Dispatch (May 22, 1994): p.
Take Look Inside ‘Outsider’ Art.”
By Michael McClaran.
Someone unaccustomed to
contemporary art might be disturbed by what he sees at the Wexner Center for the
There he finds not traditional
arts, such as painting, but more ''difficult'' or unusual forms of aesthetic
However avant-garde, though, the
work is produced by artists who have studied their craft and become members of
the establishment of artists, galleries, critics and collectors.
The anthology The Artist
Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture examines another kind of
difficult or unusual art - folk art, outsider art, art brut or what poet John
Ashbery called ''sick art.''
It is art from people who work
outside the cultivated art world, who express their art ''in its pristine form,
something unadulterated, something reinvented from scratch at all stages'' - as
Roger Cardinal writes in Toward an Outside Aesthetic.
Such artists can be found in
mental hospitals or mountain villages; their common bond is that they have no
art training. They include the late Columbus artist Elijah Pierce, whose work
The Artist Outsider features.
Nineteen essays, by writers of
uneven skills and widely disparate viewpoints, are drawn together in the
well-illustrated collection edited by sculptor Michael D. Hall and Miami
University Professor Eugene W. Metcalf Jr. Psychiatrists, folklorists and
anthropologists are among the contributors.
Although the term outsider artist
was not coined until 1970 - and its chief exponent, French artist Jean Dubuffet,
did not start collecting art from insane asylums until the 1940s - the art form
has its precedents.
In Rebels, Mystics and Outcasts,
Joanne Cubbs mentions Vincent van Gogh as one whose ''notorious artistic
passions ended in the suicidal madness so often associated with the anguished
Van Gogh has been lionized
recently in the popular imagination. He was insane but not truly ''outside,'' as
his art was an extension of the European tradition.
But what if he had learned to
paint during art-therapy sessions in the asylum at St. Remy, ''creating graphic
expressions . . . wrestling in nonverbal forms with internal demons'' - as
Kenneth Ames wonders in Outside Outsider Art? Would van Gogh's pictures now
attract such crowds and prices if they were ascribed merely to a madman?
In van Gogh's case, as in others,
the line between insider and outsider is thin indeed.
In an insightful but
too-flattering essay, Charles Davis describes Pierce's woodcarvings as being
outsider art but as having derived their forms from the Southern and rural black
Whittling has long been practiced
by black Americans, but few carvings like Pierce's Sermons in Wood exist. His
work is a product of his mind and hands, and not simply of a folk tradition.
The Artist Outsider provides a
valuable service to those interested in art, art therapy and folk traditions.
Especially because of its academic tone and many references, the book badly
needs an index.
Some - but not all! - of the
essayists can be read with pleasure.
Michael McClaran is a writer who
lives in Columbus.
Elijah Pierce: beyond folk traditions
Copyright 1994 The Columbus
REPRINTED, WITH PERMISSION, FROM THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH