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...

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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.   

 

 

 

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"

Billy White

My Body, mixed media on canvas, 18" x 24", 2015

Jed Clampett, glazed ceramic, 10" x 7" x 4"

Untitled, acrylic, 18" x 24", 2015

Untitled, graphite on paper, 12" x 17"

Untitled, mixed media on canvas, 24" x 18"

The process of evaluating any artwork includes some interpretation of how it functions - mechanisms such as the way gestural brushstrokes communicate movement by indexing the physical action of their application, or the way that arrangements of representational imagery can imply relationships between elements that generate narrative.

The mechanism by which Billy White’s paintings elicit emotion is sharply specific, yet escapes analysis, remaining a wonderful mystery. A loose, fearless application of paint renders forms with a striking physicality and sense of humor. There’s an uncanny affinity with the work of figurative painters Todd Bienvenu and Katherine Bradford (who both have an aesthetic undoubtedly informed by the work of self-taught artists). The impact of White’s work cuts through a vivid alternate world that operates on White’s terms - a highly original set of priorities, passing over image and rendering to achieve an expression of mood and vitality, as though excavating the underlying stories that were already present; impatient mark-making and barely legible imagery find time and space for redolent storytelling and detail. While he typically focuses on painting and drawing, White occasionally creates small ceramic sculptures that are rich in character and evocative of Allison Schulnik’s warped clay figures - slumped postures, elongated, rubbery appendages, intermingling glazes, and sunken, cartoonish expressions.

White’s work is largely influenced by his avid interest in pop culture, often depicting actual and imagined events in the lives of various celebrities or fictional characters, from Dr Dre to Hulk Hogan to Superman. NIAD provides some insight into White’s process: “He might start off painting Bill Cosby, but quickly change his mind by lunch. When that happens, he simply works right on top and doesn’t erase what came before. The new work becomes an extension of the old. By the end of the day this could happen several times and what’s often left is a latticework of figures and stories with interchangeable meanings.”


Billy White (b. 1962) has exhibited previously in Rollergate at the Seattle Art Fair, Telling It Slant organized by Courtney Eldridge at the Richmond Art Center, Undercover Geniuses organized by Jan Moore at the Petaluma Art Center, ArtPad San Francisco at the Phoenix Hotel, and extensively at NIAD Art Center, where he has maintained a studio practice since 1994. He has an upcoming solo exhibition at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery later this year.

 

Progressive Practices: Materials, Archives, and Inventory

“I am glad that I had the guts to make these things, and that people like them, because I want them to live for a long time after I am gone.” - Patrick Hackleman 

A remarkable aspect of the progressive art studio history is their independent emergence across the world. Creative Growth in Oakland, California is widely regarded to be the first; they were among the first to be established (Gateway Arts in Brookline, MA was founded shortly before) and they were, by far, the first to break into the art market and support artists that are recognized nationally and internationally. However, the relationship of this first program to subsequent programs elsewhere doesn't strictly follow the typical narrative of a pioneering idea. Their legacy is significant; Franz and Elias Katz went on to establish Creativity Explored and NIAD, and many programs have looked to the bay area as they developed (utilizing the example of Creative Growth as a proof of what's possible with this model). However, versions  comparable to the progressive art studio are widespread and usually come into being without any knowledge of Creative Growth or any other studio. It has been and continues to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. 


Art-making is an intuitive and fantastically effective solution to many of the issues that various service providers for adults with developmental disabilities strive to resolve. As those of us who work within the field understand, the endeavor to provide the least restrictive environment isn’t a merely passive endeavor, It requires a proactive, thoughtful, and ambitious effort to provide not just a safe space, but also  independence, validation, and opportunities to make valued contributions in the community. In a setting based on these aspirations, art-making is a perfect answer, and in some form it tends to be introduced at some point, but in most cases with woefully insufficient ambition or perspective. 


Once art is introduced in settings comparable to day programs, a door opens and an important opportunity emerges. From that point on, the success of the program is dependent on how much the staff believe in the potential of the works created to be great, meaningful, and valuable - and how they express that belief. The degree of belief spans a vast spectrum, at one end the artist’s potential is overlooked entirely as they’re encouraged to waste time by following step-by-step instructions to create mediocre craft objects, and at the other end their potential is hindered only by the limitations that the art itself has to be great - a limit that has not yet been discovered by anyone ever. How a progressive art studio demonstrates respect for their artists and belief in their potential is first expressed in tangible terms - how the work is handled and presented (in not only exhibitions, but at all times). The standard of these practices sets the tone for every aspect of the studio’s functioning, permeating the culture of the organization and influencing how the artists perceive their own work and potential.

Because progressive art studios don’t necessarily emerge with the intention of becoming fine art organizations, and often exist within larger organizations for which fine art has not been a part of their history or culture, they tend to reside within a system that isn’t prepared to understand the process of maintaining an art practice. As a result, many basic concepts such as the nuanced quality of materials or the concept that a great piece can be ruined very easily, aren’t broadly understood. Advocating for respecting the work and believing in its potential must be a constant effort, on every level, from the working culture within the studio, to the relationship between the studio and both its parent organization and the community; every choice has to adhere to clear principles with great conviction.  

The Canvas' Jeff Larabee working with a selection of archival markers and surfaces 

The Canvas' Jeff Larabee working with a selection of archival markers and surfaces 

High Quality Materials      
The first expression of belief in and respect for our artists’ endeavors is the investment we make in the materials provided. High quality art materials are expensive and great art can be made using very inexpensive materials; Henry Darger and Joseph Yoakum created amazing bodies of work in this manner. However, their work has yellowed and faded over time, with restoration efforts already being utilized to preserve their original integrity. The principle that a studio should follow is to use the highest quality archival and lightfast materials feasible for each artist; this must be a highly individualized facilitation process. New, very prolific artists, or artists who haven’t yet matured in their practice may work with student grade materials, but it’s not unreasonable to provide a very expensive sheet of handmade paper to someone who routinely spends months dedicated to completing a single drawing. 

A program should strive to develop a budget capable of maintaining a baseline for quality of materials that, at a minimum, accounts for archival integrity while also allowing room for larger investments in artists who demonstrate promise. As often as possible, these investments and the precious nature of materials should be communicated to the artists. Learning to be attentive to the distinctions in quality and craftsmanship of tools and materials is an important aspect of being a visual artist; developing reverence for a beautiful surface or rich pigments can be an important step in an artist's development. 

Great Photo Documentation and an Archival System
For a progressive art studio to create a clear and complete archive of works is an ongoing  difficult and time consuming task; even medium or small sized programs easily produce hundreds of individual works each month. No other kind of art organization has such a labor-intensive professional archiving process as the progressive art studio; art schools produce a lot of work without storing or documenting it and galleries, museums, and private collections preserve and document large quantities of works, but they aren't created in house. Therefore, developing a great system to achieve this inevitably requires a bit of thought and innovation. Much like great materials, an archival system can be a huge investment (including proper lighting and camera equipment), but the benefits are equally huge.  

The best and most thorough studio archive project we’ve encountered is NIAD’s inventory, which is available to view online in the form of a Tumblr blog - a great resource for what an inventory should ultimately look like. At first glance, it gives you an impression of the program overall, listing works by all artists, with the most recent work at the top. What makes it really powerful, though, is its searchability. You can search a specific artist's name to access their complete body of work, as well as search by medium or year. 

Marlon Mullen's work in NIAD's online archive 

Marlon Mullen's work in NIAD's online archive 

There are many ways to achieve a similar system offline. The key is that each work have a distinct identity - a unique accession number that’s included in the filename of the digital image and physically written inconspicuously on the back of the work. These numbers can then be used to store Information about the work, including artist name, title, medium, size, framed or unframed, and whether it’s currently part of the inventory or sold previously in a simple searchable document (database or spreadsheet) separate from the images. This can be great resource for the program to track its own progress, to be aware of and critical about its trends. 

An archive such as this makes the difference between being perceived and dismissed as a space for recreation or therapy, and being recognized and revered as a powerful and productive cultural institution. It’s also an extremely beneficial resource for gallerists, collectors, curators, and the press, providing convenient access to an impressive collection of incredible bodies of work.  

As important as these pragmatic benefits are, though, is the statement and attitude implicit in developing an impressive archive is more important; the work is either treated as if it’s worth documenting, or as though it is not.

A Clean, Ordered Storage Space and Clean, Careful Handling Practices

Many years ago I worked with a young woman who was caught up in a network of behavior modification obsessed service providers carefully executing “proven” methods to move arbitrary behavioral metrics incrementally. Regretfully, I was never able to fully support her to escape this pseudo scientific culture she was immersed in, but I was able to have her attend our studio for a few days a week, where she was provided with beautiful sheets of pristine drawing paper, on which she made fantastic drawings that were subsequently stored away carefully. During this period of time I visited her home, a state owned “intensive care facility.”  Standing in her living room, I was struck by what the the physical nature of the space asserted about the relationships existing within. There were small thrift store artworks hung weirdly high on the wall out of reach, thick glass brick windows, and a tv bolted to a quaint, wooden piece of furniture that was also bolted to the floor with a simple, but sturdy iron armature holding a sheet of 1.5” thick plexiglass in front of the screen, to protect it.

The contrast between the sensibility of this environment and the practice of giving her that valuable, delicate sheet of drawing paper, not only without protecting it from her, but with the presumption that when she was finished, it would be greatly more delicate and valuable than before, could not be more stark (and for home staff accompanying her to the studio, this notion was downright counterintuitive). This example is extreme, but defines a stigma that proves to be a significant barrier to any progressive art studio, especially those that exist as a part of a larger service provider. Day hab programs tend to be spaces defined by a preoccupation with safety, filled with reinforced or disposable versions of ordinary objects. Assembly workshop programs avoid jobs that entail the creation of delicate products or handling of delicate parts. In a setting that fashions itself to be a productive environment, the stereotype that those with disabilities are clumsy and careless is insidiously destructive. Progressive art studios’ designs and intentions aren’t just divergent from traditional programs for people with disabilities, but are actually opposed to and incompatible them; as much as they resemble day programs in form, they are, in almost every dynamic, the exact opposite. 

The inventory at  Grace  Studio in Hardwick, Vermont. In addition to providing access to art to people with disabilities in their community, Grace owns the estate of the late Gayleen Aiken, who previously worked there. Grace received a grant specifically to provide their staff with professional training in handling and maintaining their collection.

The inventory at Grace Studio in Hardwick, Vermont. In addition to providing access to art to people with disabilities in their community, Grace owns the estate of the late Gayleen Aiken, who previously worked there. Grace received a grant specifically to provide their staff with professional training in handling and maintaining their collection.

A well-maintained and professionally handled inventory of works makes an important statement against this stigma. Progressive art studios need to learn how to handle, package, and store work with the utmost care, not only for obvious practical purposes, but for the sake of the principles that these practices stand for. The understanding that people with developmental disabilities can also create precious art objects worth treating with the highest standards of care is essential to the vision and message.

Like a great archival system, a robust, dependable inventory opens doors for progressive art studios and their artists. A well cared for body of work is an infinitely more compelling proposition to a gallerist than a handful of works carelessly piled onto shelves, stuffed into flat files, or hung arbitrarily on the studio walls. One of the most prevalent, troubling, and confusing phenomenons we discovered during studio visits across the country was artists who were invested in art-making for years having almost no inventory or documentation of work to show for it. 

Marlon Mullen Update

Marlon Mullen, Untitled (P2403), acrylic on canvas, 36" x 36"

Marlon Mullen, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 24" x 30"

Marlon Mullen, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 30"

Marlon Mullen in the studio, images courtesy NIAD

Marlon Mullen (b. 1963 Rodeo, CA), who is now represented exclusively by JTT Gallery and Adams and Ollman, lives in Richmond California, where he maintains a studio practice at NIAD Art Center. Mullen’s process entails reducing found imagery, often in the form of art publications, to a point well beyond recognition. Mullen’s flat, simple abstractions are achieved with utter sincerity, devoid of stylistic embellishment, and without reverting to geometric or systematic deconstructions (calling to mind the work of Gary Hume or Monique Prieto). Each elegant, lushly painted composition feels like an original, unequivocal interpretation of its source (while maintaining mere fragments of the initial image), but ultimately asserting a new sense of resolution with power and charm.  

Mullen has been exhibiting work for several years, but there has been a recent increase of interest in his oeuvre; after his inaugural show with JTT in New York, he went on to have a solo exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary; upcoming solo exhibitions are slated with Adams and Ollman in Portland, Oregon and Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco. JTT and Adams and Ollman will also be co-presenting a solo show of Mullen's work at the Outsider Art Fair in January. 

In a March Artspace interview, on Finding Space in the Market for Underdogs, curator and White Columns Director Matthew Higgs asserted that Marlon Mullen is "an amazingly interesting painter...we did a solo with Mullen a few years ago...JTT saw his work with us and is doing a solo show with him now. I think that's a really amazing development, that Mullen's work, which was largely only seen in the context of the center where he worked, is now finding multiple audiences. Certainly, from our perspective at White Columns, the goal is to create an audience for these ideas - we're less concerned, or ultimately less interested, in creating a market for these ideas. But I accept entirely that sometimes a market will come."

Mullen's work was discussed more recently in a compelling article written by Brendan Greaves for Artnews, The Error of Margins: Vernacular Artists and the Mainstream Art World. Greaves investigates the current role of Mullen and comparable artists in the contemporary art market:

Though the art world may not yet have a satisfactory way of referring to artists like Mullen, who are variously described by such leaky terms as self-taught, outsider, and vernacular, it has, over the past few years, shown more interest in them and is gradually growing the existing market for their work. When this issue of ARTnews went to press, Christie’s was preparing a September sale of what it deems “outsider and folk art,” including work by such acknowledged masters as Chicago narrative artist Henry Darger, Tennessee stone carver William Edmondson, Swiss Art Brut exemplar Adolf Wölfli, and rural Idahoan James Castle, who made paper constructions and delicate drawings with soot and spit.


The anticipated sales prices of the vernacular works at the auction—ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 for small pieces by Clementine Hunter, a painter of life on the Louisiana plantation on which she lived, to $400,000 to $600,000 for a large double-sided Darger drawing—illustrate the highly variable nature of this still-developing market. As Cara Zimmerman, Christie’s newly hired specialist in the field, told me over the summer, “While some well-known artists like Darger and Edmondson have already achieved auction prices commensurate with post-war and contemporary artists, this is still a new venture for us.

Previous exhibitions include the Parking Lot Art Fair in San Francisco (2015), Welcome To My World at NIAD (2015), NADA Art Fair White Columns Booth in Miami (2014), Under Another Name, organized by Thomas J. Lax at the Studio Museum of Harlem (2014), Undercover Geniuses organized by Jan Moore at the Petaluma Arts Center (2013), Color and Form at Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco (2013), Marlon Mullen at White Columns in NYC (2012), After Shelley Duvall '72 at Maccarone in NYC (2011), and Create, curated by Matthew Higgs and Lawrence Rinder at the Berkeley Art Musueum (2011). Mullen is a 2015 recipient of the Wynn Newhouse Award and has work in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Berkeley Art Museum, and MADMusée (Belgium). See more of Mullen's work here

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. 

Marlon Mullen

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 14" x 14", 2015

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 30", 2015

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 24" x 36", 2015

Nancy Graves, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 24", 2014

Marlon Mullen, who is represented exclusively by JTT in New York City, lives in Richmond California, where he maintains a studio practice at NIAD Art Center. Mullen’s abstractions reduce found imagery, often in the form of art magazines, to a point well beyond recognition. Mullen’s work, characterized by flat, simple abstraction, is achieved with an unprecedented sense of honesty, devoid of stylistic embellishment and without reverting to geometric or other systematic deconstructions (calling to mind the work of Gary Hume and Monique Prieto). Each elegant, lushly painted composition feels like an original and unequivocal interpretation of its source (often maintaining only fragments of the initial image), but ultimately asserting a new sense of resolution with power and charm. (See More)

Mullen currently has a solo exhibition on view until November 7, 2015 at Atlanta Contemporary in Georgia. Recent selected exhibitions include the Parking Lot Art Fair, San Francisco (2015), Marlon Mullen at JTT in NYC (2015), NADA Art Fair White Columns Booth in Miami (2014), Under Another Name, organized by Thomas J. Lax at the Studio Museum of Harlem (2014),  Undercover Geniuses organized by Jan Moore at the Petaluma Arts Center (2013), Color and Form at Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco (2013), and Marlon Mullen at White Columns in NYC (2012). Mullen is a 2015 recipient of the Wynn Newhouse Award.

Mullen and his works at NIAD


Nicole Appel

Cars, Bikes, Car Parts, and Maine Coon Cats, colored pencil on paper, 19" x 24", 2014

Animal Eyes and Russian Boxes, colored pencil on paper, 19" x 24", 2014

Day of the Dead, colored pencil on paper, 19" x 24", 2014

Faberge Eggs and Communist Propaganda Posters, colored pencil on paper, 19" x 24", 2014

Nicole Appel working in the Pure Vision Arts studio in New York

By collecting richly detailed imagery into densely composed arrays, Appel’s drawings assert complex associations that range from the intuitive to the bizarre. The component imagery is intricately rendered and resolved, creating a noisy initial phenomenology that rewards examination with great generosity of nuance. As a creative endeavor, Appel's work traverses the paper as raw process, distorting proportions in order to remain true to earlier choices (with each element of the drawing determining its own edges) and creating untouched negative spaces valued for their potential to fit something else in.  

from Pure Vision Arts in NYC:

 

"Nicole Appel was born in 1990 and was raised in Queens, NY where she still lives. At the age of three, Nicole was diagnosed with autism. She has always been passionate about making art and in 2012, began attending Pure Vision Arts.
Focused, and with a strong independent will, Nicole enjoys drawing and painting people and objects from her memory. With a particular interest in food, animals and pop culture icons, she has a vivid imagination and creates expressive, painterly images. Her stroke is bold and her use of color vibrant." (More)

Sara Malpass

  

Untitled, ink on notebook paper, 8.5" x 11", 2014

Untitled Story, ink on notebook paper, 8.5" x 11", 2013

Untitled, mixed media on notebook paper, 8" x 10.5", 2014

This selection of lists are works by up and coming artist Sara Malpass, whose recent exhibition What Are Words For, was discussed in our overview of NIAD last year. Although Malpass’ fascination with words has informed the development of more traditional work (in the form of text-based paintings), her hand-written lists on notebook paper, whose reductive, pragmatic language serves as a striking and personal archive, continue to be central to her creative practice and oeuvre. 

Malpass has exhibited work in the following selected exhibitions: 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 Art Center.