Helen Rae, one of the progressive art studio movement's rising stars, currently has recent work on view at White Columns in NYC, marking her first east coast solo exhibition. Rae is quickly emerging as an important figure in this movement; her work is striking, wildly popular, and at 78 years old, her practice is one of great dynamism and momentum.Read More
Dale Jackson at White Columns presents a significant selection from the Cincinnati-based artist’s extensive body of work for his first New York exhibition. Brimming with a disarming sincerity and candor, Jackson’s imaginative missives are a breath of fresh air...Read More
“The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see … I think that the idea of the pleasure of the eye is not merely limited, it isn’t even possible. Everything means something. Anything in love or in art, any mark you make has meaning and the only question is ‘what kind of meaning?” - Philip Guston
Prolific visionary Knicoma “Intent” Frederick has lived the intensely dedicated life of an artist for whom painting is more than painting - it’s a way to access something deeper than merely tangible or social ends. Frederick’s work engages the practice of image design and creation with a mystical or prophetic intent, relying on and striving to access and utilize the magic inherent in the process of painting.
Sometimes remarkably akin to the work of William Scott, Frederick’s work possesses an abundance of idealism, realized as utopian visions of the future - proclamations from Glory News, superhero first responders defeating armies of demons, or a “love and justice” rocket ship flying overhead. Where Scott has a steadfast tone of praise and celebration, however, Frederick’s narrative works also include darker, stranger, sometimes ominous themes that afford them a sense of gravity, conflict, and romance.
Works such as Untitled (Couple Painting/Beach Scene) live in a space characterized by a more cryptic sort of mysticism, in which painting becomes not only the method that Frederick employs, but also becomes incorporated into the content of the image - overtly, when paintings are included in the image, and less explicitly when “painting” as an archetype is present in the work via the presence of painting tropes (such as a dramatic seascape or elements of traditional still life). These tendencies also present themselves in the work of Los Angeles based painter John Seal.
In response to our inquiry about Frederick and the concept of paintings of paintings Seal remarked:
"The magic, really, is in the disconnect/misconnect. It is in the way the subject and its material delivery interface/intermesh with the viewer's life experiences--it is the surprise of finding anything in common, the surprise of seeing one's self, altered and new, reflected in the painting which in turn becomes new in the viewer's eyes. The magic is in this dual rebirth of viewer (subject) and painting (object). The magic is the painting's ability to make this dual rebirth visible. Painting paintings of paintings is, to me, a way to lead people into the mechanics of image, and to invite the viewer to examine their own relationship to looking: if a picture can be captured by a picture via the means (language) of painting, what can it do to the rest of the world?"
Knicoma Frederick harnesses these mechanics to not only compel the viewer to reflect on the capacity of painting, but to also assert the presence of his message in the world he envisions. The "dual rebirth" that painting facilitates is, for Frederick, a pathway into this realm that his work manifests, and painting is explicitly the magic by which this manifestation takes place.
In the course of discussing his WPIZ series of artist books, and a fictional video game called ArtFighter (which exists within WPIZ) Frederick articulates his manipulation of this mystical function of painting:
"People have heard of games like ‘Street Fighter’ and ‘Mortal Combat’ and ‘Tekken’ for PlayStation and XBox and all of those different types of game systems…But ‘Art Fighter…is fighting with artwork. You’re taking artwork and you’re fighting the situation with it. You’re taking a picture that represents what you want to have happen, done by the storyline in each book. You’re taking a picture, and you’re destroying the negative with it…I have an obligation to make the WPIZ so that the books are used for overcoming the evil that’s in the people’s way." (source)
Shortly before the establishment of the Creative Vision Factory (where Frederick maintains his studio practice), Director Michael Kalmbach encountered Frederick attempting to get permission at a drop-in mental health center to use the copy machine (unsuccessfully), presumably for the distribution of a handwritten series of newspapers (in the neighborhood of six hundred pages). Kalmbach cites this event as instrumental in the development of CVF (informing its goals, design, and function), not only due to the magnitude of this endeavor, demonstrating the need for and potential value of a studio of this kind, but also that the content of these newspapers provided important insight about both Frederick's personal experience and the mental health system in general.
Frederick’s works are conceptualized as series of books for which each work represents a specific page. Over the four years that he has been with CVF, he has published more than 25 artist books, each comprised of 125 - 150 works; prior to the publishing a book, the works can not be sold individually. Frederick has an extremely productive creative practice; Kalmbach estimates that he creates roughly 1000 works per year.
Knicoma Frederick is originally from Brooklyn, New York, but is currently based in Wilmington, Delaware. Recent exhibitions include All Different Colors and Outsiderism at Fleisher/Ollman in Philadelphia and previously at numerous venues in Wilmington, Delaware. He has work in the permanent collection of the Delaware Art Museum and is the recipient of an Emerging Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts.
Cooper’s oeuvre is a ongoing narrative featuring Cincinnati, imparted with adoration and idealism. Drawings that are tenaciously committed to archiving the city’s developing reality in bic ballpoint pen, Cooper documents the destruction of old buildings and construction of new ones, while modifying details to reflect the time of year (often after they've been hung in an exhibition space). But they are also richly populated with celebratory, idealistic imagery - flags flying on rooftops, hot air balloons traversing the sky above the river, “Do not be afraid, be a precious friend! Zmile, you’re in Zinzinnati Ohio USA 2011”.
Cooper’s works are often characterized as maps, which isn’t an entirely accurate categorization. Visionaries + Voices’ Krista Gregory points out:
I've come to learn that Courttney has been drawing "aerial views" of Cincinnati since he was a small child, first using an etch-a-sketch. His mark-making certainly reflects having this type of information/tool...I see the work that Courttney creates more in the vein of landscape, or townscape; as they are romantic in their visceral love for this place...I think that this work being categorized as ‘maps’ is misleading and couches them in something that is more related to Courttney's disability rather than to what it is that he is actually expressing and creating. They are not accurate. They are not drawn completely from memory. I've witnessed people hold on to wanting to think these things because it makes the work accessible or novel in some way. I sort of think that it is a reductive way to see them
The desire to see Cooper’s works as maps may be the consequence of trying to categorize autistic thinking - relegating autistic artists as spectacles of savant-ism. Courttney Cooper, however, is not comparable to Stephen Wiltshire, for example; his drawings are not an accurate configuration of streets as a road map indicates, nor are they a repetitious anonymous depiction of a city in an illustrative way. They're indeed informed by an intimate experience with his city - an astounding wealth of information accumulating across increasingly massive surfaces (created by gluing together scrap paper that Cooper gathers while working at Kroger). But this isn't the subject of the work, it's only the formal foundation that serves as a vehicle for Cooper’s voice. Cooper’s drawings are a complex and authentic network of specific places and structures; his streets are composed of details from memory or observation, cataloging expressions of particular perceptions in particular moments. 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.
Zinzinnati Ohio USA: The Maps of Courttney Cooper curated by Matt Arient, is a selection of Cooper's drawings from 2005 - 2015, currently on view at Intuit through May 29th. Cooper is represented by Western Exhibitions in Chicago, where he has an upcoming solo exhibition November 12 - December 31, 2016. Cooper has maintained a studio practice at Visionaries + Voices in Cincinnati since 2004; he has exhibited extensively in the greater Cincinnati area and has work in the Cincinnati Art Museum collection. Selected exhibitions include the Wynn Newhouse Exhibition at Palitz Gallery, Syracuse University (as a 2015 Wynn Newhouse Award recipient), Cincinnati Everyday at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Maps + Legends: The Art of Robert Bolubasz and Courttney Cooper at Visonaries + Voices, Studio Visions at the Kentucky Museum of Art, Cincinnati USA: Before Meets After at PAC Gallery, and Indirect Observation at Western Exhibitions.
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.
Recently Disparate Minds had the opportunity to have an encouraging and insightful conversation with Ari Ne’eman about progressive art studios, the incredible work they do, their future, and their relationship to the disability rights movement. Ari is a hero of the movement, particularly as a champion of autism rights and autistic self advocacy; he’s the co-founder and current president of the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and was appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Council on Disability’s Policy & Program Evaluation Committee in 2009 (Ne’eman is the first autistic person to ever serve on the council).
As we’ve traveled around the country speaking with directors of progressive art studios, a common concern, almost everywhere, has been how these programs can continue as regulations regarding medicaid services change - that phasing out the practice of providing medicaid funded services in a “congregated” or “sheltered” setting could threaten their existence. Strangely, progressive art studios seem to find themselves at odds with the broader disability rights movement as a direct result of this. As we’ve researched to understand this issue, we’ve found that representatives of the disability rights movement generally just aren't aware that progressive art studios exist or familiar with their impact or importance. Other than a general awareness of the VSA (a network of providers affiliated with the Kennedy Center offering some art related services to children with disabilities), Ari also had no prior knowledge of progressive art studios, had never heard of Creative Growth or Judith Scott, and didn’t know that at the center of our culture, the art world, there’s an incredible shift occurring in the way that developmental disability is currently understood.
During our visit with Creativity Explored director Amy Taub, responding to a question about developing practices to accommodate future regulations (such as an integrated or community based model that works) said “this is what works”. Studios like Creativity Explored have, for decades, provided day programs supporting artists to have independence, agency, and place in our culture to a degree beyond the the most idealistic dreams of any other form of service provider. Championing the voices and ideas of people with disabilities in national and international forums, in public works and large-scale commercial endeavors. And yet, Taub also conceded poignantly that progressive art studios are an incredibly small fraction of medicaid providers for day or employment services.
Furthermore, it’s not only studios that aren’t well known or understood among disability service providers, but art itself. The achievements of artists like Judith scott, Dan Miller, Courttney Cooper, Marlon Mullen, Julian Martin, and Helen Rae feel monumental; it’s easy to forget how small and obscure the art world really is to the majority of the population. The reality is that most people wouldn't know who Larry Gagosian or Jeff Koons are, nevermind Matthew Higgs or Andrew Edlin, even as their influence touches so many aspects of our culture. The social impact of contemporary art isn’t married to public knowledge of its agents; the average IKEA customer has likely never heard the name Donald Judd. The impact that progressive art studios have made and can make, is enormous and unprecedented in history for people with disabilities, even as the most successful examples of artists from progressive art studios remain mostly unknown.
We believe that even though progressive art studios are currently a relatively small fraction of services provided, the work they pursue is essential. We decided to reach out to Ari Ne’eman and discuss this specifically in response to his own comments on the relationship of the disability rights movement to social and cultural change. In this video Ari responds to a question about the lack of social and cultural victories made by the disability rights movement, conceding that the movement has focused on making valuable legal and policy advancements by “soft selling” the cultural and social impact that’s aspired for. He states, “We haven’t excelled at turning out large numbers of people, we haven’t excelled at winning social and cultural victories” and that the movement is “not well-geared towards winning hearts and minds”; as a result of this and the movement being insular in nature, Ne’eman says, “We don't see the broader cultural conversations about disabilities that we see in the context of other identities.”
Winning hearts and minds while creating broad cultural conversation is exactly what progressive art studios are doing, better than any other model for support. We conveyed to Ari the feeling expressed to us by many progressive art studios that “congregating” or “facility-based” programs are unfairly regarded to be necessarily less progressive than integrated community-based supports, arguing that although progressive art studios aren’t integrated spaces in a traditional sense, they affect integration and inclusion in their respective communities and cultures through exhibitions, which ultimately provide a categorically more authentic presence for the voices and ideas of artists with disabilities than simply being physically present does.
We also argue that even though integration is possible and is being pursued by several studios, it may not be without a cost to the studio’s effective functioning, as well as their social impact. Currently, we argued, these studios are emerging in the contemporary art conversation as a new model for artists’ careers and development, and it’s important that this movement belongs to artists with disabilities and their respective studios. Even ignoring the practical disadvantages of transitioning to a system in which artists with disabilities rent studio space to work alongside neurotypical artists (with facilitators visiting to work with them as job coaches), this is a change that would undermine these artists’ ability to make a case for their place in history not only as artists who are successful despite disability and receiving services, but as artists for whom being disabled and receiving services is an integral part of their identity, their lives, and their creative practice. These artists’ disability and dispositions as recipients of services should be understood as a legitimate cause to congregate as artists, because it should be understood as a legitimate way of being.
Ari’s response to this was encouraging and compelling. He expressed that integrating progressive art studios wouldn't have to mean eliminating the studio itself, or even depriving it of its identity as a space for artists with disabilities, it just needs to also be open to artists without disabilities who aren’t paid supports. Ari explained that this isn’t just about the social impact of integration, but also how integration affects the delivery of services. This is something easy to forget, as our focus has been on the handful of studios who are the most progressive and successful in the world, where delivery of services isn’t a concern. Looking more broadly, that there are a great many programs who provide art, even in an open studio setting that aren’t as effective as they should be - who are not as organized, progressive, or person-directed as they should be. It’s undeniable that the quality of services provided by staff would, as a whole, be better if staff were also working with neurotypical artists. In this sense, it’s impossible to deny that if all service providers providing day programs were required to be open and appealing to neurotypical artists using their space alongside artists with disabilities, they would be forced to use more progressive practices. It’s significant that this idea only makes any sense for art studio programs - they’re the only kind of day program that would be appealing to neurotypical artists if they become open to them.
Ari explained that there has been a focus on integrating and improving residential and employment services more than day services, and he committed to us that he’ll keep progressive art studios in mind as attention shifts to day services. In response to our description of the progressive art studio model, Ne’eman emphasized a few key points that will be important going forward:
- Focus on benefit to the individual served
Although the social and cultural impact of progressive art studios and their artists is important, it should never be prioritized over benefit to the individual. This means facilitating and supporting career management in a way that always prioritizes the artist’s wants and needs above all other concerns, including social impact, or benefit to the program or its staff. This means not exhibiting or selling an artist's work if they don't want it exhibited or sold, even if that exhibition would provide valuable exposure for the program as a whole. This also means being very careful about collaborative projects, which are often regarded as a good way to connect with the community, but which could also present a high risk for exploitation.
- Severability of services
The relationship of the program to the artist needs to be such that the artist is able to continue their life and career even if they chose to use another provider. This is a concern that stems from problems identified in residential services in which service providers are also landlords, so ending or changing services means moving out of their home.
For progressive art studios this has important implications in two dynamics of the model. One is ownership of the artists’ works - both physical inventory and as intellectual property. Agreements have to be very clear from the start about how this is managed in the event that an artist chooses to stop being a part of the studio or move to a different studio. The other dynamic is the marriage of habilitation/care services and art facilitation/career management services. Having artists work with artists in the studio is essential, so the dual role of artist staff as facilitators and direct care or habilitation staff is an ideal arrangement. The principle of severability of services would seem to also require that the artist should be able to continue to use the studio even if they prefer to use a different provider for rehabilitation services, or if they chose to discontinue their habilitation or care services. The latter is arguably more essential, and certainly more feasible, as it would simply require that the artist pay for their use of the studio by some other means, as neurotypical artists using the studio would in an integrated arrangement.
Eliminating scheduling of regular hours
One of the essential aspects of a progressive art studio described by Lawrence Rinder in discussion of the Create exhibition was that the artists work in the studio during “hours which reflect the common work hours, five days a week 9-5”. However, artists shouldn’t be in agreement with the studio to attend at certain times as they would attend work or school, but may set goals to invest a particular amount of time and devise plans that use a schedule to meet that goal. In practice, this seems to boil down to a mere matter of language, but it’s based on an important principle; artists in progressive art studios aren’t paid an hourly rate, so they can’t obliged to attend particular hours. Attendance policies or schedules that have a compulsory feeling are left over from less progressive models - an artist's use of the studio should be understood as self-motivated.
The most encouraging insight from this conversation was that the future of progressive art studios may be not only to sustain as regulations change, but to broaden scope and expand as a new definition of what day programming is. If studios are understood not as part of an outmoded form of service, but as the examples of the ideal model for a still relevant and important one, then day programs in general can be redefined, no longer as places where people with disabilities are accommodated, but as spaces for creativity, in which a truly neurologically diverse group of creative people congregate to utilize tools, materials, and work space with guidance and support as needed - spaces that are for expression, entrepreneurship, and all manner of making, whose existence is a statement about the essential relationship of diversity to productivity as paragons of the most extreme expression of those principles.
Deveron Richard maintains a creative practice at one of many ECF art centers in the LA area (previously discussed by Disparate Minds in terms of their relationship to DAC Gallery). His inaugural solo show is currently on view in LA at the Good Luck Gallery through May 21st. From the Good Luck Gallery:
“An idiosyncratic iconography of visionary space travel and anthropomorphic sexuality arrives via the South Bay of Los Angeles through the singularly fertile imagination of Deveron Richard. Winged horses in brassieres and high heels glide peacefully around the cloud-enshrouded towers of a futuristic city, polar bears in lipstick and slit dresses prance through a fluorescent arctic landscape, and provocatively-attired unicorns face off on a hallucinatory geometric color grid. These hybrid creatures of exaggerated femininity exude a quirky eroticism. Rendered in watercolor with a distinctively saturated palette, inventive draftsmanship and hypnotic backdrops of complex rhythmic patterning. Other works depict interplanetary battles with rockets hurtling through galaxies and deadly beams shooting into space.”
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.
One of the fantastic surprises at the Outsider Art Fair this year was our experience with the work of Michael Pellew. Pellew’s work is unassuming, and in the context of the fair particularly blends in - a style defined by repetition, drawing within a simple system, and the use of unconventional materials (markers). We were more familiar with his series of small original drawings marketed as greeting cards, which typically feature a grouping of four or five figures (available at Opening Ceremony in Manhattan and LA). In a larger scale, the voice only available in snippets in smaller works unfolds to become an astonishing comedic performance.
The repetition and economy of visual language in his work is necessary to the humor - each figure articulated in an identical manner, with just a few distinctive features describing its specific identity. The supreme ease with which each character enters the scene via this agile visual vernacular accounts for the works’ pace and timing. There's an exciting cleverness in the way the simple archetype of the figure takes on the identity of countless celebrities, analogous to a skilled impressionist mimicking pop culture icons in rapid succession. Pellew seems to be compiling an ongoing, shifting catalog of celebrities; those with apparent relationships or categorizations are sporadically interrupted with unexpected pairings (Princess Diana and Lemmy Kilmister) or fictional personas (Lauryn Hill M.D. from Long Island College Hospital, The Phanton Lord). Viewers with an extensive knowledge of pop culture are highly rewarded by the ability to recognize the abundance and subtlety of his references.
Humor is an important element in many works that don't necessarily make us laugh, but truly funny art like Pellew’s (beyond the occasional clever moment or inside joke), is very uncommon. Crystallizing the elusive and ephemeral quality of comedy into a permanent art object is extremely difficult to achieve. Usually the most overtly funny approach is to employ an explicit punchline that rests on an impressive technical or procedural spectacle; artists that exemplify this approach are those like Wayne White or Eric Yahnker.
Pellew’s humor, however, is more nuanced, so in the absence of a punchline, his approach relies on absolute fluency rather than overt technical prowess. The quintessential example of this brand of humor is Raymond Pettibon; works that appear effortless afford the artist a more casual voice, equipped to cultivate a more dynamic interaction between the work and viewer. When it's less obvious that there's a joke present, the viewer tunes into a more acute examination of tone and timing in search of the artist's intention.
Whereas Pettibon uses this approach to insert sardonic or satirical moments of levity into his generally grim oeuvre, Pellew instead engages this sort of humor with a lighter and even silly sensibility; he creates an abundantly bright and positive space that is captivating. The conceptual foundation of his work becomes about treading the line between earnestly identifying as an artist, or slyly engaging in play-acting the role of an artist. Walton Ford has described using play-acting (as a scientific illustrator) in a similar way as an entry point into comedy. In Pellew’s case, the performance is broader, and in its execution more engrossing - guiding you through his alternate world, you're always uncertain if he’s serious, even as he crosses well over into the realm of absurdity.
In the affable universe he realizes, there’s virtuosity in the way moments of comedic surprise cut sharply through. The lingering experience of these pieces isn’t static, but a dreamlike memory of an event unfolding; line-ups of celebrities…everyone had a pepsi…they were all hanging out around a limousine eating McDonalds…and then Marilyn Manson is offering his famous burger and fries. It’s an alternate reality composed of familiar characters and Pellew is leading us along, introducing each of them, all in his voice - but really it's the viewer’s voice. You are left walking away amused, incredibly satisfied, but not entirely sure what has just happened.
Pellew has been working at LAND Gallery’s studio for over ten years and participated in numerous exhibitions in New York, including group shows at Christian Berst Art Brut and the MOMA. His work has been acquired by many reputable collectors, including Spike Lee, Sufjan Stevens, Citi Bank, JCrew and PAPER Magazine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.
Throughout 2015, Disparate Minds writers Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue worked directly with The Canvas, a progressive art studio in Juneau, Alaska as Artists-In-Residence, guest facilitators, and curators of the group exhibition NEW VOICES.
The Canvas is a relatively young studio and when we initially joined them was beginning to transition from a didactic approach to art-making to one of professional development. We were given the opportunity work directly with artists in the studio alongside facilitators to share ideas and knowledge about further developing the emerging creative culture and cultivating an environment conducive to the independent discovery of art-making - guiding artists to invent and maintain studio practices of their own devising. We focused on post hoc guidance through the introduction of criticism in one-on-one discussion and group critique, challenging artists to explore the potential investment of time and care available in each of their processes.
The result of this paradigm shift has been a wealth of inspired new ideas and creative voices. NEW VOICES represents a selection of current work in various media by this studio’s most promising and successful artists, including many that we’ve discussed in essays for Disparate Minds over the past year: the nuanced minimalism of Grace Coenraad, Luis Hernandez’s intuitive yet complex abstractions, the enigmatic text-based drawings of Jeff Larabee, and Susy Martin’s bold, layered symbolism. This exhibition establishes a dialogue between artists and artwork, accentuating similar investigations of visual language and innate tendencies - repetitive processes or subject matter choices, surface manipulation, emblematic mark-making, or heightened attention to detail.
Other highlights from the exhibition include:
Mark Davis’ first major work on paper - a complex, pattern-based drawing in colored pencil, created using an intuitive set of rules, built methodically from bottom to top; it’s a spectacle of fluorescent color and rich detail, paradoxically both a simple, flat pattern and organic rendering of form reminiscent of a woven textile.
Exhibited alongside Jeff Larabee is his good friend and fellow explorer of text aesthetics, Terral Kahklen (TK). TK began coming to the studio late in the year, but immediately began making compelling work. He’s an example of an experience with profound intellectual disability that’s persistently misunderstood and unseen, a person whose way of being demonstrates that being disparate from the neurotypical (far from being a mere impairment in any linear sense), can become a disposition in which making connections between his inner and exterior world (social engagement in a fundamental sense) is a series of creative problems. In effect, his entire engagement with the neurotypical world becomes a creative and aesthetically thoughtful endeavor. Throughout his life, he has elected to be silent and communicate almost exclusively through minimal sign language, allowing himself to be understood on his own terms. For TK, creating elegant, minimalist drawings couldn’t be more natural. His process is exceptionally thoughtful, carefully considering each mark for long periods of time despite consistently choosing to repeat the forms T and K in an exclusively grayscale palette; each of his early works was a singular exploration, but quickly accumulated as a dynamic body of work reflecting a clear perspective.
Melanie Olsen is an eccentric artist who has spent her life surrounded by the majestic, monumental terrains of California and Alaska. In temperament, Melanie is a classic landscape painter, inspired by the beauty and romance of the sublime landscape, and strives to respond to it faithfully in her work. Her drawing process is a collection of brief, intensely focused moments in which she traces long, complicated contour lines, gritting her teeth and drawing almost blindly as her eyes intently follow the jagged mountain edges in her source imagery. In the interest of objectivity, she relies methodically on a range of different grades of graphite to control value in her shading, evaluating tones against a set of graphite swatches. Her works are a highly critical endeavor, not intended to be expressive or personal, but idealistic and true.
In addition to being a fantastic exhibition, NEW VOICES is an achievement of one of the most revolutionary and exciting aspects of progressive art studios: their power to support contemporary, genuine work for the benefit of both local and global art communities. In Juneau, Alaska, the local art community (with a few exceptions) produces and exhibits safe. accessible works - neo-impressionist landscapes typical of rural communities and kitschy illustrative works reflecting a narrow set of themes highly driven by the tastes of tourists, while the beautiful traditional arts of Native Alaskans often remain marginalized. In this cultural landscape, this exhibition is an unprecedented emergence of relevant and compelling contemporary concepts and studio processes.
Mary Ann refers to all of her works as her “creations”. Like a story teller, she’s inspired by a combination of personal experiences in her daily life and concepts that she values, such as motherhood and heaven. Consequently, her works have a narrative feel - depictions of people and places that may be part of a story.
Mary Ann’s process, however, is not guided by narrative, but rather by an ambition to create. As a result of this, her subjects aren’t rendered as two-dimensional images, but intended to exist in their own right, in a two-dimensional world. In effect, her imaginative nature inevitably imbues the world she creates with a narrative life, but this distinction in her creative practice is important. Because she's creating rather than depicting, a figure, for example, is drawn in its entirety before clothing is drawn onto it - often a layer of flesh tones is painted before a subsequent layer of paint is added for the color of their clothing. If she includes shoes or gloves for a figure, she draws them around the foot or around the hand, rather than over it. Figures standing in front of a train are placed below the train, rather than in front of it, because both the train and people are created separately. Mary Ann has a highly original way of translating her perception of reference images onto paper, often distorting the scale of objects and editing out details that don’t fit her vision.
In the world she creates, scale is an expressive choice; each form is given whatever space it needs to exist and relate to the world it occupies. Ultimately in her work, she creates people and things to stage a still, timeless moment that’s simple, complete, and good.
Mary Ann James maintains a studio practice at The Canvas, a progressive art studio in Juneau, Alaska.
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
Throughout 2015, Disparate Minds writers Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue worked directly with The Canvas, a progressive art studio in Juneau, Alaska as Artists-In-Residence, guest facilitators, and curators of the group exhibition NEW VOICES.Read More
When I first painted a number of canvases grey all over (about eight years ago), I did so because I did not know what to paint, or what there might be to paint: so wretched a start could lead to nothing meaningful. As time went on, however, I observed differences of quality among the grey surfaces – and also that these betrayed nothing of the destructive motivation that lay behind them. The pictures began to teach me. By generalizing a personal dilemma, they resolved it.
Gerhard Richter, From a letter to Edy de Wilde, 23 February 1975
Coenraad’s dark, minimalist works are the product of a measured and slow process, executed with extreme diligence. Using 08 black microns, traditional pen and ink nibs, and occassionally graphite, she densely hatches careful lines, which slowly collect on the surface over many hours of work. This method is a clear path leading to an absolute resolution - the surface being obscured by black. The magic of these pieces (although they’re inextricable from the story of the steadfast execution of this simple method) lies in content that’s fantastically nuanced and complex. The black square is a subtle, jagged field comprised of various sheens and tones - certain patches are tinted by an initial application of bright watercolor (often pink or blue) that has bled through the subsequent, inevitable layer of black. The marks made using microns are incised, and those created with india ink and nib lift the paper slightly away from the surface, resulting in a textured surface reminiscent of Richard Serra’s black oil stick drawings. And much like the reductive, sublime paintings of Richter or Clyfford Still, Coenraad demonstrates that the honest act of mark-making isn’t reduced when it’s stripped of intentions or illusion. Conversely, it only becomes more revealing and mysterious.
After his first museum exhibition of entirely black drawings in 2011, Richard Serra was described by critic Roberta Smith as hermetic, abstract, difficult, and austere, an assessment that he accepted, describing it as “a virtue.” Explaining that art has to be difficult, Serra said that drawing independent of the flamboyance of color interaction, mark-making on its own, in black on white, proves to necessitate invention, thereby providing a “subtext” for how an artist thinks. For him, allover black works were a move to escape that convention of drawing as a “form to ground problem” to create works concerning “interval and space” rather than image.*
Coenraad didn’t stumble upon this principle inadvertently like Richter; for her, it’s a process that reflects a way of being. It is, as Serra articulates, an extension of the thought process and more. To a degree that’s rarely seen for non-performative artists, Coenraad is an artist for whom the boundary between life and art is blurred. Every task is executed with the same resolute sensibility, engaging life with a singular and sophisticated method in pursuit of perfection. Every bite of food is carefully selected and examined before being eaten (ingredients of an undesirable color rejected), every mundane task is afforded great consideration. For years she has worked part-time at a document destruction facility, where no one has been able to compel her to obliterate more than one document at a time. At home, blackening crossword puzzle squares for hours with ballpoint pen or sharpie is part of her daily ritual.
In the studio, Grace is fully immersed in her practice - working with her face close to the surface, she becomes absent from anything exterior of the drawing process. Occasionally she will stop and look around the room for a moment like a deep sea diver rising briefly to the surface, before submerging again. Grace doesn’t discuss her work, not because she can’t, but because there seems to be nothing necessary to say once a piece is finished.
Between her larger, long-term works, Coenraad sometimes creates small graphite sketches, thoughtful experiments that serve as a point of entry into her mysterious thought process. The placement of faces demonstrate the dynamics of orientation in her drawings. The coexistence of elements in combination with turning the paper many times while working isn’t incidental to the process, but essential to it.
Coenraad is a Juneau-based artist who maintains a studio practice at The Canvas in Juneau, Alaska. Her work will be included in an upcoming group exhibition curated by Disparate Minds writers Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue at The Canvas' exhibition space in December.
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)
Material in the raw is nothing much. Only worked material has quality, and pieces of worked material are made to show their quality by men, or put together to so that together they show a quality which singly they had not. “Good material” is a myth. English walnut is not good material. Most of the tree is leaf-mold and firewood. It is only because of workmanlike felling and converting and drying and selection and machining and setting out and cutting and fitting and assembly and finishing - particularly finishing - that a very small proportion of the tree comes to be thought of as good material.
- David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship
John Hartman skillfully works within the tangible, tactile boundaries of a small-scale process and commitment to good workmanship. Within this intimate context, he engages wood without conceptual boundaries, exploring utility, mimesis, and sculptural invention freely. Through the tradition of woodworking, Hartman is able to realize a wide range of possessable objects that evoke a sense of elegance and great integrity.
Hartman is a Manhattan-based artist who has been working in Pure Vision’s studio since 2013. From Pure Vision:
Hartman’s “main passion is woodcarving. John was introduced to the craft at the age of eleven, in wood shop at The Rudolph Steiner School. He began by crafting a cherrywood flour scoop. Instantly drawn to the medium, he slowly started teaching himself how to make more complicated objects. Collecting rare woods from around the world such as ebony, zebra wood, Philippine mahogany and bloodwood, John now spends hours in the studio and at home carving, whittling, sanding and polishing each piece. Inspired by visits to his family’s seaside home on Fire Island, his subjects often reference birds and sea creatures.” (more)
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.
“...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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Arshad’s distinctive works are characterized by series of numbers, phrases, and concepts of time that manifest in the form of visual and spacial poetry. An investigation of the overlap in the process of seeing and reading akin to Christopher Wool is present - where Wool employs the arrangement of words on a surface to disrupt the reading process systematically, Arshad’s visual and written languages instead merge more fluidly. Text forms, influenced by dynamics of color and scale, impose elusive and subjective variation in the reading experience.
Arshad’s work reflects an avid interest in ideas related to the passage of time. An invented symbol for eternity, 129999 (a single number indicating all months and years), often surfaces in her work; she also lists years chronologically beginning with the year 2000, organizing the numerical information into multi-colored grids. Over the course of 46 years, Roman Opalka painted horizontal rows of consecutive, ascending numbers (1 – ∞), an ongoing series that ultimately spanned 233 uniformly sized canvases. In “Roman Opalka’s Numerical Destiny” for Hyperallergic Robert C. Morgan writes:
From the day his project began in Poland until his death in the south of France in 2011, Opalka combined clear conceptual thinking with painterly materials. His search for infinity through painting became a form of phenomenology, which, in retrospect, might be seen as parallel to the philosophy of Hegel. Through his attention to a paradoxically complex, reductive manner of painting, Opalka focused on infinite possibilities latent within his project.
Arshad’s rigorous, repetitive approach is similar to 0palka’s engagement with infinity, yet there are more prevalent breaches in her pattern-based system. Much like the process of weaving, Arshad’s drawings reflect an intrinsic structure that serves as a guide for intended visual results, yet there is room for distortion and a spontaneous response to the surface.
Arshad (b. 1975, Florence, Italy) has exhibited previously at Cooper Union (NYC), the Outsider Art Fair, The Museum of Everything (London), Phoenix Gallery (NYC), Berenberg Gallery (Boston), Trustman Gallery (Simmons College, Boston), Drive-By Projects (Watertown, MA), Creativity Explored (San Francisco), and at Gateway’s Gallery in Brookline, Massachusetts. Arshad lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has attended Gateway Arts’ studio since 1996.
see more work by Arshad here