body of unconventional and playful works directly informed by her desire to reproduce the everyday. Damianakes remains primarily committed to an ongoing series of velvety oil pastel drawings - faithful tributes to foods that alternately elicit a state of well-being or decadence.

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Visual Oasis: Works from Creative Growth

We were recently commissioned by the Capital City Arts Initiative to write the following exhibition essay for Visual Oasis: Works from Creative Growth. Visual Oasis brings together a diverse selection of works by Creative Growth artists employing various approaches to drawing, painting, and fiber art at CCAI’s Courthouse Gallery…

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Storytellers at LAND

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...

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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.   

 

 

 

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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Mapping Fictions: William Scott

Inner Limits to the Future of Hollywood of the Real Science Fiction Movies, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 54", 2013

The Twilight Zone, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48", 2014

Inner Limits Will Exist in 2017 of a Real People of New Science Fiction, acrylic on paper, 25" x 33"

San Francisco-based artist William Scott is a believer in a better society, a self-described “peacemaker” and “architect”. His works are the celebratory announcement of the wholesome future; they not only imagine an alternate universe reflecting his personal aspirations, but proclaim with joyous conviction his utopian vision of San Francisco, “Praise Frisco”. Scott’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures are executed in an aesthetic consistent with this gospel of idealism and excellence, shining with a pristine vibrance.

William Scott’s paintings of cityscapes and beaming figures surrounded by bold text are well known and widely collected; Mapping Fictions will also include lesser known works that delve into specific plans for Praise Frisco that demonstrate surprising depth and scope, beyond just a notion of that place. In these works, Scott strives to pull the world he sees into reality by imagining its common details. Optimistic plans for ordinary architecture, floor plans of “Disneywood” condos, and development company logos all express directly that this could actually exist with an earnestness reflected in a letter to the Mayor Gavin Newsom, calling for or announcing the news of Praise Frisco.

Scott’s work can be understood in the context of the intent and ideals of Theaster Gates or Bertrand Goldberg, who have employed the traditional agency of art-making to guide communities in inventing better versions of themselves.

Like Goldberg, Scott’s architectural drawings and models recall the spare, utilitarian designs for community housing as envisioned by the Bauhaus, an idealistic solution for social progression. Goldberg “was more than an architect - he was also a philosopher. In his utopian worldview, architecture had the power to create democratic communities by serving people from all levels of society while remaining sensitive to the needs of individuals. Architects were not just capable of bringing about a better future for everyone, they were morally obligated to do so.” (source)

Disneywood in Hunters Point Areas in San Francisco for the Redevelopment Agency, marker and ink on paper, 8.5" x 11" 2006

Hunters Point Hills in 2040s for New Developments, marker and ink on paper, 18" x 24", 2007

Theaster Gates’ creative practice extends beyond his studio as social activism, urban planning, and the ethical redevelopment of distressed properties, which manifests as an immediate, tangible influence that Scott’s work does not. There proves to be commonality, however, in the ambition to activate change and critically engage the public through art. Both Scott and Gates are driven to preserve and resurrect values from the past and a sense of community that has been lost. Gates explains:

The reimagining is a means to an end, and sometimes it is its own end. There are wasted opportunities that are waiting to be beautiful again, and I'm giving them a charge. It's not so much that the buildings on Chicago's South and West sides are vacant, but that they started to lose value for the black community. These buildings had so much soul, but we imagined that, because of the violence and the schools, we should be somewhere else. So these buildings lost their soulfulness. I'm interested in showing there is still so much latent power in these buildings, and by simply making these spaces available again, and open again, great things can happen. (source)

Whether an intentional fiction, genuine aspiration, or prophecy, Scott’s elaborate narrative is a creative vehicle for social commentary, as well as a context for an impassioned and highly personal expression of his commitment to recurring concepts of humanity, spirituality, identity, and community.

William Scott’s work is included in the upcoming exhibition Mapping Fictions, curated by Disparate Minds founders Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue, July 9 - August 27 at The Good Luck Gallery in LA. Scott (b. 1964) maintains a studio practice at Creative Growth in Oakland, California. Scott is widely collected and has work in the permanent collections of the MOMA and The Studio Museum in Harlem. He has exhibited previously in solo exhibitions at White Columns and group exhibitions at Park Life Gallery (San Francisco), Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and the Outsider Art Fair (NYC), Hayward Gallery (London), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), the Armory Show (NYC), Palais de Tokyo (Paris), and NADA (Art Basel, Miami).

Change to Mayor Edwin Lee, Ink on paper, 8.5" x 11", 2003

Sylvia Fragoso

Untitled, glazed ceramic 

Untitled, glazed ceramic, 14" x 7" x 7", 2013

Untitled, glazed ceramic, 17" x 11" x 11", 2015

Untitled,  glazed ceramic, 15" x 8" x 5", 2014  all images courtesy NIAD

Untitled, glazed ceramic, 15" x 8" x 5", 2014

all images courtesy NIAD

Sylvia Fragoso’s methodically hand-built sculptures are crafted with a deceptive indelicacy and thick layering of glazes - small monuments in which form is defined by seeking rather than devising. Much like the ceramic work of Sterling Ruby or Julia Haft Candell, Fragoso reaches a compromise between concept and process. Where opportunities arise, she inserts symbolism that declares an identity for the work; subjects common in her drawings such as church and family are translated into physical form in a manner analogous to the way that her method of building with clusters of shapes on paper translates to her process of building with clay. References to function or representation are ultimately denied in favor of material manipulation and aesthetic - a revelation of the joy of making.

In a recent Art In America article The Happy Medium, Leah Ollman discusses the re-emergence of ceramics in the contemporary art discourse (especially in L.A.):

A new shift, roughly a decade old, has been catalyzed not by a single or even a few strong personalities, but by a broader redefinition and realignment of creative practice. Increasingly post-disciplinary, artists roam freely among mediums, unencumbered by traditional boundaries and hierarchical divisions. Many show a renewed interest in work of the hand, which they see as an antidote to theory- and concept-driven art. A messy physicality is often their (defiant) answer to the disembodied digital; theirs is a rising constituency for authenticity which advocates the material over the virtual.

This shift has extended to progressive art studios as well; in addition to Fragoso, other self-taught artists creating exceptional ceramic work are Mirov Menefee of The Canvas in Juneau, Alan Constable and Chris Mason of Arts Project Australia in Victoria, Cameron Morgan of Project Ability in Glasgow, Tanisha Warren at Creative Growth in Oakland, and Billy White, also of NIAD.  

Fragoso (b. 1962) has exhibited recently in Hold Onto Your Structure : The Ceramics of Sylvia Fragoso at NIAD Art Center (2016), Telling It Slant organized by Courtney Eldridge at the Richmond Art Center (2015), Visions et Créations Dissidents at Musée de la Création Franche in Bégles, France (2014), ArtPad SF at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco (2013), and extensively in group exhibitions at NIAD, where she has maintained studio practice for many years.

Untitled , graphite on paper, 24" x 18"

Untitled, graphite on paper, 24" x 18"

Masters and Emerging Artists at the Outsider Art Fair

Art Project Australia’s Julian Martin at Fleisher/Ollman

At the 24th annual Outsider Art Fair in New York, it was clear that there has been a profound shift. Superficially, the aesthetics are far from the folk art antique shop feel of the past, having assimilated to a presentation more typical of the mainstream - a change generally attributed to one of field’s most successful champions and current fair organizer, Andrew Edlin. On a deeper level, the definition of “outsider” is flexed to a degree that's able to contain a broad spectrum of idiosyncratic works - from the visionary scarecrows of the late Memphis-based artist Hawkins Bolden, to Marlon Mullen’s lush abstractions, to an installation of 3D printed sculptures designed by 65 unconnected collaborators (presented as the work of a manufacturing company, Babel curated by Leah Gordon). Abandoning category without losing identity, the context of this forum has evolved rapidly over the past few years.

In a review of the fair for Design Observer, John Foster recalls that at the inception of the genre, early outsider art dealer Sidney Janis introduced the concept that “serious art could be made by everyday people”, a notion that's difficult to sympathize with today (if artists aren't “everyday people” then what are they?). This train of thought still seems to have some novelty for some 74 years later, as illustrated by Barbara Hoffman’s odd New York Post headline “The artists at this amazing fair are prisoners, janitors, and mental patients”. Ultimately, Edlin has allowed the fair to begin to merge seamlessly with the mainstream by expanding to include a flexible set of principles rather than depending on this particular kind of romantic narrative structure. It’s no longer necessary that the artists work in isolation or live obscure, misunderstood lives.

Rather, it’s a space for excellent creative endeavors that are genuine and created for their own sake, or for a context not ordinarily included in the art world. The most essential principle underlying this movement is that the institution of the market isn’t what engenders great work. In a climate where Laura Poitras (a filmmaker and journalist with no prior fine art experience) has a significant exhibition opening today at the Whitney, the particular terms and intent with which the OAF brings divergent, highly original perspectives to the art world maintains a distinct and important purpose. 

The beauty of this more elastic definition is its efficacy both presently and retroactively, indicating that this isn’t so much a shift in paradigm as a greater understanding of why these works have been so compelling all along.

Hawkins Bolden at Shrine

As usual, titans of the self-taught canon were featured extensively throughout the fair: Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, Adolf Wolfli, Jesse Howard, Bill Traylor, Thornton Dial, Minnie Evans, Martin Ramirez, Gayleen Aiken, Frank Jones, Royal Robertson, and James Castle, etc. These masters (the ones who have inspired so many to work in this field) continue to be represented by fantastic works, not due to a traditional romantic narrative, but because of genuine, sophisticated, and highly original visions, as evidenced by their conceptual harmony with work by contemporary “outsiders”.

The fair's strongest and most relevant exhibitions, however, were contemporary works by artists who maintain studio practices at progressive art studios - a dynamic collection of installations that were, in sum, a tour de force eliminating any question about their importance to this emerging sub-market, and potential to sustain, develop, and gain momentum.

Marlon Mullen at JTT/Adams and Ollman

Marlon Mullen, NEWS (P0329), acrylic on canvas, 24" x 36"

The fair’s most important moment, and starkest example of the flexed "outsider" categorization, was the joint exhibition of NIAD’s Marlon Mullen by New York’s JTT Gallery and Portland’s Adams and Ollman - a solo exhibition of reductive acrylic paintings, with content explicitly referencing the contemporary mainstream. The narrative justification for its inclusion would be the assumption that these abstractions are defined by an unusual way of thinking and seeing, as opposed to a neurotypical artist’s contrived deconstruction of found imagery. Whether Mullen is engaging in abstraction in the traditional sense, creating representationally from his own perspective, or whether there is no meaningful difference between representation and abstraction in his experience is impossible to determine. Ultimately, their genesis becomes irrelevant because the elusive power of the imagery is an amalgamation of the inherently expressive nature of the work's formal elements, which isn’t dependent on a mutually understood way of seeing. The real triumph and importance of Mullen’s work lies in the revelation that their mysterious conceptual origin only causes their success to be more fascinating, and that they’re pushed to a degree of technical sophistication that’s unmistakably impactful. His paintings are paradoxically thoughtful and casual, as awkward as they are bold, as messy as they are delicate. These pieces embody a deeply genuine and intuitive quality that coexists with a strength defined by specificity and fine tuning.

Helen Rae at The Good Luck Gallery

Helen Rae, July 1, 2015, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 24" x 18"

The fair’s most generous moment was The Good Luck Gallery’s installation of stunning Helen Rae drawings - surfaces saturated with vigorous mark-making culminate in robust, stylized worlds rendered in graphite and colored pencil. Rae’s counter-intuitive re-imagining of the boundaries between abstraction and representation are thrillingly confounding. Strong graphic or patterned passages have an inexplicable sense of depth and form, which transition into fields scattered with spare details, achieving an almost photographic quality - all of which emerges from a surface that (when examined closely) possesses a roughly inscribed physicality. The continuous stream of excellent new drawings replacing sold work served as a testament to the promise of this prolific septuagenarian as an emerging phenomenon to watch. 

Andrew Hostick at Morgan Lehman

Photos do little to capture the true nature of Andrew Hostick's drawings at Morgan Lehman Gallery. Not evident above is the experience of approaching this simple red, blue, and brown figure eight to discover that it’s surrounded by an opaque, shimmering field of marks in white colored pencil, worked hard into the mat board surface. The mystery of choosing to color a white surface white, is in its own way explained and not compounded by its eventual effect: fantastic moments of wonder in a distinct and familiar space. The curious effect of this subtlety achieved in such a laborious manner lays a foundation for the elusive mood that runs throughout all of Hostick’s works. He seems to search for, and with great success, achieve abstractions that aren’t just poignant in a general sense, but evoke a beautifully bleak, arid quality that seems to romantically belong to Ohio. 

Andrew Hostick, Leon Polk Smith: A Constellation with Works on Paper, graphite/colored pencil on mat board,

 

Kenya Hanley, Family Matters, 2015, Mixed Media on Paper, 17" x 14", image courtesy Land Gallery

Other highlights included the velvety pastel abstractions of Art Project Australia’s Julian Martin at Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman, humorous, pop-culture driven drawings by Kenya Hanley and Michael Pellew at LAND Gallery, Harald Stoffers at Cavin Morris Gallery, Joe Minter and Lonnie Holley at James Fuentes, Evelyn Reyes, Daniel Green, and Camille Halvoet at Creativity Explored, Terri Bowden, Susan Janow, and William Scott at Creative Growth, Walter Mika and Victor Critescu at Pure Vision, and an impressive quantity of work by artists at Japanese studios. Although only 4 progressive art studios exhibited independently at this year’s fair, their respective artists were prominently featured in a quarter of the exhibitions, including those of the most prominent dealers.

Henry Darger and Judith Scott at Andrew Edlin

Susan Janow, Untitled, colored pencil and micron on paper

Harald Stoffers, Brief 164, March 10th, 2012, ink on paper, 39.25" x 27.5", image courtesy Cavin Morris Gallery

Lonnie Holley at James Fuentes, NY

One of the most important insights from this year's Outsider Art Fair is that the progressive art studio can no longer strive to position itself as a neutral, invisible player between self-taught artists and an outsider art gallery. Undeniably, progressive art studios are poised to be a truly important movement, but, reflecting on this changing landscape it’s important that they critically evaluate their role in presenting work to the market. Despite their prevalence at the fair, gallerists had no reservations about expressing that they’ve been forced to stop representing artists they believe in due to studios' failures, ranging from unethical behavior (such as gifting works to program board members) to providing intrusive facilitation to simply being disorganized. The process of translation from outsider to the mainstream fine art market is delicate, and is something outsider art dealers are just now learning to do effectively; they’ve been an asset to studios because of their willingness to represent unique artists without ties to the broader art community. As the distinction continues to break down between outsider and insider, however, studios can only continue to be relevant if they’re able to proactively take on the responsibilities of translation and promotion typically provided by gallerists (including handling and documenting artwork properly). 

The future of this process is pioneered right now by career paths that resemble the ones profiled above: NIAD, JTT, Adams and Ollman, and Marlon Mullen; Visionaries + Voices, Andrew Hostick, and Morgan Lehman; First Street, Helen Rae, and Good Luck Gallery; and Creative Growth, William Scott, and White Columns.  Progressive art studios must believe in and champion each of their great artists with respect for their individual vision, with a focus on developing careers that extend beyond their program of origin.  

Mark Hogencamp, Untitled (IMG_2616), Digital C-print, 27" x 36", 2014

In the traditional narrative of outsider art, the career of an artist such as Mark Hogencamp would have ended with the initial discovery of Marwencol. Ideally in the past, he would have been deceased before the work was found and his fixed oeuvre would be intrinsically associated with the story of a strange man working in isolation and obscurity (much like Darger and Ramirez). Mark Hogancamp, however, is no longer obscure or working in isolation. His new work at this year's fair, scenes created using full-sized mannequins, are a clear and exciting new development in his creative process. Hogancamp’s work is not at all diminished by the open involvement of his facilitator and gallery director Eddie Mullins, who we spoke with at One Mile Gallery’s booth. In our conversation with Mullins, his relationship with Hogencamp was remarkably familiar. Marwencol is a project absolutely devised and driven by Hogencamp, but Mullins has no inhibitions about explaining that the use of mannequins began after he provided some for Mark. Mullins plays an instrumental role in how Hogencamp’s vision is ultimately seen as art, but his assistance isn’t mistaken for collaboration (much like the relationships sound engineers and producers have with musicians). In this way, the transparency of this relationship sets an important example for studios to follow.  

Recognizing the true nature of the facilitated creative process, including that provided by artist staff in the studio, must be fully open to criticism in order to progress; it’s simply too personal, dynamic, and delicate to be left out of the discussion. The next wave of great artists will come out of progressive art studios that are not only assisting artists to initiate a creative practice, but also provide innovative and ambitious new facilitation methods to further develop dynamic bodies of work.

Discussing Biography

Judith Scott in the studio, image via Creative Growth

Over the past several years, as work created by artists working in progressive art studios (as well as those historically categorized as outsider or visionary) has entered the mainstream, questions have emerged about how to appreciate and discuss these artists. What does it mean to contextualize this work as fine art? What really defines this categorization? What role should the artist's disability or dispositional narrative play in understanding the work? Responding to these questions often seems to result in skirting or avoiding the consideration of an artist's biography.  

Fear of overstating biography is rooted in a fair desire to understand these artists on a level playing field with their contemporaries, trying to avoid both an especially generous consideration and a disparaging framing of “other” (necessarily lesser) - seemingly opposite ideas that are in effect the same, a phenomenon which we refer to as the “sympathetic eye”.  This dismissive perspective suggests that this work is compelling and valuable only relative to biography; “this is a great achievement...for a person with a disability” is the most destructive and unfortunate possible understanding. This problem emerges in two distinct and passive ways: as an expression of a commonly held, inherent bias or an escape from the pressure of formulating a critical, thoughtful response. There tends to be a discomfort (even fear) that disability or mental illness elicits because the true nature of their difference is unknown - it remains a great and beautiful mystery. This mystery provides an unsure footing for the viewer, unable to feel (with either praise or criticism), if they understand and are receiving what's being communicated or that they’ll be exposed with their response.  And so, the sympathetic eye is easily provoked and often may occur without provocation, or despite active attempts to dispel it in the nature of presentation.

installation view of Jessie Dunahoo's work at Andrew Edlin Gallery, image via Andrew Edlin Gallery. Dunahoo's installations are vehicles for relating his personal history and fictional narratives, while also recalling their genesis as a tool he devised as a child to navigate his family's farm in Kentucky.  

In Nathaniel Rich’s recent piece about Creative Growth in The New York Times (A Training Ground for Untrained Artists), he quotes a 1993 article by Rosemary Dinnage in order to describe the appeal of outsider art:  “The fantasy that over there, on the other side of the insanity barrier, is a freedom and passion and color that were renounced in childhood … the longing for a return to something direct and strong and primitive.” Dinnage, and Rich by reference, articulate a sympathetic bifurcation that is false; it’s implicated that mainstream contemporary art (we’ll refer to it as insider art) is inherently more structured and sophisticated (less primitive, less free). If this is understood in terms of biography, the real misconception becomes clear. It’s presumed that biography is important in outsider art and not insider art because the latter has a sophisticated, conceptual structure devised by the artist in the course of intentionally creating works of art (intended to be presented and marketed in the contemporary mainstream), a structure that references western art history and culture. In outsider art, a sympathetic viewer assumes that this sophistication is absent, so biography or a captivating narrative is necessary to take the place of a conceptual structure that provides its context. Thus, the perception is that an artist isn’t being intentional, but instead their disposition is what causes the work to be interesting.

In the presentation of Judith Scott’s Bound and Unbound at the Brooklyn Art Museum,  curator Catherine Morris sought to avoid this characterization stating:

We have tried to resist viewing Scott’s lack of speech as a void in need of filling and instead have chosen to focus on what Scott does communicate through her work. Readings that draw on biography to construct narrative interpretations for artists who do not communicate through traditional means have historically taken precedence over other ways of understanding. This exhibition is, in part, an attempt to forefront readings of the work that ask questions without expecting definitive answers or metaphorical readings.
https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/judith_scott/

Despite this earnest attempt to challenge the viewer to accept mystery, Cynthia Cruz, writing for Hyperallergic, responded “I question the importance of biography as it is emphasized in the wall texts. This results in silencing the work, turning it into the strange artifacts of a strange, not-understood person,” (Words Fall Away) suggesting that the mere presence of the artist's biography in the exhibition is sufficient to “silence” the artist's voice. Cruz makes a comparison to A Cosmos, at the New Museum, where Scott's work was exhibited without biographical information among insiders of similar sensibility. Certainly integrating works by artists with disabilities covertly into group shows with mainstream artists will effectively evade the sympathetic eye, but possibly at the cost of putting a ceiling on their careers and ultimately perpetuating the stigma that disability should remain hidden. 

Daniel Green, Billy Ocean & Little Richard & Tina Turner, colored pencil/micron on paper, courtesy Creativity Explored

Beyond the problematic implications of both relying on biography too much or avoiding it altogether, often, actively excluding biography is a disservice to the work. David Pagel, in an excellent review of Helen Rae’s exhibition at The Good Luck Gallery (Exhibition Review: Helen Rae), creates an ideal balance of formal, conceptual, and biographical discussion. His criticism focuses primarily on the experience of viewing the work, with keen observations of her routine, artistic process, and unique way of seeing as they are relevant to her drawings, which ultimately assist in recognizing and appreciating their power.

Rejecting the presumption that outsider or visionary art is to be filtered solely through a biographical understanding, whereas contemporary art always speaks for itself, means accepting the fact that some elements of biography are important to all works of art. A heavy focus on biography is, of course, common in outsider art writing. Discussing his recent book about Martín Ramírez with Edward Gómez for Hyperallergic, Víctor M. Espinosa makes an important distinction between a sociological perspective and a formal one:

It is written from the point of view of someone who is practicing the sociology of art, not from that of a conventional art historian … Sociologists believe that no work of art stands alone like that. It’s not that simple. Various factors play roles in how a work of art is produced and, ultimately, in what it might mean at any given time — social, cultural, historical, economic and other factors.
HYPERALLERGIC

Traditionally, a sociological perspective (or even anthropological one) is permissible in the discussion of outsider art, but it’s not only to fill a void where the artist's own explanation is absent. Espinosa points out that absent any “sociological perspective” (ie. biography) the evaluation is incomplete. These factors are an unavoidable element of any work; certainly our knowledge of Kara Walker’s race or Jeff Koons’ marriage to Cicciolina, for example, informs our understanding of their work. As Matthew Higgs points out:

I think that that question of the artist’s biography is something that a lot of people have issue with in relation to outsider art. I was wondering why we don’t know more about the lives of contemporary artists, why it’s only when they suddenly get a 10-page profile in the New Yorker that we find out what their parents do. Unless an artist gets to a certain level of visibility, we know nothing really about a contemporary artist’s life. We don’t know about their home life, about their kids, what their kids do, what their parents did, or what their partner does. All of this is regarded as extraneous to the work, which of course it isn’t. It’s central to the work.
Artspace

Joe Zaldivar, Street Map of Claremont, California, marker on paper, courtesy of First Street Gallery

This begs the question, though, of what’s really occurring and why it's happening now, if outsiders and insiders are so similar in this regard. The real concern is not the presence of these ideas, but who controls them. Andrew Edlin Gallery’s Phillip March Jones explains the additional roles of an outsider art gallery director with Karen Rosenberg for Artspace:

Someone like Judith Scott …  there’s a lot of reasons she wouldn’t be able to [market herself]. And other people are just so involved in the works they’re creating that it’s not really part of their reflective process. A lot of the art we show is created for very personal reasons, usually in private. Often, the artists create worlds they wish to inhabit. Maybe sometimes they don’t know that they aren’t inhabiting them—maybe they live within that work, or maybe the relationship to the work is more important, or real, than the relationships they have in our real world. I think someone like Henry Darger very clearly lived more in his work, his drawings, than in Chicago.
…As dealers in this field we have a greater responsibility to the artist, because frequently you are the one who is making a lot of the decisions that the artist would make. When I work with a contemporary artist, they’re present for the installation—they’re doing all these things that for the most part the outsider artist is not engaged in
.
Artspace

What Jones is describing, in effect, is a process of translation. The trajectory of American art history over the past 100-150 years has been driven by a search for new concepts and divergent ways of thinking. This has always been most notably achieved by including ideas previously considered to reside in the margins - Picasso’s appropriation of the ideas and aesthetics of African art, the inclusion of women in the 60s and 70s, the appropriation of commercial and design aesthetics by Pop artists, current artists investigating race and LGBTQ issues, etc. This process has lead to a situation in which the boundaries of the creative culture are so thoroughly broken down that contemporary artists are expected to invent art for themselves and, in effect, become new outsiders. What remains of our consensus culture is only in the periphery - pristine white spaces, white cotton gloves, and expensive crates.  Insider artists create for this context, but it’s social power has become equally available to objects like the quilts of Gees Bend, which once had a context and purpose of their own, if a curator such as Phillip March Jones is able to provide it.

Tom Sachs Space Program, image via tomsachs.org

Tom Sachs’ 2007 Space Program took place in the blue chip heart of the contemporary mainstream, Gagosian in Chelsea, but it’s only this context that makes it an insider work. Had he created the same body of work, but instead performed the landing in a midwestern backyard then he would be an outsider - and we may give greater credence to his stated goal of creating as a means of attaining the unattainable in a mystical sense, yet his social commentary most likely be dismissed and pathologized as an expression of some strange paranoid thought process. Those distinctions, however, are less important than the fact that it would still be a remarkable and highly sophisticated work. It is an important revelation that the difference between outsiders and insiders is actually just a few delicate details of circumstance. It’s not a desire to escape the superior sophistication of the mainstream that has lead to the inclusion of outsider work, but that the line between the two is increasingly blurred. From our perspective, these designattions have become obsolete and are more appropriately used in only a historical context. 

Unfortunately, the sympathetic eye is almost inevitable and shouldn’t be the responsibility of galleries, curators, or art writers to actively target and discourage this tendency. It is their responsibility, however, to confidently lead by example in a full and fair engagement with the work of these artists as they would with any other, including uninhibited discussion of biography, disability, and the various relevant aspects of lifestyle and disposition that inform the work - a respectful practice of appreciating these works by approaching the unknown with wonder instead of fear. This may mean being comfortable experiencing a work as fiction when it was intended as non-fiction or recognizing that compelling, conceptual contrivances of a neurotypical artist may be just as compelling (or more compelling) as intuitive expressions from an artist with an intellectual disability. Because, by definition, neurodiversity will require communication across profound intellectual differences, including vast disparity in the fundamental nature of our experience - the work must become a point of connection without having to result in a consensus.

 

 

William Scott

  

San Francisco-based artist William Scott is a believer in a better world; his works are the celebratory announcement of the wholesome future. His complex oeuvre not only imagines a parallel universe, but Scott leads by example with a joyous conviction in articulating his vision of a utopian future San Francisco, “Praise Frisco”. Scott’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures are executed in a manner consistent with this gospel of idealism and excellence, shining with a pristine vibrance. 

In a Frieze review of Scott’s solo exhibition "Good Person" at White Columns, Katie Kitamura asserts:

Scott’s work is wrapped up in the idea of what it means to be a citizen, to be interpellated within the social order. That is probably most memorably captured in an untitled series of sci-fi infused works ...These are populated with a lovely switch and change of language - ‘citi-fi’ and ‘inner limits’ and ‘whole some citizen’ - and a series of wide-eyed future citizens of the world, about to depart on airport shuttles into space.
In the most direct way, Scott communicates the way in which being part of any social order relates to pop cultural paranoia and conspiracy theories. But he also captures the deeper suspicion that we are sometimes possessed by forces beyond our comprehension.


William Scott attends Creative Growth’s studio in Oakland. Scott is widely collected and has work in the permanent collections of the MOMA and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. 
He has exhibited recently in Groupings at Park Life Gallery (San Francisco) and previously at the Outsider Art Fair (NYC), Hayward Gallery (London), Gavin Brown’s enterprise, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), the Armory Show (NYC), Palais de Tokyo (Paris), NADA (Art Basel, Miami), and White Columns. From White Columns’ "Good Person" exhibition statement:

For many years William Scott has been working on an ongoing urban planning project that would see San Francisco – in Scott’s terminology – “cancelled”, only to be re-imagined, rebuilt, and rechristened as a new city named ‘Praise Frisco.’ Scott’s urban project, which was the subject of his...White Room exhibition at White Columns, is rooted in a desire to see his own socially marginalized neighborhood of Bay View / Hunter’s Point “torn down” and then subsequently renewed according to his carefully detailed plans. Scott’s ambitious, optimistic, and deeply humane project engages explicitly with San Francisco’s recent past, present realities, and potential future. (more)

Progressive Practices: The Basics

We’ve added a new section on the site for pieces of writing concerning the methodology of progressive art studios. We hope these will be a valuable resource to those involved in this work, as well as anyone interested in this emerging model for artist development. This piece, which discusses the basic, essential components of a progressive art studio, is the first of many. As always, your feedback is appreciated. 

installation view of Judith Scott - Bound and Unbound, a recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Museum

“...there was an extraordinary amount of very strong and wonderful work coming out of these three studios…These centers, all three of which had been founded by the same couple, Florence and Elias Katz in the 1970s and 80s based on the same principles…I started to become intrigued by the question of why was there so much wonderful work coming out of these three art centers and was there something they had in common, some kind of methodology that was bringing forth such wonderful art…the methodology which was proposed by Florence and Elias Katz...which had to do with giving adult artists with developmental disabilities an opportunity to work in communal studios at hours which reflected the common work hours, five days a week 9-5, that these centers be connected to the art world, that there be a gallery connected to the studio, that there be not teachers but facilitators who would assist the artists in making their work, and that there would be a sales element.
        It’s interesting that the first of these centers was created at
exactly the same moment of Roger Cardinal’s famous Outsider Art definition of
outsider artists being cut off from the world and these centers were radically
connected to the world...”

- Lawrence Rinder, Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, discussing the exhibition Create, which he co-curated with White Columns’ Matthew Higgs in 2011. You can view the full panel discussion “Insider Art: Recent Curatorial Approaches to Self-Taught Art” here 

The Create exhibition in 2011 was inspired by the observation that the three Bay Area Katz-founded progressive art studios (Creative Growth, Creativity Explored, and NIAD) have been consistently creating high quality works and using a similar methodology, but without having much contact with each other (or studios elsewhere in the country) since their establishment. Our own research has found that this phenomenon isn’t limited to the Bay Area; studios have emerged across the country since deinstitutionalization began in the 70s - programs where incredible, valid art is created and whose methods include the same basic points. Although many progressive art studios have referred to the Bay Area programs as a development model, most were created prior to any knowledge of them. 

The spontaneous, isolated development of progressive art studios throughout the world indicates something important and unique about what these programs are and what they mean. The insight to be gained is that a model of acceptance rather than assimilation is viable and incredibly valuable, if the culture is forward-thinking enough to accept it. 

Whereas an assimilation methodology depends on developing a way of working with a person experiencing developmental disabilities that successfully produces the prescribed result (using contrived means to alter a way of being or behavior, to fit given expectations), the acceptance methodology begins with a perceived potential and conforms expectations to meet that potential with an open-ended concept of success. The acceptance model appears spontaneously because the potential identified, the creative person, exists universally. Conversely, the desired outcomes of assimilation methods depend on esoteric “best practices” informed by idealized or archaic concepts of behavior, professionalism, or generally appropriate ways of being.

Marlon Mullen, an exhibition currently on view at Atlanta Contemporary

As Lawrence Rinder points out, for the acceptance methodology of a progressive art studio to emerge and excel, it must simply operate on a handful of fundamental principles:

A radical connection to the world

Rinder references a radical connection, in direct contrast with Roger Cardinal’s definition of Outsider Art which is dependent on artists creating in isolation. A progressive art studio is also radically connected to the world in contrast with traditional services for people with developmental disabilities. 

Offering integrated services has long been an ambition of service providers for this population. This is not only because of the proven efficacy of integration, as demonstrated by examples of integrated schools, but also for the sake of cultivating a more inclusive community. In adult life, (post-school) the concept of integration and inclusion is far more complex; everyday life can not be simply “mainstreamed” the way that a school is. Progressive art studios provide opportunities for powerful forms of integration and inclusion that aren’t possible in any other form of support. Successful fine artists such as Judith Scott, Dan Miller, and Marlon Mullen (all of whom have been supported by progressive art studios) are the first examples of people receiving supported employment services who are internationally competitive and influential in their field.

This radical connection depends on the involvement of those at every level of the program who are personally invested in the practice of art-making. The work of facilitators and management must be informed by their knowledge of and personal investment in art (in the context of contemporary international and local culture, as well as art history). Employing fine artists as facilitators and studio managers also allows a connection to develop on a more fundamental level, in the peer relationships between artists in the studio (abstract of being on the providing or receiving end of services). This, in conjunction with the exhibition of artwork, offers unprecedented visibility and presence in the community, culminating in the best possible conditions for the development of genuine professional and personal relationships with other artists who are not paid supports.  

Nicole Appel, Animal Eyes and Russian Boxes, colored pencil on paper, 19″ x 24″, 2014, Pure Vision Arts, NYC

Investment of time

Artists having access to the studio and utilizing it for periods similar to regular work hours is extremely important. This point is a matter of principle and a good vehicle for advocacy of the progressive art studio model as a whole. 

Often, those involved in making decisions by committee with or on behalf of a person with a developmental disability (including parents, case workers, service coordinators, counselors, and other members of the “support team” who are not artists) will oppose large investments of time in the art studio. This occurs for the same reasons that parents oppose children pursuing artistic careers, schools persistently cut art programs, or illustrators, designers, etc. must argue the details of invoices with clients. Creative work as a valuable professional discipline is stigmatized as frivolous throughout american culture, and pushing for higher investments of time is the front line on which these studios combat this stigma. Although it takes place in a congregated and specialized setting, the progressive art studio is much like a job coaching service for those pursuing serious careers as fine artists.

Schedules should range from 6-8 hours per day and 2-5 days per week depending on how developed the artist is, what other employment services or opportunities they’re engaged in, and how much time they want or need to spend working on art. Generally speaking, artists should be permitted to commit as much time as they want to art-making and should be encouraged to commit as much time as they’re able. 

Project Onward's studio space in Chicago

An open studio

The studio must be a space belonging to the artists that’s conducive to creative work, where artists gather to maintain studio practices (not unlike a group of like-minded individuals in any workplace). The concept of the artists owning the space is crucial; providing opportunities for people experiencing developmental disabilities to create art is far more common than actual studios are, and this idea is one of the key distinctions of an approach that’s truly progressive.

There’s an obvious, superficial transition that can be made from a traditional day habilitation program to a shared art studio space. Both are fairly open workspaces where individuals exert themselves productively; several existing studios were once day hab programs or still operate under the pretense of being so in the eyes of Medicaid. However, even if a day hab program shifts its focus completely to art-making and physically becomes an art studio, it’s not a progressive art studio until it achieves a complete conceptual shift of paradigm. The space must be one in which the artists are free to invent and strive to meet expectations of their own devising, not a space where they’re guided to meet the expectations of staff. Any intensive one-on-one, step-by-step directions, or didactic practices must be eliminated. The goal of a progressive art studio is not to provide therapy, education, or any influence of assimilation - it’s to validate an artist’s experience and foster the capacity to share that experience on their own terms. 

It’s not necessarily the case, however, that a progressive art studio completely lacks an educational element. For studios that don’t have a limited admission with portfolio review, there’s a large group of new artists working in the studio who benefit from significant initial guidance in order to discover art-making and learn to value it. Also, the studio may need to set boundaries regarding the use of shared materials and it’s important all people using the space conduct themselves in a professional manner respectful of a communal work environment. This should be achieved with guidance and assistance as needed. Ultimately, though, the core goal must always be total creative independence. 

installation view at DAC Gallery in LA

A gallery and sales element

The gallery and sales element of the progressive art studio provides at least two essential functions. Firstly, as discussed above, exhibitions of artwork are a powerful form of integration into the community that’s not available by any other means. Even in cases where the artists don’t share a physical work space with other artists who aren’t paid supports, their presence and visibility in the community through a gallery show fosters connections with other artists and the general public on the artist’s terms.

Secondly, the handling and display of the work in a fine art exhibition space allows the studio to set an important example in the community for valuing the ideas and experiences of those living with developmental disabilities. By handling and installing the work professionally and making a meaningful investment of space and time in the gallery, the program makes a profound statement about the value of the artist, their ideas, and voice. 

Conversely, handling the work in a manner divergent from accepted standards of a professional artist, ie. overcrowded salon style shows, improperly installed or framed work, or uncritical exhibition of unsuccessful/unresolved works, makes the opposite statement about the work and artists, effectively presenting the work as other and lesser. Allen Terrell, Director of the ECF art centers and affiliated DAC gallery (one of the most professional gallery spaces directly affiliated with a progressive art studio) is driven by a simple principle: don't do anything with the artists’ work that you wouldn't do with your own. 

Terri Bowden

 

In her boldly marked drawings, Terri Bowden portrays the figures as if they are intense, strikingly present memories - fleshy and visceral in some aspects, but broadly summarized, distorted, and surreal in others. Faces are rendered with a realism and clarity that evokes vulnerability, re-contextualizing familiar icons of distant pop culture with a mysterious, untold narrative. Bowden’s work achieves the uncommon combination of dreaminess and gritty power reminiscent of Philip Guston. Recent exhibitions include Vis-à-vis curated by Michael Mahalchick at Andrew Edlin Gallery (New York) and stARTup Fair (San Francisco); her work will also be included in the upcoming exhibition Indigo Mind at StoreFrontLab (San Francisco).

Bowden works at Creative Growth's studio in Oakland, California; from Creative Growth:

"Terri’s whimsical and quirky sense of humor is delightfully evident in her artwork. Having befriended other albinos–who, like herself, are legally blind–Terri often uses albino animals and people as the subject of her drawings. Whether it’s reimagining Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, pop music icon Michael Jackson, or a nondescript winking punk rocker, Terri’s ability to capture the nuances of human expression exceeds far beyond the photos she uses as reference.  Her fixation on albinism extends to ceramics as well, with her pigmentless fruit, Hershey’s kisses, cookies, rabbits and ducks, all executed in the same whitish pink palette that appears in her drawings." (more)

Donald Mitchell

Donald Mitchell, who has been working at Creative Growth in Oakland since 1976, has become one of the most recognized artists living with developmental disability in the world; he's exhibited and collected nationally and internationally at Rena Bransten Gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the Collection de L’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland and ABCD in Paris. Mitchell's body of work epitomizes a totally authentic and personal engagement of drawing as a lifelong investment in the exploration of mark-making, intuition, and invention.  His work develops slowly over time, emerging into a mysterious world of figures.  From Creative Growth:

"Donald Mitchell’s early work consisted primarily of obsessively crosshatched fields of lines that covered the page and hid any trace of an underlying image. Over time, Donald started to reveal the faces and forms that he had buried on the page. Donald’s prolific work is now filled with figures in motion and repose, and his trademark has become a tightly composed, graphically sophisticated page of crowded figures." (See More)

Carl Hendrickson

 

"Carl Hendrickson’s explorations of the way wood works are extravagant, magical, and yet paradoxically pragmatic. While cerebral palsy prevented him from pursuing very many projects – he communicated not in words but through emphasis of gesture and gaze– Hendrickson produced a small, strong body of work that exhibited great architectural prowess and ingenuity. His medium was primarily wood, a material with which he took infinite pains, making certain that each piece of wood was cut and fitted exactly as he had envisioned. He was one of the earliest group of artists to attend Creative Growth, beginning in 1976.

Born in the United States, 1951-2014."  - Creative Growth

William Tyler

Ink on paper, 11" x 15"

Ink on paper, 11" x 15"

Ink on paper, 11" x 15"

William Tyler's images are composed of techniques and visual language that know no equivocation. The problem solving process of drawing is resolved with intention and commitment in each step, resulting in a testimony of total confidence. The stark clarity of his drawing is reflected in the text, creating a harmony between image and language that evokes a dynamic world - paradoxically mysterious and matter-of-fact. Born in Cincinnati in 1954, William Tyler has been making art at Creative Growth in Oakland, California, since 1978, as one of the studio's longest attending artists.  (see more)