Columbus Dispatch  (May 22, 1994):  p. 6 D.

“Essays 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 Arts.

There he finds not traditional arts, such as painting, but more ''difficult'' or unusual forms of aesthetic expression.

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 creative spirit.''

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 culture.

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.

Caption:  Elijah Pierce: beyond folk traditions

Copyright 1994 The Columbus Dispatch