“Is that somebody who works outside?” Outsider Art—it’s certainly a conversation starter and topic of intrigue. The term, first explored by Jean Dubuffet in 1940 and later coined by critic Roger Cardinal in 1972, rattles the story of art. It brings us back to the most basic questions, removing this calculated preconceived idea of what art “should be.” The organic work by self-taught artists owes nothing to art history, encouraging us to appreciate what stands right before us, free from narrative.
This weekend, the 24th edition of Outsider Art Fair descended upon New York’s Metropolitan Pavilion. It is as ambitious as ever, boasting 64 fresh and thrilling galleries. Entering the fair off the cool, icy streets of Manhattan, one is immediately transported to brighter pastures, the influx of vibrant colors exude warmth. Artwork created by deviants, mavericks and psychiatric patients poured out of the expertly curated booths take you on a journey to exotic lands—experiencing Haiti and China within five minutes of each other. Wandering through the maze of raw richness, we suddenly felt the tug of confetti at our feet. “It’s a party,” exclaimed John Ferrère, one half of the dynamic duo at L’Inlassable Gallery. Indeed there was cause for celebration. Luna Park, a site specific project explores the first amusement parks and features an imaginary zoo. In keeping with the trend often associated with outsider art, the theme of the booth is alternative and a fantastical experience featuring new works by Anne Deleporte, Marcella Barcelò, Guylaine Bourbon and Gaspard Maîtrepierre.
Amid the crowds, it’s well worth weaving your way through to Klein Sun Gallery’s booth, situated on the south side of the Pavilion. Sophisticated in curation, the collection of Chinese contemporary art serves as a welcome pause from the myriad of bold colors. Most interesting was Li Baojiu’s video piece Walk into Taijin Academy of Fine Arts, which beckons you over to take a closer look. Li, the hero of outsider art refuses to accept the rules and is depicted challenging the educational system in China. “As it’s our first year participating, we wanted to create a dialogue with the fair’s overall curation,” explained Klein Sun co-owner Eli Klein. “We identify Cai Dongdong and Shen Shaomin as highly evolved, untrained artists, so it’s also interesting how they fit into the category of what we consider ‘outsider art.'”
While we try not to play favorites, we’d be failing if we didn’t mention Babel—an installation of small scale 3D printed imaginary towers, realized by guest curator Leah Gordon. It came to be from an online open call to sculptors, artists, engineers, 3D designers and model-makers across the world. The finished collective toys with the idea of repetition within the realms of the creative industry, a nod towards Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh or the Chinese Terracotta Army. There is an Outsider mindset here, disrupting Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura, showcasing art that no human hands have touched. The delicate yet strong structures form an enchanted kingdom, echoing Watts Towers and Palais Idéal.
The distinction between professional and self-taught, when appreciated at face value, are blurred. The absence of biographies and the myth of the artist creates an alternative canon. Christie’s record breaking New York auction of self-taught art held last Friday is testament to the fact that this exciting genre transcends narrative and is more a question of inclusion. Today is the fair’s last day, a perfect Sunday excursion.