Outsider artist is one those fuzzy but indispensable terms-like alternative press-that provokes endless debate about just what the heck it means, and about who ought to be lumped under the label. It generally refers to self-taught artists, but not always, and beyond that things get even stickier.
Consider a few of the artists who have been featured in recent issues of Raw Vision, which calls itself ‘the world’s leading journal of outsider art, art brut, and contemporary folk art’:
- A man from the United States’ rural South who filled his yard with brightly colored cut-out figures and whirligigs bedecked with religious slogans.
- A homeless Jamaican painter whose vibrant works include recurring figures of cowboys, fortune-tellers, and boxers, and who says he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln.
- A German woman who sabotaged a railway in a 1907 political protest, and who, after she was deemed insane and institutionalized for the act, fashioned a full-size male ‘doctor’ from burlap and stuffing, and regularly pummeled it. She also made small figures from bread dough and wrote a play.
Clearly, it’s an expansive genre, and people in the field love to skirmish at the boundaries between outsider and other terms such as folk, contemporary, naive, raw, visionary, primitive, vernacular, and, when it’s applicable, simply art by people with disabilities. Despite their disagreements, many of them agree on one thing: Raw Vision covers this ever-shifting territory nimbly and smartly.
‘If you want to know this field, you’ve got to take Raw Vision,’ says Eugene Metcalf, a professor at Miami University in Ohio who has written books and articles about outsider and folk art.
‘There isn’t any another publication that comes close in terms of timely information about the field,’ says Tom di Maria, director of the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, which provides studio space and instruction for physically, mentally, and developmentally disabled artists. ‘I also like its international focus.’
‘It does a service in promoting these artists,’ says Sherry Pardee, director of the Pardee Collection folk/outsider gallery in Iowa City, Iowa. ‘It exposes things to the world that people aren’t usually going to see.’
Raw Vision places a premium on its visual presentation of this electrifying art, extending the magazine’s appeal beyond the insular art-publishing world. With large and abundant photographs on high-quality stock, Raw Vision is a visual feast akin to ‘Christmas pudding,’ says contributing editor Roger Cardinal, a British scholar who coined outsider art in 1972 as an English equivalent to the French art brut (‘raw art’). A reader might be exposed to hallucinatory paintings, eye-bogglingly meticulous pen-and-ink drawings, or an alien-looking yard in which branches and jagged structures are wrapped in aluminum foil. ‘It takes a while to settle down to read it properly, because it’s so rich,’ Cardinal says. ‘You don’t just take a bite for breakfast. You’ve really got to deal with it.’
Raw Vision editor John Maizels started publishing the UK-based magazine in 1989. ‘It was the height of conceptual art, and [many art] magazines were essentially unreadable,’ he says. ‘Not only that, they didn’t have any pictures in them. We tried to be completely different.’
‘It’s very important to have the art well presented so it can be looked at equally with any other art,’ he says, ‘because people can look down on it and say, oh, it’s art by mad people or something like that. They don’t realize that it’s probably a truer art than most of the art you see around, because it comes direct from the soul; it’s just pure expression done by people who aren’t looking for a career, or for exhibitions, or to sell anything.’
Raw Vision has a circulation of about 8,000, with about 5,000 of those copies sold in the United States. ‘Fairly wealthy collectors’ and ‘fairly impoverished artists’ are the magazine’s two main groups of subscribers, Maizels says.
‘The amazing thing about all outsider art is that it’s just so accessible,’ he says. ‘People can look at it and appreciate it and feel it without having read an art book or been to a museum or anything. Just like the artists, in a way.’
Subscriptions: $46/yr. (4 issues); 212/714-8381; www.rawvision.com.
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