Outsider & Folk Art – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 09 Jul 2019 01:51:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/cropped-artandantiques_red_icon-32x32.png Outsider & Folk Art – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com 32 32 Blurring Boundaries http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2014/05/blurring-boundaries/ Fri, 09 May 2014 23:36:58 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=3095 Continue reading ]]> As the once-offbeat genre of outsider art becomes ever more popular, will it retain its special aura?

A.G. Rizzoli, Alfredo Capobianco and Family Symbolically Sketched/Palazzo del Capobianco, 1937, ink on rag paper

A.G. Rizzoli, Alfredo Capobianco and Family Symbolically Sketched/Palazzo del Capobianco, 1937, ink on rag paper

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Mehrdad Rashidi, Untitled, 2013, ink and crayon on found card. Alan Constable, Untitled (Blue Digital), 2014, ceramic. A.G. Rizzoli, Alfredo Capobianco and Family Symbolically Sketched/Palazzo del Capobianco, 1937, ink on rag paper

In the late 1940s, when the French artist Jean Dubuffet began promoting what he called “art brut” (“raw art”), the creations of untrained art-makers who acted spontaneously, uninfluenced by established culture, he proposed that it could not, or perhaps should not, be judged by conventional aesthetic criteria. Today, though, perhaps defying anything Dubuffet could have foreseen, the international market for art brut or outsider art (also called “self-taught art”) has matured. It enjoys the support of a well-developed infrastructure of institutions and events—fairs; high-profile museum exhibitions; specialized galleries, museums and publications—and increasing attention from scholars.

As the field’s key players prepare to gather in New York for the 2014 Outsider Art Fair (May 8–11), a number of hot topics and discoveries will be on their agenda. This year, the fair will bring together 47 exhibitors from the U.S. and overseas, including the dealers Yukiko Koide and Megumi Ogita from Tokyo, who will feature the creations of self-taught artists from Japan, and Hervé Perdriolle from Paris, who will show works by Indian autodidacts. Chris Byrne, a writer and curator as well as co-founder of the Dallas Art Fair, will present a self-contained exhibition of drawings by the New Zealander Susan Te Kahurangi King, a relative newcomer on outsider art’s international scene. King’s drawings—some of which take images of Donald Duck on a fascinating, form-bending ride—sometimes unwittingly embody the appropriate-and-rework aesthetic that is dear to many who are guided by a postmodernist point of view.

If King’s art turns out to be a hit at the fair, their success will reflect a trend that has emerged in recent years. It has to do with ways in which the traditionally strict border between outsider art and that of academically trained artists has become fuzzy or has even dissolved. John Maizels, editor-in-chief of the British magazine Raw Vision, the world’s leading publication in the outsider/self-taught art field, says of this tendency, “It is definitely happening. Is it because the contemporary-art world has woken up to the fact that outsider art is quite popular now, or is it because outsider art prices have risen, and, therefore, [this kind of work] seems more worthwhile? I think it’s a bit of both.”

As outsider-art purists might put it, each genuinely self-taught artist’s body of work is unique; what such art-makers produce always constitutes a category in itself. For what it’s worth, such art can be contrasted with “studio art” made by trained “professionals,” but should it ever have to be measured against or in comparison to mainstream art in order to earn its aesthetic validation?

Such questions have been percolating in the outsider art world, most notably since the huge exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” was presented at the Venice Biennale last year. It took its title from that of a sculpture made by the Italian-American self-taught artist Marino Auriti (1891–1980) in the 1950s in support of a patent application for a building he had designed. That never-erected museum would have housed a collection of humanity’s greatest achievements, from the wheel to satellites. Organized by Massimiliano Gioni, the associate director of the New Museum in New York, the Venice exhibition included works by artists both schooled and self-taught, all of which, ostensibly, addressed the notion of the encyclopedic or the all-encompassing.

However, at a panel discussion at the Metro Show fair in New York in January, in which Gioni took part, the Manhattan-based dealer Randall Morris noted that he was “concerned” about how some curators’ apparent urge to bring together “mainstream” and “non-mainstream” art forms (which can include self-taught/outsider works, so-called tribal art, folk art or other indigenous-culture creations) “could turn out to be bad for self-taught artists’ art.” He added that if curators are “going to put works by Bill Traylor and Jeff Koons in the same room,” they have an obligation to look for and make clear to viewers “the deeper, underlying human connections between” such disparate art forms. Morris and his wife, Shari Cavin, run Cavin-Morris Gallery, whose recent, debut presentation of the Japanese artist M’onma’s mysterious, multi-layered drawings in ink and colored pencil on paper was one of the highlights of the current New York exhibition season. They will bring M’onma’s work to the Outsider Art Fair.

Other attractions at this year’s fair will include, from the Chicago dealer Carl Hammer, some large, mixed-media Henry Darger drawings that have emerged from a private collection and are not well known; several of A.G. Rizzoli’s fantasy-architectural drawings, which were on view in last year’s Venice Biennale exhibition, from the Berkeley, Calif.-based dealer Bonnie Grossman’s Ames Gallery; and ballpoint-pen drawings by the Iranian artist Mehrdad Rashidi, who lives in Germany and is represented by the London-based dealer Henry Boxer and, in the U.S., by Andrew Edlin. Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman Gallery will show pastel-on-paper drawings by Julian Martin, marked by bright colors and semi-abstract forms, and camera-shaped ceramic sculptures by Alan Constable. (Both artists are from Australia, and the gallery’s director, Alex Baker, discovered their work during a recent stay there.) Along with works by such outsider masters as Martín Ramírez and William Hawkins, the southern-California gallery Just Folk will bring several Bill Traylor drawings to the fair. They come from a hitherto unknown group of Traylor pictures—emblematic images by one of the most respected talents in outsider art’s canon—that the gallery obtained from a Swiss collector.

In New York, for many years, the American Folk Art Museum has served as a showcase for the work of numerous artists in the outsider/self-taught field. Valérie Rousseau, the museum’s new curator of art of the self-taught and art brut, is a Canadian from Quebec whose background includes studies in anthropology and art history. From now on, Rousseau said in a recent interview, she and her colleagues will be using the term “art brut” in a more expansive way.

“Museums are constantly evolving,” she said, adding that “even the term ‘art brut’ is being redefined.” What’s important, she explained, speaking for curators and museums in general, “is that we have to be responsible for the concept we’re developing—responsible, too, to [different] cultures that might not be based on the same sets of values.” Traditionally, Rousseau noted, folk art has been seen as “representing collective values.” But what if certain works of folk art were to be regarded as forms of art brut and examined accordingly? Rousseau pointed out that this current of thought is one that has played a significant part in AFAM’s preparation of a large-scale exhibition, “Self-taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum,” which opens on May 13 and will run through August 17. After that, it will travel to six other museums in the U.S. through early 2017. The exhibition will bring together objects from the mid-18th century through the late 20th century—works traditionally viewed as folk art, as well as paintings, sculptures and other objects made by autodidacts who are normally regarded as outsiders. Among them are Henry Darger, A.G. Rizzoli, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Mary T. Smith.

Beyond May’s big fair in New York, there are plenty of other noteworthy events on outsider art’s global calendar. At Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, “Raw Vision: 25 Years of Outsider Art,” a multi-artist exhibition commemorating the British magazine’s silver anniversary, will be on view through August 22. In Lausanne, Switzerland, the Collection de l’Art Brut, a museum whose core holdings came from Dubuffet’s collection, will open “Art Brut in the World” on June 6; this show, featuring works by such recently discovered artists as Germany’s Gustav Mesmer (who makes flying machines) and Bali’s Ni Tanjung (who has painted volcanic rocks and also makes paper cut-out figures), will run through November 2.

In Chicago, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art will show a group of found photos from the mid-20th century that have been traced back to “Harry and Edna,” believed to be a midwestern couple who documented their travels in Kodachrome slides. In displaying these images in “Lost and Found: The Search for Harry and Edna” (May 9–August 30), Intuit will explore the “vernacular photography” field, whose self-taught-artistry aspect brushes up against outsider-art aesthetics in interesting ways.

Raw Vision’s Maizels observes, “Personally, I don’t like seeing contemporary art alongside outsider art, as I think contemporary art devalues it. Dubuffet forbade any works from the Collection de l’Art Brut to be shown next to contemporary art, as he felt it would contaminate it. The situation could get very blurred, especially with some contemporary artists appropriating an outsider-art aesthetic into their work. Will outsider art be able to maintain its unique power if it is constantly copied and mixed with contemporary art?” That is a good question, of course, the answer to which only time—and an unpredictable confluence of market forces—will be able to tell.

The Extraordinary Ordinary http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2013/04/the-extraordinary-ordinary/ Fri, 12 Apr 2013 23:13:40 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=2417 Continue reading ]]> (as seen in Art & Antiques Magazine)

Finding beauty in the cast-off or the offbeat, eclectic collectors are redefining aesthetic value — on their own terms.

a Goliath head, owned by Texas-based collectors Bruce and Julie Webb;

A Goliath head, owned by Texas-based collectors Bruce and Julie Webb;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Hat molds from the collection of John and Teenuh Foster Plaster head from the U.S., maker unknown, circa 1950 and Missouri River rock, found natural stone, no date; An ex voto object from the collection of John and Teenuh Foster a Goliath head, owned by Texas-based collectors Bruce and Julie Webb; Framed photographs on a wall in the St. Louis home of the collecting couple, John and Teenuh Foster. Skull-adorned banner, all from the collection of Bruce and Julie Webb, who are based in Waxahachie, Texas;

When cavemen first brought home animal skins as boast-worthy emblems of their hunting quests — which no doubt became symbols of their strength, prowess and social standing — conventional, trophy-object collecting was born. But it was with the first cave kids who lovingly preserved the most colorful beetle shells, the shiniest stones and the oddest-looking bones that something more unusual and daring was born. Call it eclectic collecting, a label that describes a special, hard-to-pin-down sensibility, a fascination with the most unlikely objects a person might ever find and cherish.

Fast-forward to the 16th century. As a recent exhibition at New York’s Grolier Club (an association of bibliophiles and graphic arts aficionados) pointed out, it was at that time, in Europe, that a certain kind of inquisitive collector began to create the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities — a vitrine, chest or entire room filled with such treasures as paintings and drawings, maps, plant specimens, shells and coral, coins and medals, ancient sculpture and tools, gems and minerals, gold and silver objects, and fossils. Nobles of the Medici and Hapsburg dynasties had them; so did Russia’s Peter the Great, portions of whose wide-ranging collections can still be found at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Today’s eclectic collectors have something in common with such curiosity gatherers of yore.

Fast-forward again. A few weeks ago, in North Carolina, I chatted with a pick-up truck driver who had kindly loaned me some tools for a quick, roadside repair. When our conversation turned to old tools and license plates, he said, “Got a minute? Come over to my place. I got something to show you.” Climbing a staircase that led up to a series of connecting lofts above his company’s offices, I was stunned to find room after room— a most unexpected, contemporary Wunderkammer— filled with Civil War cannon balls, bayonets, soldiers’ caps and rifles; antique Coca-Cola bottles; hundreds of electric-power cable insulators made of glass; original Elvis concert posters; display cases full of clown figurines; racks of Harley-Davidson logo t-shirts; G.I. Joe and Star Wars character dolls in their original packages; chests filled with blue glass, milk glass, cast iron utensils and old political-campaign buttons; and a set of printed cards bearing portraits and pronouncements of John Wayne (“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”).

Eclectic collectors are everywhere, but what distinguishes a so-called serious collector from a mere gatherer with unusual tastes? Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina and an eclectic collector himself, says there are the “curators,” meaning those who carefully select what they will keep, as well as more general collectors “for whom, if owning one example of something is good, owning 10,000 examples of the same thing is better.” Sloan also identifies what he calls “hoarders,” who “acquire all sorts of things indiscriminately,” and “accumulators,” who “tend to be builders of multiple collections at the same time, amassing large quantities of stuff.” Real collectors, of the conventional or the eclectic kind, Sloan says, are always discerning about their acquisitions. In Sloan’s own collection are such unique treasures as “red pointy things — an Afro comb, a starfish, spiky salt and pepper shakers; things related to hoaxes, like a Fiji mermaid sculpture that’s half-monkey, half-fish, with a mermaid’s tail, from a P.T. Barnum sideshow; and things that have been smashed by other things.” As a boy, Sloan collected snowballs until his mother, needing the freezer space, threw them out.

For many years, John Foster, a St. Louis-based graphic designer, has been acquiring fine examples of folk art, outsider art and vernacular photography (snapshots whose creators are unknown); he has also collected everyday or seemingly ordinary objects whose shapes and textures he savors the way some modern-art lovers appreciate pure form. Foster says, “For me to want to own something, it has to have a strong sense of design and an air of mystery regarding its purpose. I can make up my own stories about how it was intended to be used and who might have owned it before.” Among his treasures, Foster cites a group of eight knives that were hand-made by prison inmates from such materials as a hairbrush and a filed-down spoon; a pair of wooden drumsticks from 1932, with someone’s initials carved into them; a well-worn, circa 1930s catcher’s mitt; and a mid-1940s, white-plastic children’s toothbrush shaped like a pistol.

A selection of objects from the broader collection Foster and his wife, Teenuh, have assembled over the years was featured late last year in “Art Without Artists,” an exhibition at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. John Foster co-curated the show with the museum’s director, Roger Manley, a well-known specialist in folk art and outsider art in the South. “Objects that cross boundaries and collide with culture, objects that are not easily defined, objects with Surrealist overtones— these become my power objects,” Foster wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue. In organizing the show, Manley and Foster were inspired by early 20th-century modernism’s grandfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, who took industrially made objects, like a metal bottle-drying rack or a porcelain urinal, and displayed them in gallery settings as works of art. Through such acts of what postmodernist artists and critics reverently call “appropriation,” Duchamp in effect declared, “These objects are artworks because I, the artist, say they are.” In the spirit of such context-altering gestures, anything can have artistic qualities if one simply opens one’s eyes— and mind and heart— and recognizes them.

Manley, whose family moved several times when he was growing up, collected rocks or pieces of wood from each of the places where he had lived. “It was a way of taking a part of each place with me and charging those objects with very personal meaning,” he says. Today, among Manley’s own more unusual collections is a group of spent artillery shells decorated with pictures of women or circus scenes. As “Art Without Artists” demonstrated, he is interested in how viewers may impart aesthetic value to ordinary or unlikely objects, especially those that were not intentionally created as works of art.

Manley notes, “We’re constantly bombarded visually by so much stuff that when you pay attention to something you might otherwise overlook, suddenly there may be something about it that really stands out.” Manley’s observation echoes that of the influential avant-garde composer John Cage (1912–92), who famously urged listeners to pay attention to ordinary environmental sounds— honking cars, footsteps, buzzing bees— and allow them to be heard as music. In that same spirit, “Art Without Artists” presented firefighters’ respirator masks, a sawfish bill, red bricks with animal paw prints embedded in them, an ink-smudged letter-blotter sheet and a paint-chipped fireplace bellows as once-used useful objects whose auras, in an exhibition setting, could be felt as eloquent, elegant and full of soul.

“You can imbue an object with value depending on what you believe about it,” Manley notes. His concern is aesthetic, of course. Then there is the monetary value of, well, just about anything anyone might be willing to pay for and collect. Both Sloan and Foster note that, today, websites like eBay have made it possible for anyone to find out the value of just about anything, from old comic books to fine-art paintings. Collectors of the most unusual material, Sloan says, “usually don’t care about monetary value.” However, he adds, “When it comes to the aesthetic value I feel for what I collect, it’s off the charts.”

In her 2006 book In Flagrante Collecto (Abrams), the sculptor and retired New York University art professor Marilynn Gelfman Karp notes that “material culture’s most devalued objects” — like those that eclectic collectors most prize— have no “intrinsic value” and no “competitive collectorship to give them extrinsic value.” However, in her book Karp adds that, for collectors like herself (she has some 200 collections, she writes, of objects that “could be classified among the ‘unlovable’ or the ‘unloved’”), “rolling in riches of your own decree has its own special satisfaction.”

It certainly does for Harley Spiller, New York-based nonprofits arts administrator who collects Chinese-restaurant memorabilia (menus, chopsticks wrappers, paper lanterns, business cards), scissors, chocolate-bar wrappers, blue bottle caps, white plastic spoons and all kinds of information about chickens. He also collects furculae (wishbones) and is a corbatellist— a collector of drinking straws. “The purpose of a collection is to inspire learning,” says Spiller, whose father’s company, in Buffalo, New York, manufactured promotional items, including the lead weights embossed with various publications’ title logos that newsstand operators used to place atop stacks of newspapers and magazines to prevent them from blowing away. Spiller adds: “By amassing artifacts within a set of parameters, collectors build scaffolds from which new knowledge can be derived. I like to collect things that are overlooked or taken for granted and thus stand up tall for the low.”

In their own ways, eclectic collectors are cultural historians and anthropologists who find meaning and value in objects that, for them, are no less significant than shards of ancient pottery or the crown jewels of famous kings. Sometimes, like Bruce and Julie Webb, the proprietors of the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas, near Dallas, they are dealers, too. As teens, the Webbs met and found shared interests on the local punk music and skateboard scene. “I loved vintage clothes and didn’t think I was collecting them, but, in fact, I was,” Julie remembers, noting that Bruce, “who had grown up around collections, was already acquiring secret-society books and developing an interest in fraternal-lodge material.”

Bruce recalls, “My maternal grandparents were Assembly of God missionaries who had lived many years in India and, in the 1950s, moved to Texas, where I grew up. I remember all the Hindu-deity figurines, occult books and other unusual things they had brought back with them.” In 1991, the Webbs, whose interests had expanded to include a diverse range of works created by self-taught artists, opened a gallery; three years later they moved into their current, 10,000-square-foot space. In the course of their frequent travels, they were deeply moved by their encounter with the legendary American folk art collector Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr., a co-founder of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, who died in 1998. (With Julia Weissman, Hemphill co-authored the influential book Twentieth-century American Folk Art and Artists, which came out in 1974.) In the 1970s, Hemphill had dared to argue that folk art forms were still being produced by living artists, and that the term “folk art” in the U.S. should not refer only to certain kinds of objects that had been made in the New England region before 1900.

In their gallery, the Webbs show many of the same kinds of items they enthusiastically collect themselves, including resin clocks, tramp art, circus banners, memory jugs and what they call “killer oddball, kick-ass stuff.” They routinely set off on road trips around Texas, the South and the Midwest in search of unusual material. Julie says, “From Bert [Hemphill] we learned how exciting it could be to discover something that has just been lying there, forgotten or unknown, with a sense of mystery about it; sometimes we don’t know who made or owned something interesting that we’ve found, but that’s okay. Some things have their secret histories.”

The Brooklyn-based artist Scott Ogden, a good friend of the Webbs, collects outsider art and fraternal-lodge items; as a boy growing up in Oklahoma and Texas, he assembled a prized collection of rocks. Ogden says: “I enjoy every aspect of collecting. I love not knowing what I might come across at a flea market or art fair, or on eBay. When something amazing rears its head when you least expect it, it’s almost euphoric.” For Ogden, a collector’s “belief system, whatever it is,” can find itself “shattered when confronted with the unexpected.”

“Nothing makes for good decoration like good stuff,” writes interior designer Carey Maloney in his new book Stuff (Pointed Leaf Press). Maloney and his Cuban-born partner, the architect Hermes Mallea, run M(Group), a New York-based architecture and decoration company whose wealthy clients count on the imaginative duo to create stylish, comfortable living spaces and, often, to figure out attractive ways to display their collections of both conventional and unusual objects. What to do with all those aboriginal bark paintings, trophies and awards (including the occasional Oscar statuette), pagoda-shaped, blue-and-white porcelain tulip holders, and elaborately adorned English Regency cabinets? There are lessons in Stuff for eclectic collectors, and as Maloney told me, conversely, sometimes “stunning amounts of information” flow to him from client-collectors whose knowledge about what they own runs deep.

For collectors in an Internet-connected world, is anything still rare and different? “Our globalized culture means there are not many unknowns anymore,” Maloney observes. Still, when he encounters something familiar in an unexpected setting that sets aesthetic sparks flying, he knows it. He recalls that in New York last October, “Chinese Revolutionary art was hung at the International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show in a rug dealer’s booth. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw that.” Alas, somewhere far from Beijing, some eclectic collector probably already has amassed a definitive selection of Mao posters and banners proclaiming the triumphs of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Foster says: “I’ve collected things that were so far off the beaten path, but the crowd that’s doing this now is growing.” The Webbs, too, note that it’s becoming harder and harder to find the most unusual material. Bruce Webb says, “Television shows like American Pickers have taught people to appreciate— and put price tags on— all sorts of ordinary stuff that’s really kind of special.” Still, all of the collectors mentioned here agree that what they do with so much passion and determination is nothing if not an “addiction” or an “obsession,” and that they cannot not press on. Mark Sloan, who owns hundreds of 19th-century cabinet cards with sitters’ photos showing “a wide variety of extraordinary hairdos,” says “the hunt for a great item” is the most exciting aspect of collecting. Whatever a collector’s favorite category, he observes, “You’re only as good as the next great item that’s out of reach.”

In a memoir published in 1974, the British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark wrote that collectors “who long to possess things that have bewitched them…learn a great deal more about themselves from their possessions.” As they survey and savor their acquisitions, Clark noted, “they are surrounded by old friends.” In In Flagrante Collecto, Karp points out, “Collecting is an act of very personal commitment. It’s about erecting a bond between yourself and an object; it’s all about what you choose to be responsible for.” Some people like colonial American furniture. Or postage stamps. Or coins. Others, Karp observes, go for toy robots, butchers’ display tags (“Choice Mutton,” “Sheep’s Liver,” “Jellied Veal”) or airline motion-sickness bags.

Putting it plainly, Foster offers what might be dubbed the Eclectic Collector’s Creed. “I can look at any item in my collection,” he notes, “and say, ‘I appreciated it. I gave it love.’”

American Beauties http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2012/11/american-folk-art/ Fri, 30 Nov 2012 22:42:35 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=2166 Continue reading ]]> The market for traditional American folk art has been buffeted in the last few years by changing tastes and an uncertain economy. Still, top pieces—from portraits and carvings to weathervanes and scrimshaw—continue to bring record and near-record six- and seven-figure prices. That’s reassuring if you already own some of these treasures; not so much if you overpaid for them in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, if you’re starting a collection and looking to buy folk-art gems at a discount, you’re out of luck. Despite the premise of TV shows like Antiques Roadshow, the nation’s barns and attics no longer hide much in the way of overlooked masterpieces.

“Basically 90 or 95 percent of new discoveries have been made,” says folk-art dealer Fred Giampietro of the Giampietro Gallery in New Haven, Conn. Country auctions and rural shops no longer feed the market with a steady stream of new finds. “As dealers, we’re now handling material that’s coming out of existing collections,” he says.

In the 1920s and ’30s, when the first serious collectors began paying attention to American folk art, much of it was still on church steeples and carousels. Since then, it has been widely gathered, studied, appraised and brought to market. That market went into overdrive following the Bicentennial in 1976, when interest in Americana surged. Prices for top-quality pieces soared. In 1984 collector Ralph Esmerian acquired Ammi Phillips’ circa-1835 portrait Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog for a record $1 million—an event that made headlines. Ralph Lauren’s brother Jerry topped that in 2006 when he bought a weathervane at Sotheby’s for $5.8 million.

“The good, the bad and the ugly all came up together,” says Giampietro of the go-go years of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Since the 2008 recession, he says, there’s been a shakeout. “From a valuation standpoint, the heart has been plucked out of the lower three-quarters of the folk art market.” A good but not great piece that sold for $25,000 seven or eight years ago now might bring $6,000. “It’s a market correction. It’s no different from the stock market. The problematic material is going for what it’s worth—its decorative value—while the very best material is bringing as much as it ever did.”

High-end folk art dealer David Wheatcroft of Westborough, Mass., has observed that particular genres periodically create what he calls “mini-cyclones of interest” before subsiding. Quilts are a good example, he says. In the 1960s, good quilts were cheap and seemed likely to remain so; few people thought of them as collectible. “By the 1980s, there was a hypermarket for quilts,” Wheatcroft says. “At the end of the decade, they were selling for 10 times what they had been.” Corporations hung them in their executive suites. Jackie Onassis shopped for them. Then the market for quilts collapsed.

That quilts crashed (softly, one imagines) shouldn’t be a surprise; booms usually end in crashes. Moreover, relatively abundant items like quilts are more vulnerable to speculative booms than one-of-a-kind objects like paintings and carvings are. “The quilt market has taken a long time to climb back out of its hole,” says Wheatcroft. “But compared to 20 years ago, I’d say it’s pretty solid now.”

Here and there, records are still being set in the folk-art market. At its Annual Summer Americana Auction last August, Northeast Auctions of Portsmouth, N.H., sold a scrimshawed whale’s tooth for a record $324,000, double the estimate. Many other areas have been flat. “The market these days is a challenge,” admits Northeast owner, appraiser and auctioneer Ron Bourgeault. “A few years ago, Bellamy eagles”—wooden eagles carved in large numbers and variations by John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914)—“could sell for $150,000. Now they’re $35,000 to $50,000.” Bourgeault is quick to point out that a seller’s loss is a buyer’s gain. “It’s a wonderful time to selectively hunt for bargains,” he says. “The market is healthy but it’s not insane. Something has to be very special to command top prices.”

Ed Hild is co-owner with Patrick Bell of Olde Hope Antiques in New Hope, Pa. Like others, Hild stresses that the current market rewards those who pick carefully. “The better things have probably gone up in value, if you bought them more than 10 years ago,” he says. “A lot of the middle-range pieces, like some kinds of painted furniture, have gone down in value.” But as with any category, the best material always draws interest. “An exceptional dower chest with painted flowers or a wonderful New England lift-top chest with very special decoration, those pieces have gone up and seem to be progressing still.”

Until recently, Hild recalls, the market for American baskets, like the market for quilts, was climbing dizzily. “People who were collecting didn’t own two baskets. They owned 50 or 60.” As a consequence, high-quality baskets almost disappeared from the market. As with quilts, if good material stop showing up at sales, potential buyers lose interest—the game stops being fun. They start collecting other things instead. “Today, you can find a good basket for a reasonable price,” Hild says. “It’s actually a good time to buy them, if you have the bug.”

Dealers can lose interest as much as collectors can. Indeed, several folk-art dealers have switched to selling modern and contemporary art instead. After all, in the contemporary art world, no one blinks at million-dollar price tags. “This has never been an easy business to make money,” says dealer David Schorsch of American Antique Art in Woodbury, Conn. “It’s a thinly traded market compared to contemporary art. There’s a limited amount of it, and there is a relatively small number of people who collect it.”

But new discoveries still arise, and new kinds of folk art attract eager collectors. Schorsch points out that 18th- and 19th-century folk art from the American South—including pottery, painted and decorated furniture, samplers, and watercolors — has long been overlooked compared to folk art from the Northeast. Early Southern folk art is now being studied, he says, and its creators are being identified and their bodies of work defined. “It’s emerged as a strong part of the market,” he says. “It’s rare and it’s highly sought after. Some of this material has brought phenomenal prices.”

A few years ago, for example, Schorsch sold an 1804 fraktur (a decorated German-language manuscript) by an artist from a German-American community in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Frakturs from Pennsylvania are much better known and are already widely collected, he says. “I sold the Virginia fraktur for almost $100,000. If it had been by one of the well-known fraktur artists in Pennsylvania, it might have sold for $5,000 or $6,000.”

Like other dealers, Schorsch, who’s been in the business for more than 30 years, says connoisseurship is essential to collecting in the slightly off-kilter world of folk art. This is particularly true of paintings, he says. There are no Rembrandts or Picassos whose signatures alone will guarantee a good price in the folk art market. “One of the things I personally love about folk art is that people who made some of the greatest masterpieces are anonymous and will likely always be anonymous,” Schorsch says. “That forces collectors to really be connoisseurs and deal with an object on its aesthetic merits.” What matters most, he says, is what you see on the canvas, not who signed it. You’re not going to impress anyone by saying you own an Ammi Phillips—even if one of his portraits did sell for a million dollars. “You can probably buy a really nice Ammi Phillips portrait of an adult or older person for $5,000 to $15,000,” Schorsch says.

Actually, that may depend on how you define “really nice.” Phillips (1788–1865), an itinerant New Englander, painted the people he was paid to paint, and his clients were not always attractive individuals. Stephen Fletcher, director of the Americana department of Skinner Inc. in Boston, describes what customers like to see in a folk art portrait: “The women should be enchanting. The men should be dashing. The kids have to be adorable and should wear red dresses. Nobody wants to look at an old dried-up Yankee,” he says with a laugh.

At auction last year, Fletcher sold an anonymous late 18th-century portrait of a 14-year-old Connecticut girl, one Abigail Rose, for $1.27 million. That is the highest price ever paid for a folk portrait. The artist’s anonymity obviously wasn’t a drawback. “What’s important is visual appeal,” Fletcher says. “Abby was 14. She’s pretty, and she’s holding a rose. The books on the table are almost abstract.” The composition is graphically strong, and the deep folds of her dress mirror the swirling grain of the table. In some ways, the painting has a proto-modernist feel.

Indeed, many kinds of folk art, not just the record-breakers, appeal to collectors with a taste for modern art and decor. The things most apt to work in a contemporary space are the three-dimensional objects, says Nancy Druckman, head of Sotheby’s folk art department since the 1970s. “These include duck decoys, trade signs, weathervanes, figureheads, cigar store figures—all of the sculptural objects.” Take a minimalist interior with white sofas and lots of glass, she suggests, and add a large and dramatic gilded weathervane with an interesting patina (yes, like the one she sold six years ago for $5.8 million). “Suddenly, it takes on a new dimension. It has a kind of haunting presence with a flavor of the past.”

It takes a special object to work in that milieu, she says. “They’ve got to be sexy and interesting and in great condition.” By great condition, Druckman certainly doesn’t mean pristine. “Collectors like to see the history of the piece. They want to see the bullet holes, the dings, the wear on the patina, the softening of that bright gold.” One of the bugaboos of folk art collectors is material that’s been subtly cleaned up, restored, or otherwise enhanced. As Rye, N.H., dealer Russ Goldberger of RJG Antiques observes, “There are a lot of things in the marketplace that, let’s say, look better than they need to.”

Fletcher recalls the second most expensive folk portrait he ever sold, an anonymous circa-1815 portrait of a sweet young boy in a painted chair with a dog and a ball that went for $886,000 in 2007. “The painting was filthy,” he says. “It had a very yellowish varnish with lots of grime.” Fletcher left it as it was. He thinks the best policy is to let the winning bidder hire a conservator and decide what to do, if anything.

Folk art is traditionally associated with the Northeast, but there is a small but vibrant market in other parts of the U.S., especially on the West Coast. (One of the limitations of the overall market, by the way, is that it’s largely confined to our borders. Says Sotheby’s Nancy Druckman: “There are no Middle Eastern potentates interested in Americana. It’s strictly a homegrown passion.”) Although much of the folk art available out West is originally from the East, Californians seem less enamored of the old New England standbys, like blue spongeware pitchers.

“People out here are more willing to take chances,” says Susan Baerwald, co-owner with Marcy Carsey of Just Folk in Summerland, Calif., near Santa Barbara. “California is more geared toward contemporary. That’s why quirky, whimsical, one-of-a-kind pieces appeal to the California crowd.” As an example, she cites a pair of funky mechanical boxers from an old arcade. Another of her finds is a purse that turns into a ventriloquist’s dummy. (It was once a vaudeville prop. How it was used is anyone’s guess.)

Many folk art pieces that suit a modern milieu are bygone utilitarian objects that now serve as sculpture. Michael Ogle of American Garage Antiques in Los Angeles has on display an industrial thread-winder, for instance, which has gears that turn, a lever that moves, and a wheel that spins. “People love it and they don’t even know what it is,” he says.

Lately, Ogle has been having success with what he calls crossover pieces. These are large objects like trade signs or oversized safety pins that have strong graphic or sculptural forms. He’s especially fond of a six-foot wooden sign from a circus midway. Professionally lettered in black and red Deco-style capitals is the mysterious phrase: “SEX EXPOSED IN THE NAKED TRUTH.” Side panels read: “Daring” and “Bold.” Ogle says, “You hang that in a super-modern house, and it’s suddenly modern art!” He plans to bring an assortment of his crossovers to the Winter Antiques Show in New York in January.

A different kind of quirkiness is on display in the Ames Gallery in Berkeley, Calif. “The glory of the everyday is coming into its own,” says owner Bonnie Grossman, who has owned the gallery for 42 years and has seen her share of trends. “My next show here at the gallery will be entirely mended things.” These include a broken hammer with a wrench handle soldered to it, a cracked soup tureen with 56 staples, and an old jug wrapped in a heavy wire cage. The jug’s handle broke off sometime in the distant past, and the cage was added so it was easier to tote. “I find these things enormously interesting,” Grossman says. She’s sold a number of them, but not necessarily for a lot of money; she bases her prices on what she paid for these humble objects in the first place.

A particular favorite of hers is a set of homemade pie jaggers that use perforated coins as crimping wheels. She categorizes these as “make-dos.” A collector herself for some 50 years now, she realizes that customers who share her aesthetic form a limited universe. “You’ve got to have gas,” she says. “You don’t have to have a pie jagger.”


By Doug Stewart

Mesoamerican Art: Exploring the Mayan Apocalypse Through Art Objects http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2012/06/mesoamerican-art-mayan-apocalypse/ Mon, 18 Jun 2012 19:14:01 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=1886 Continue reading ]]> A comprehensive gathering of Mesoamerican art objects reveals how a religious myth expressed itself—and perpetuated itself—through trade.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Culture, Commerce & Quetzalcoatl”.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)

This being the year 2012, it was probably inevitable that a major museum would devote a major show to Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican hero-deity whose name has become inseparably linked with the “Mayan apocalypse” that will supposedly overtake us this December 21. According to the ancient Mesoamerican calendar, a world-historic cycle with metaphysical implications will come to an end on that day, and another one will begin, but whether the event will be marked by doom or delight is unclear.

One thing is clear, though: Not only in New Age popular culture but in Mexican and Central American traditional culture and among certain seminal artistic figures of modernism, the idea of a “return of Quetzalcoatl” has remained powerfully attractive. “Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico,” a comprehensive and scholarly exhibition on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through July 1 (after which it will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art, July 29 through November 25), places the legend on a firm historical basis, exploring the myths origins and resonance through art objects. These creations tell a story not only about aesthetics and religion but also about trade and politics, and how all of these were intimately intertwined in the complex pre-Columbian world.

“Children of the Plumed Serpent,” curated by John Pohl, Victoria Lyall and the late Virginia Fields, is the first exhibition to comprehensively survey the civilizations of southern Mexico— the Mixtec, Nahua and Zapotec—through their material objects, and to assess their influence on the larger Mesoamerican world. That influence was powerful and wide-ranging, and the cult of Quetzalcoatl was the primary vehicle for it. His characteristic iconography is that of a plumed or feathered serpent; the quetzal is a brightly colored bird native to the region. The attributes of a bird and a snake combine with those of a man; Quetzalcoatl can be thought of as the human incarnation of the plumed serpent god. The legend—which can truly be considered a foundation myth not just of Mexican history but of Mesoamerican history as a whole—occurs in several variations, but it can basically be boiled down to this: Quetzalcoatl was a wise, chaste king who taught his subjects arts and sciences. One day, perhaps acting on bad advice from an unwise counselor or rival, he gets drunk and commits some indiscretion. In shame and despair, he abandons his capital city of Tollan and embarks on a long journey through southern Mexico (in some accounts he is banished instead of leaving voluntarily). Eventually he burns himself to death in an act of expiation and his incinerated body is magically transformed into the planet Venus. After this cosmic resurrection, Quetzalcoatl becomes a savior, though it is expected that one day he will return in triumph to his kingdom.

The widespread belief in the return of Quetzalcoatl accounts for the seemingly strange fact that the southern Mexicans identified the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes with the plumed serpent. As recounted in the exhibitions scholarly catalogue, 1519, the year in which the Spanish fleet appeared off the coast of Veracruz, was equivalent of the Aztec year 1 Reed, which has special significance in the Quetzalcoatl myth. Since the local Mixtecs were warring with the Aztecs, it seemed plausible that the Spaniards might be useful as allies against the Aztecs, and going one step further, that Cortes himself might be Quetzalcoatl, returned from western exile to help his children.

In the end, even the Aztecs accepted the identification, and when they received the conquistador they bedecked him in the full dress of the god-hero—including a turquoise-mosaic mask (of which an example is on view in the LACMA show) and a quetzal-feather headdress. While the Aztec romance with Cortes was soon to sour (he captured their capital, Tenochtitlan, on August 13, 1521, after what the catalogue calls “the longest continuous battle in the annals of world military history”), the southern Mexicans had little reason to repent of their identification of the Spaniard with the mythic hero. The Europeans were certainly colonialists, but they in effect liberated the Mixtecs, Nahua and Zapotecs from their native oppressors, and the southern Mexican religion and way of life were allowed to continue, surviving largely intact down to the present day. In the 1930s and ’40s, the anthropologist, ethnologist and artist Miguel Covarrubias noted the remarkable self-sufficiency and groundedness in tradition of the indigenous people of the Zapotec regions along the Pacific coast of Mexico, which he chronicled (and illustrated) beautifully in his 1946 book Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

This area of Mexico is actually the source of much of Mesoamerican culture. Quetzalcoatl’s legendary capital of Tollan, is identified by archaeologists with the site of Tula, capital of the Toltec kingdom, where excavations have yielded rich finds (some of which are on view in the LACMA show). Tollan’s twin city was Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, known today for its well-preserved pyramids and temples. Chichen was a Maya city, but its inhabitants also adhered to the religion of Quetzalcoatl (whom they called Kukulcan). Vigorous trading took place between the two cities, in which the elites dealt in coveted materials such as turquoise, spondyla (spiny oyster) shells, cacao, feathers and gold, all of which were used in the worship of Quetzalcoatl. The trade spread throughout Mesoamerica, and merchants ranged as far as modern-day New Mexico, where the precious turquoise came from. When Tollan fell in 1200, the Toltecs moved southward to a new capital, Cholula, which became a kind of Rome or Mecca for the Quetzalcoatl cult. One of the strengths of this exhibition is its down-to-earth approach to a subject often given an airy-fairy treatment; it focuses on the material culture of the Quetzalcoatl religion, tracing it through trade and exploring how the religion drove the need for material goods and how the trade in goods affected the religion itself. In Cholula, the lords were merchants, and Quetzalcoatl himself became a merchant god. Each year a massive feast was held in the main square of Cholula, at which the merchant-nobles tried to outdo each other in the spending of money on lavish display. Some of that money went to art patronage, and the LACMA curators chronicle the rise of an “international art style” between 1200 and 1300. As embodied in polychromed ceramics, works in bone, shell and stone, as well as in books called codices written in pictographic script, it was characterized by geometric precision and regularity, strong colors, a cartoon-like exaggeration of faces and hands, and a use of icon-like symbols for certain thoughts or concepts. On view at the exhibition, por- tions of the Codex Nuttall and the Codex Selden (named for their former American or European owners), recounting events both mythic and historical, exemplify the fascinating combination of crudeness and complexity that has endeared Mesoamerican picture books to many viewers.

When southern Mexico fell under Spanish sway, the cult of Quetzalcoatl didn’t die. The children of the plumed serpent found ways to adapt, keep their dignity, and preserve their religion in an environment dominated by Roman Catholicism. Having become Spanish allies during the fight for the conquest of Mexico, the Mixtec, Nahua and Zapotec elites now fought on behalf of the Spanish colonial mission, in some cases serving in the military as far away as the Philippines. But as before, the most prestigious occupation was business, and the merchant princes were now transformed into a new being—the cacique, a combination feudal lord and long-distance trader who adopted Spanish dress and names. Caciques commissioned elaborate illustrated documents and maps that established the bona fides of their land possessions and linked them both to the former regime and to the Spanish empire (of these, the Mapa de Teozacoalco is on view at LACMA). Occasionally some among their number rebelled, and when they did, it was usually under the banner of—no surprise here—the plumed serpent himself, whose imminent return was announced. The exhibition ends with a section devoted to “The Children of the Plumed Serpent Today” that showcases some of the products of modern-day artisans of southern Mexico. As the curators explain, five million indigenous people now live in the region, and Cholula remains a pilgrimage site, visited by a quarter of a million people during the festival of the Virgin of Remedios in the first week of September each year. At “the richest indigenous market in the North America,” visitors can see baskets and textiles from Puebla and Oaxaca, woven according to ancient patterns that never were forgotten. These textiles are in demand outside the immediate region, including in the United States, where decora- tors and hotel chains alike buy them. The money from such sales goes back into the indigenous communities, where the age-old link between culture and commerce persists. The descen- dants of yesterday’s merchant princes are still in business.

The idea of the return of Quetzalcoatl has been deeply alluring to all sorts of people, Mexican and foreign, over the centuries, for different yet related reasons. For pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, it was a myth of redemption, like others all over the world (including Christianity) that offer some relief from the human condition. For embattled indigenous Mexicans in the colonial period, it promised a setting back of the clock to a time before foreign oppression. For a Mexican modernist like José Clemente Orozco, whose murals at Dartmouth College include a cycle called “The Return of Quetzalcoatl,” it meant the promise of world brotherhood and the discarding of antiquated ideas. For D.H. Lawrence, who in 1924 published a novel called The Plumed Serpent, set in New Mexico, Quetzalcoatl was a potent symbol of the survival of pagan ways in a superficially Christian environment. And in that vein, today’s enthusiasts for “2012” see Quetzalcoatl as a New Age savior, bringing with him blissed-out mass spiritual enlightenment.

But those who take the time to experience this exhibition of artworks, objects and documents will come to realize that there’s no need to look for a return of Quetzalcoatl, because in southern Mexico, at least, he never left.

Street Artist http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2012/02/street-artist/ Wed, 01 Feb 2012 21:03:48 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=1474 Continue reading ]]> By Edward M. Gómez

In the Swiss mountains, Hans Krüsi found flowers to sell from his Zürich pushcart—and the inspiration to create a major body of outsider art.

Hans Krusi, Drawing of concentric circles

Hans Krusi, Drawing of concentric circles on vellum-like paper

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Hans Krusi, untitled, mixed-media Hans Krusi, untitled, mixed-media Hans Krusi, Drawing of concentric circles Hans Krusi, paint-on-board picture, 1984 Hans Krusi, Drawing on restaurants' paper napkins

Some records note that Hans Krüsi (1920–95) was born in Zürich; most others say he was born in the town of Speicher, in Appenzell Ausserrhoden, a small, German-speaking canton in northeastern Switzerland. He was born to a single mother and was brought up by foster parents and, later, in an orphanage. Krüsi received only an elementary-school education, and his childhood was a hard one, although the art he would later make often refers back to the verdant landscapes of his rural youth with a sense of reverence and nostalgia.Krüsi dreamed of studying to become a gardener, but since he was obliged to work as a farmhand before he could set out on his own, ultimately he went on to acquire gardening skills through various odd jobs, not through formal training.

A gaunt, eccentric loner, Krüsi was poor and moved around frequently. He lived most of his life in or near St. Gallen, one of Switzerland’s larger cities, near the south side of the Bodensee (Lake Constance), the body of water that forms part of the country’s border with southern Germany. After the end of World War II, while still in his 20s, Krüsi began commuting regularly from St. Gallen to Zürich, where he set up a flower-selling stall on the Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s most elegant shopping streets. To acquire his merchandise, Krüsi made forays into alpine valleys, where he would pitch a tent and enjoy a few days of rejuvenating mountain air before heading back to the city to sell his freshly picked bouquets.

In the mid-1970s, Krüsi began making postcard-size drawings and paintings on scraps of paper or cardboard and offering them for sale along with his flowers. Soon he was also making simple line drawings with felt-tip pens on the thin-paper napkins he found in the cafés and inexpensive restaurants where he took his meals. Krüsi took pleasure in the way his inky images and patterns soaked through the absorbent paper of his Serviettenzeichnungen (German for “napkin drawings”), instantly creating variations on an array of motifs—cows, human figures, flowers and abstract, serpentine designs—in a four-quadrant format that emerged when he spread out each folded sheet. “What I make, no one can make [again] after me,” he said in a 1981 interview.

That kind of inimitability is what outsider-art collectors and dealers crave, now more than ever. Today, the seven-decade-old field is facing some big challenges, partly because its turf is being invaded by the contemporary-art field and partly because of the scarcity of the best, new material that afflicts all art fields. Some longtime dealers complain that the outsider marketplace is being diluted by works that either do not properly fit the definition of the genre or are of low quality and overpriced. In this climate, educated eyes are turning to certain artists who are not exactly unknown but whose accomplishments deserve more critical and market attention than they have received to date. One of them is Hans Krüsi.

From the start of his art-making career, Krüsi depicted subjects from the rural settings in which he had grown up—farm animals, cats, birds and vistas of the countryside, with mountains, chalets and forests. He once told an interviewer, “Most of all, I love to paint cows.” He also drew inspiration from the urban environment in which he lived and worked as an adult. Krüsi moved frequently throughout his life, often residing in low-rent, run-down structures or even squatting. In one of his home/studio spaces on the top floor of a nearly empty building, the prolific artist lived with cats and with pigeons that he allowed to fly in through open windows and nest atop stacked-up crates or in the curved arms of ceiling lamps.

In 1980, Felix Buchmann, the director of the now-defunct Galerie Buchmann in St. Gallen, “discovered” Krüsi’s work and offered him a contract to become his art dealer; the struggling street vendor’s first-ever solo exhibition opened at the gallery in January of the following year. In a recollection of that event, which she penned several years later, Berti Ammann, the wife of the Swiss curator and art historian Heinrich Ammann, noted: “There seemed to be no end to the [viewers’] desire to buy.” Krüsi, she recalled, “moved contentedly through the stream of visitors, with a growing sense of self-consciousness.” The Swiss press ran with the story of the humble flower-seller turned cultural figure who, before too long, was proudly handing out business cards that identified himself as a “picture painter.”

After Krüsi’s death in 1995, the Kunstmuseum des Kantons Thurgau, in north-central Switzerland, received as a bequest artworks, personal papers, photographs and notebooks from his estate. The museum, in the village of Warth, in the canton of Thurgau, is housed in a section of a former monastery and had already earned recognition for conducting research about and presenting the work of Swiss self-taught artists.

In a book published to accompany an exhibition of Krüsi’s art that was shown at the museum in 2001, its current director, Markus Landert, then its curator, wrote, “Who then was Hans Krüsi? To this very simple question there is no easy answer.” That is because, Landert suggested, there were at least two Krüsis: There was Krüsi the man, whose life story was one of hardship and eccentricity, and also Krüsi the artist (or the constructed artist-personality), to whose activities and Aussenseiter (“outsider”) status that same biography was inextricably linked. In truth, like many outsider artists, Krüsi’s worldview was deeply informed by the culture and society in which he lived and worked, and because he achieved fame and success as an artist and became a recognized force and presence in the Swiss cultural world of his time, he also achieved a certain kind of contemporary cultural relevance. Like those of any significant artist, his ideas—about his subjects, about art, even about his homeland—mattered to his audience. Those facts led Landert to ask, “As what [exactly] do we want to regard Hans Krüsi?”

The answer may be found in the art-maker’s work itself, for one of the most remarkable aspects of Krüsi’s multifaceted oeuvre is the fact that, in it, viewers can find plenty of evidence showing that the energetic autodidact regarded himself as both a genuine artist and also as someone who was self-consciously playing the public role of an artist from almost as soon as he started making little pictures to sell along with his flowers. For example, among the material from Krüsi’s estate that Landert and his curatorial team have sorted out and archived over the years are thousands of photographs the artist shot throughout his life. Many of them, from his later years, are color Polaroid snapshots showing Krüsi relaxing in the countryside, in his signature artist’s costume of second-hand clothes and a hat decorated with real or plastic flowers; or greeting guests at the openings of his exhibition; or admiring his handiwork in his art-filled home/studio, where he covered every square inch of wall space with his boldly colored works. Often Krüsi is seen in these photos holding or standing near flowers, which were emblematically associated with his personal history.

Using a reel-to-reel recorder and, later, a cassette recorder, Krüsi also made hundreds of audio recordings of ambient sounds, including church bells ringing, cows mooing and birds chirping. All of these items are now stored at the museum in Warth; with them, Krüsi captured and preserved not only some of the sources of his artistic inspiration but also some of the defining aspects of his self-conscious Swiss identity. Landert notes, “Krüsi used his photographs to help construct and document his persona as an artist. Obviously, this identify was very important to him; it is the one he projected publicly.” One representative work in the museum’s collection consists simply of the raised, wooden, orange-painted initials “H.K.,” mounted on a framed backing board, like a minimalist corporate logo.

Partly because the outsider market is always so hungry for new material of high quality from hitherto unknown artists, and partly because Krüsi’s paintings, drawings and sculptures offered such an unusual take on the traditional, local imagery that was a notable part of his subject matter—his psychedelically colored rabbits, chalets and landscapes were not the normal stuff of Swiss folk art—the works of the “Appenzeller outsider,” as the Swiss media dubbed him, sold well, beginning with Buchmann’s 1981 show. At the beginning of Krüsi’s 15-year-long professional career, some of his works fetched from 180 to 500 Swiss francs apiece (about $170 to $470 at today’s exchange rate); at the time of his death, some of his largest works were selling for as much as 28,000 Swiss francs (around $26,385 today). Nowadays, the smallest Krüsi works may be found for less than $1,000; many small to medium-size pieces are priced at less than $10,000.

Sadly, there were times when unscrupulous buyers tried to take advantage of Krüsi. One former, reputable dealer in St. Gallen who knew the artist well, considered him a friend and did a lot toward the end of his life to help him live comfortably, if still very modestly, in the way the artist preferred, recalls: “Some people went to Hans’s studio, got him drunk and bought up works for unfairly low prices while the artist was too tipsy to understand what was going on.” Then there were the times, in the 1980s, when Krüsi’s residences were burglarized, and his artworks stolen. After one break-in, the artist told a newspaper reporter that he supposed the thief or thieves who had robbed him could have been familiar with the art world, a place in which, he noted, “plenty of grubby figures” could always be found.

By contrast, the Swiss businessman Werner Fischer followed Krüsi’s development from his first appearance on Switzerland’s art scene and routinely purchased works from galleries that showed them. Over time, he built up a substantial collection of Krüsi’s creations in diverse media; Fischer and his wife, Anita, befriended the artist and were instrumental in taking care of him right up until the time of his death.

Anita Fischer recalls, “It’s remarkable how capably Hans made his way through and survived in a complex world, for there was definitely something naïf about him even though, at the same time, he was very clever. You wanted to protect and encourage him and what he represented—his talent, vision, honesty and purity.”

Andrew Edlin, whose New York gallery presented Krüsi shows in 2002 and 2004 and continues to handle his work in the U.S. market, notes that in recent years some of his pictures were shown in group exhibitions of selections from the collection of the London-based Museum of Everything (founded by the British collector James Brett) in London and in Torino, Italy. Edlin points out that “the demand from Swiss collectors, especially, for Krüsi’s works, as well as their prices, continue to increase.” As this issue was going to press, an avid Krüsi collector in northern Switzerland discovered a dozen of the artist’s small, text-and-images-filled notebooks in the hands of a more general collector in another part of the country. “I immediately made an offer,” says the specialist collector. “Among dedicated Krüsi fans, this material is as rare and as highly prized as it gets.”

As a man and as an artist, Hans Krusi embodied the sense of independence and originality that have always been essential sources of value in the field of outsider or self-taught art. As for dealers, the most passionate purveyors of this kind of art have always tried to find work with these qualities and bring them to market. In recent years, this spirit has touched a nerve with a growing audience of contemporary-art aficionados who are tired of encountering art products that are habitually filtered through or that merely serve as exercises in tired, too-familiar postmodernist critical theory.

Even with the financial challenges he regularly faced before his professional fortunes changed, the health problems he wrestled with later in life and the occasional mistreatment he suffered from unscrupulous art buyers, Krüsi was nothing if not keenly self-aware. So it was that, with a mixture of pride and gratitude, he once observed that he had been “a nothing” who, most unexpectedly and rewardingly, had become “a something.”

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2011/05/mr-deeds-goes-to-town/ Sun, 01 May 2011 15:57:43 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=997 Continue reading ]]> by John Dorfman

At the Outsider Art Fair in New York this past February, a new artist made a much-heralded debut appearance.


Of course, he wasn’t exactly new, considering that the drawings were obviously made before World War II, but his work had remained outside the Outsider scene until quite recently. And while several of the remarkable two-sided drawings sold at the fair for $12,000 apiece, the artist remained anonymous, known only as “The Electric Pencil,” a phrase inscribed, seemingly as a signature, on some of the sheets of paper.

Now, finally, due to the research efforts of Harris Diamant, a New York-based artist and sometime folk-art picker who is representing the anonymous owner of the drawings, and the critic Lyle Rexer, the identity of the Electric Pencil has been discovered, and the strange, sad story of his life made known—at least as far as it can ever be known. His real name was James Edward Deeds Jr., and he was born in 1908 in Springfield, Mo., and died in an old-age home in 1987.

In 1925 he was committed for life to State Lunatic Asylum #3 in Nevada, Mo., and was discharged from there sometime in the mid-1970s. According to Diamant, Deeds was born to a well-educated, privileged family; his father was a naval officer who served as paymaster of the U.S.S. Marblehead. Deeds Sr. was apparently a brutally authoritarian man; family strife weighed heavily on young James, who pulled a gun on his father and went after his brother with a hatchet.

These incidents led to his involuntary confinement.

Treatment in those days, even when not devoid of compassion, was crude, and Deeds was subjected to intense shock therapy, among other things. In fact, it turns out that the artist’s self-bestowed name was a coded reference to this painful treatment: He wrote it as “The Ectlectric Pencil,” a spelling that Diamant and others at first assumed was evidence of dyslexia or some other disorder. But the “ECT” is nothing but an acronym for “electro-convulsive therapy.”

Diamant says, “He experienced some really horrible stuff and was damaged by it. A photograph we found clearly shows a person who was damaged. He lost everything but the impulse and wherewithal to make this wonderful art.” After he was discharged, Diamant adds, Deeds stopped drawing—“Outside the hospital setting, the need evaporated.”

The art is charmingly archaic, not only for our time but for Deeds’, too. Done with delicate black and colored pencils on hospital stationery, it has some of the look of American Indian ledger drawings. The subjects include portraits, references to the Civil War, automobiles and rural townscapes.

“They lie somewhere between folk art and Outsider art,” says Diamant. “They really resonate with 19th-century American folk art. There’s clearly some pathology there, but there is perfection in the forms. Given the choice between an angle and a curve, he always takes the curve.”

The “Electric Pencil” drawings—280 total on 140 sheets—were found in a dumpster in Springfield in the 1970s by a 14-year-old boy, who kept them for over 30 years and then sold them to a book dealer in Lawrence, Kan. In 2006 the dealer put five of them up on Ebay, where Diamant noticed them. After only an hour, the dealer was inundated with calls and took the drawings off Ebay.

When Diamant contacted the Kansas dealer he found out that all 280 drawings had been sold privately to a collector in St. Louis. Last year, Diamant acquired them from that collector, on behalf of another collector with whom he entered into a partnership. He and Rexer produced a book on the Electric Pencil this winter, published by Electric Pencil Press, but the artist’s true identity came to light too late to make it into the book. A second edition is on the way.

Fowl Most Fair http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2011/01/fowl-most-fair/ Sat, 01 Jan 2011 05:01:37 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=802 Continue reading ]]> Bird decoys are America’s only completely original form of folk art, and they are avidly hunted by collectors across the country.

By Sarah E. Fensom

One night in the 1950s, Adele Earnest, Americana dealer, founding trustee of the American Folk Art Museum and author of the 1965 book The Art of the Decoy: American Bird Carvings, was driving down a moonlit street on Taylor’s Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, when off in the distance she spotted a farmer’s bonfire. With a refined eye that could only belong to a long-time admirer of waterfowl decoys, she noticed a beautifully carved swan perched atop the flames. She immediately ran from her car, “screaming like a banshee”—as she put it in her book—in order to save the wooden bird. Preserved for posterity, the swan has since passed into some important collections—first the Alvin Freidman-Klein Collection and then that of Henry Stansbury, a Maryland historian who collects waterfowl decoys from the Old Line state and environs. In January 2007 Stansbury acquired the swan for $50,400 at an auction held jointly by Christie’s New York and Maryland decoy specialist Guyette & Schmidt.

While such classic 19th- and early 20th-century pieces are no longer used for the purpose they were made for, there’s no swan song for the decoy. These intricately carved and painted simulacra are America’s only completely original folk art, but they were not always prized. Tales of birds being burned, scrapped or just plain undervalued are not uncommon. However, in the early 20th century, Americana collectors, sportsmen and birders began to notice the unique beauty of decoys, and since then interest has steadily increased. So much so, in fact, that at the same 2007 sale where Stansbury bought the salvaged swan, an exquisite red-breasted merganser by Lothrop Holmes (1824–99), an early carver who made his living in Kingston, Mass., as a cemetery superintendent, went for a record $856,000. Margot Rosenberg, the head of Christie’s American furniture and decorative arts department, notes that a combination of factors led to the high price. “The rarity and condition of that bird played into it. It was an early bird by a known carver.” Gary Guyette, also cites the bird’s provenance as a large part of its appeal. “It was from the Mackey family. Bob Mackey is the most famous decoy collector. His family had retained this one, and it was in great condition.”

Rarity, condition, and provenance are essential criteria to all collectors of the decorative arts. However, decoy collectors tend to become enamored of particular carvers or birds from specific regions of the country. Elmer Crowell is generally considered the Rembrandt of decoy carvers, because of his artistry and style. The East Harwich, Mass., native was also prolific, having carved over 2,000 birds from the age of 10 until his death at 90 in 1954. Of the top 10 highest-selling decoys at auction, six are by Crowell. In September 2007, Crowell’s preening pintail drake and Canadian goose sold at a Guyette & Schmidt auction for $1.13 million. Kory Rogers, the curator of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, which boasts a collection of over 900 decoys—many of which from the collection of Joel Barber, considered to be the first known collector of decoys—considers Crowell’s black duck preening itself to be one of the most exemplary decoys at the museum. “The details of Crowell’s painting and carving are just amazing,” says Rogers. “He would paint feathers for each changing season.” In Art of the Decoy, Earnest describes the unique appeal of Crowell’s pieces. “The Crowell touch is unmistakable, although his styles of carving and painting vary, as might be expected through the fifty-odd years of his work.” Earnest also reveals that Crowell, though a hunter himself, noted the decorative appeal of his decoys, and carved many of his for the shelf rather than the pond.

New England birds are among the most popular decoys and generally command the highest prices, according to Rosenberg. But other regions of the United States—popular sporting areas and those in sync with species’ migratory patterns in particular—have long histories of decoy use and carving, and now have burgeoning markets. Collectors, particularly those who are sportsmen or birders, tend to want birds from their home states. Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson’s passion for decoys developed after he began hunting. When he knew he wanted to start a collection, he laid out a few criteria for himself: “They had to be hand-carved with original paint, and they had to be from well known Illinois River carvers.” In particular, Thompson sought out the works of Robert Elliston. “A lot are in poor condition. People didn’t know they’d be folk art so they’d burn them. To find an Elliston preener—in good condition—that’s about the greatest thing!” This past April, Thompson purchased a rare Elliston preener for $100,625 at a Guyette & Schmidt auction, adding to his 40-piece collection.

Stansbury has a similar allegiance to carvers from Maryland and neighboring Virginia. “From Maryland, there are early decoys from the late 1700s and 1800s. Maryland has arguably the best hunting because of the grasses in the upper Chesapeake Bay, where there are tons of shorebirds. Maryland decoys are characterized by the canvasbacks—they were sold in the flea markets for as much as $7 for a pair; that’s the equivalent of $100 today. But if you wanted a blackhead, they would go for only $1 a pair.” In his book Ira Hudson & Family: Chincoteague Carvers, Stansbury writes about the carver’s abilities and his life in a small town. “Ira Hudson could barely spell his name,” Stansbury says, “but he made beautiful pieces. I’m very interested in his artistic side, how he created forms just out of his imagination, and I just love the history.”

The fact that carvers were self-taught and often not attempting to create pieces of art, but rather useful hunting devices, adds not only to their appeal, but to their intrigue. “Gary Guyette always says, ‘You could throw a Clorox bottle into the water and it would work,’” says Rosenberg, “so why are these decoys so elaborate, so beautiful and unique?” Robert Shaw, an expert on American folk art and author of many books on the subject including the recent Bird Decoys of North America: Nature, History and Art, describes the goal and style of the late 19th- and early 20th-century carver: “The purpose of a decoy is to fool a bird just long enough to get it in range. For the carver, it’s more about capturing something essential about the species. The birds see differently than we do, so there has to be something symbolic. This is particularly true of the guys who would sell to the commercial gunners to make money.”

The production of waterfowl decoys in late 19th-century America is inextricably linked to the legacy of hunting . “One of the results of the Civil War was that all these men could shoot,” says Stansbury. “They all hunted, and it became a sport.” Guyette explains, “At that time, wild game was legal to serve. Market hunters would go out at night and come up on the birds, and shoot a couple hundred of them and then buyers would come around. A lot of decoys were carved for that reason.”

Because the demand was so great in the second half of the 19th century, decoys were made in factories as well as by independent carvers. Today, birds from the Mason Decoy Factory in Detroit, which produced commercial decoys from 1896 to 1924 and shipped them all over America, are rare and achieve high prices at auction. In the early 20th century, a sportsman could get 12 Mason “Premier-grade” decoys for $12, but in January 2000, one Mason Premier-grade wood duck sold for $354,500 at a Guyette & Schmidt and Sotheby’s sale. Birds from the J.N. Dodge Factory, another company out of Detroit, which operated from 1883 to 1908, command prices in the $100,000 range today.

Demand for decoys as hunting tools dwindled within the first few decades of the 20th century. The Migratory Bird Act of 1918, in response to the dwindling populations of ducks and geese in North America, put restrictions on commercial hunting practices .However, at roughly the same time, early collectors like Joel Barber were beginning to acquire waterfowl decoys and treat them as pieces of art.

The market for decoys hit a peak in November 2007. “Since then it’s gone down 20 percent,” says Guyette, “but this April it went up a little.” He adds, “These days, I’m very happy to see a picture of a $10,000 decoy. That’s very marketable; $400,000 and up is hard to sell.” Rosenberg notes, “We had a really successful sale on September 29—an American decorative arts sale—we’re seeing the market go up. You can still get a very good bird for the high hundreds and low thousands—especially factory birds; ou can pay a couple thousand for a good one. Of course, the masterpieces go up and up.”

Surprisingly, there are reputable contemporary decoys, as well. Mark McNair and his protégé, Cameron Macintyre, carve decoys that command around $12,000 on the auction market. “They still make them in the old style,” says Stansbury. When it comes to decoys, style is everything.

A Well-Carved Life http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2010/10/a-well-carved-life/ Fri, 01 Oct 2010 04:01:48 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=678 Continue reading ]]> By Ted Loos

Remembering the folk artist and furniture craftsman Stephen Huneck.

A time-honored trope in Western culture has it that creativity and depression go hand in hand, that artists are “born under the sign of Saturn.” Whether or not there really is such a thing as creative melancholy, artists from the Renaissance to today have drawn on the power of their inner demons to make powerful work, or used their work to keep darkness from encroaching—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

When I profiled the Vermont-based artist Stephen Huneck in this magazine 17 years ago, I realized that he belonged to this company. His fanciful, witty woodcarvings and furniture—especially those involving dogs—were often sweet and upbeat, but he had an acknowledged dark side stemming from an unhappy -childhood. He also had a background as a faker of antiques, which he discussed openly with me.

I thought he was one of the lucky ones, an artist who had found a way to channel all of his turmoil into art. So when I stumbled on Huneck’s New York Times obituary this past February, I had to sit down. He had committed suicide at 61, it said, in part because the recession had forced him to lay off many of the employees in his art business, which had really taken off in the time since I had visited him in 1992.

This fall is a particularly apt time to reflect on Huneck’s legacy, with the recent release of his book Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven (Abrams, $19.95). The title alone is sad, given the circumstances of his death. And the introduction, written just before he died, is even more wrenching. He talks about his struggles in a straightforward way, especially his battle with the respiratory illness that put him in a coma at one point. The outpouring of affection he received after he came out of the coma particularly affected him. He wrote, “The universe had given me a second chance and I wanted to make the most of it.”

But I find a lot that’s heartening in the book, too. First of all, it’s a keepsake for those of us that enjoyed his art and knew him. And Huneck’s message has always been about redemption—in particular, the healing effect that animals have on humans. The key image in the book is probably one of his hand-built Dog Chapel, part of a multi-use retreat in St. Johnsbury, Vt., called Dog Mountain (dogmt.com), which has become his best-known work. It shows a winged Labrador retriever emanating heavenly rays as it sits perched at the top of the chapel’s spire. The accompanying text reads, “Dogs can save us, body and soul.”

Huneck was a New Englander through and through. Raised in Sudbury, Mass., he left home at 17 and as a young man drove a cab in Boston. He may be the only person to have dropped out of the Massachusetts College of Art twice-—he truly wanted to learn, but the experience was a “total bummer,” he told me. Eventually he also started buying antique furniture and repairing it, which taught him woodworking. That led to a period of dealing—including making new pieces and passing them off as old country antiques, circa 1820 Vermont. “I’d go to an auction and everybody there knew I did it,” he told me. “Everyone knew. But people see what they want to see.” (The Times obit tactfully omitted mention of this topic.)

Luckily, Huneck struck off on his own and got gallery representation for his real work just as the studio furniture movement of the ’80s was cresting. A burgeoning market wanted handcrafted pieces, and Huneck’s style looked like no one else’s. His Disney-meets-Magritte aesthetic was totally his own: Chairs that look like nuns and force the sitter into the sisters’ laps; a ladder-back chair with a splat formed by businessmen’s handshakes.

Working with his wife and business partner, Gwen, Huneck took his personal obsessions (dogs, religion, traditional American furniture) and eventually turned them into a huge financial success. For someone who was totally self-taught as a carver, a true outsider artist, this was quite an achievement.

Although talented with a gouge, Huneck never succeeded on artistry alone. It was the heartfelt quality of the images, the way they foiled any attempt at irony, that put them over. Even if they were too cutesy for you, you didn’t doubt their sincerity, and you respected that. His other tool was humor, from his observations of everyday life to his clever use of scale and metaphor. That skill turned a lot of doubters into fans, partly because the wit added a dash of vinegar to the sweetness in Huneck’s art.

Now, those fans are understandably worried about the future of Dog Mountain and the rest of Huneck’s legacy. “I’m 100 percent committed to keeping the Mountain open,” his widow, Gwen, said when I called her at home in St. Johnsbury over the summer. “This was the largest and most personal artwork of his life.” This year is the 10th anniversary of its opening.

Though the unique combination of canine-centric gallery, chapel, and hiking trails got a lot of attention, Gwen also acknowledged how Huneck’s books have brought his art to a wider audience, particularly a series (also published by Abrams) about a Lab named Sally. “He was in a rush to finish this one,” she said, referring to Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven. “I think he was thinking [about suicide] for a long time.”

Perhaps the strangest twist of all is Gwen’s theory that her husband may have killed himself precisely to save Dog Mountain—that he was betting on the uptick of interest that often follows an artist’s death. Sure enough, there has indeed been an increase in visitors and sales this year.

Huneck’s passing does not mean a lack of material for people who want to buy his work. He was incredibly prolific, and he made prints from his woodcuts in large editions. The extant sculpture molds, made from his original wood carvings, means more of those can be made, too, in materials from bronze to resin. “Just with what he already made, I could keep a million people busy for 500 years,” Gwen told me. (She’s already been able to rehire many of the workers who were laid off.) “He was a doer, not a talker. He’d wake up and say, ‘I’m going to carve a Lab-shaped toilet paper holder,’ and by that night it would be done.”

That’s about as good an encomium as I can imagine—the perfect combination of inspired creativity and sheer industriousness. Huneck was definitely a tortured artist in some fundamental way, but he kept the demons at bay long enough to make a big impact. “He had a brutalized childhood, and he could have made work full of angst,” Gwen said as we ended our conversation. “Instead of the negative, he chose to dwell on the positive and to leave the world a better place than the one he came into.”

The New Outsiders http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2010/01/the-new-outsiders/ Fri, 01 Jan 2010 23:20:03 +0000 http://aamag.carolinaluxury.com/?p=262 Continue reading ]]> By: Edward M. Gomez

Image by Ricco/Maresca Hiroyuki Doi, HD 0307, 2007, ink on japanese paper.

The late 1940s saw the first rumblings of appreciation for what is now called “Outsider” art—works created by nonacademically trained artists who operate apart from the cultural mainstream and its art-historical canon. In France, the artist Jean Dubuffet, the Surrealist leader André Breton and the art critic Michel Tapié celebrated visionary autodidacts, whose work they labeled “art brut,” or “raw art.” Ever since then, Europe and North America have been the main territories in which research in this field has been carried out and important talents have been discovered and promoted by curators and dealers.

In recent years, though, specialists in Europe and the U.S. have looked farther afield for the works of note worthy self-taught artists. At the same time, some new ways of thinking about and looking at what these art makers produce have come into focus. These two trends have played out against the backdrop of a third tendency: the blurring of the borderline that once strictly separated works made by academically trained, “professional” artists and those of their self-taught counterparts. (However, some experts on Outsider art dispute that this tendency is really all that new.)

In the early 2000s, the New York dealer Phyllis Kind began showing works by self-taught artists from Japan, including the talented draftsmen Katsuhiro Terao and Tomoyuki Shinki. Kind also showed the works of the Tokyo-based master chef and autodidact Hiroyuki Doi, whose voluminous, emotionally expressive, abstract compositions are made up of masses of tiny circles drawn with fine-point pens. Kind was a pioneering force in the Outsider art field who helped create an international market for the work of self-taught artists; this past summer, after a career that spanned four decades, she closed her New York venue.

Ricco/Maresca, another Manhattan gallery that has long shown work by both self-taught and trained art makers, has brought Doi into its stable. The gallery will feature his newest works at the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York (Feb. 5–7) and at the Armory Show (March 4–7). Lately, Cavin-Morris, a New York gallery that also handles contemporary trained and self-taught artists’ works, as well as finely crafted objects from traditional cultures—dance wands from New Guinea, festival masks from Mexico—also has been looking to Japan. The gallery’s principals, Shari Cavin and Randall Morris, traveled there last summer and discovered unusual fired-clay works made by self-taught ceramicists.

“We met talented artists near Shigaraki whose hand-sculpted ceramics are full of expression and unlike anything we had ever seen,” recalls Cavin, referring to a town in south-central Japan that has been a center of pottery production since ancient times. At the Outsider Art Fair, Cavin and Morris will show these abstract forms, along with the abstract paper-and-fiber creations of an artist from Japan whose identity is unknown; these works look like big, thin sheets of fried tempura batter shot through with lumps of vibrant colors.

Through Sept. 5, American viewers who are interested in Outsider art from Asia will find a revealing retrospective of decorative latticeworks and painted-clay animals made by the Indian self-taught artist Sonabai Rajawar on view at San Diego’s Mingei International Museum. Sonabai’s obsessively protective husband kept her in enforced isolation for many years, during which time she used clay, bamboo and homemade dyes to make her sculptures. Born around 1928 (even the artist did not know her exact birth date), Sonabai died in 2007.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific Rim region, the New Zealand-based researcher and art promoter Stuart Shepherd has been calling attention to the work of his homeland’s most imaginative self-taught artists, including Martin Thompson, a maker of mathematically oriented designs on graph paper; Andrew Blythe, “a very original mark-maker,” as Shepherd notes, who makes primordial-looking, black-and-white abstractions on paper; and Susan Te Kahurangi King, who uses ballpoint pens, felt-tip markers and colored pencils to make abstractions or fantasy images on envelopes or plain, found paper. The daughter of a linguist who championed New Zealand’s indigenous Maori language, King, 58, stopped speaking at an early age. Her brother Stephen says, “Susan’s inspiration came from nature and Walt Disney comics during a childhood without television. Drawing became her means of expression, although she has never attempted to use it as a practical means of communication; she simply expresses her creative self.”

Works from New Zealand and Australia form the core of the Peter Fay Collection of Outsider art, part of which was shown last year at the University of Sydney (as was an exhibition of King’s drawings). Fay, a pioneering, Sydney-based collector in the field who has amassed some 2,000 works, says, “There is a real passion coming from people who want to know more about this art.” In Australia, he notes, other aficionados share his interest in Outsider art’s “raw honesty, bravado and take-no-prisoners purity that all artists aspire to but seldom reach.”

With the establishment, in 2008, of the Self-Taught and Outsider Art Research Collection within the University of Sydney’s arts college, the serious study of work by noteworthy autodidacts in the region acquired a high-profile base. Fay seeded STOARC’s holdings with a gift of 150 sculptures, human figurines in wood and fabric by the Portuguese artist José dos Santos. Colin Rhodes, a well-known British specialist in the Outsider field, heads the STOARC research and study program. Meanwhile, through a research-oriented website that Shepherd maintains, some New Zealand artists’ works have become available for sale. As the rush continues for high- quality material from such newly active regions, which American dealers will be the first to introduce important Outsider art from the South Pacific to the U.S. market?

Although many extraordinary bodies of work have emerged in the field of Outsider art, and highly original artists are still alive and producing—for example, the Alabama-­based assemblage-art maker Thornton Dial and the North Carolina-based autistic savant George Widener, who makes drawings packed with complex future-date calculations—some dealers and researchers continue to make discoveries. In addition to work by living artists, some remarkable bodies of work created in the past are only now coming to light. In Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, an exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore (on view through Sept. 5), independent curator Roger Manley has included detailed pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors by Renaldo Kuhler, a former illustrator on the staff of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. They depict “Rocaterrania,” a Victorian-style, imaginary world that Kuhler developed over five decades in a highly personal oeuvre. “It’s the coolest self-taught artist’s work since Henry Darger’s,” Manley observes, referring to the legendary Chicago recluse who died in 1973 after authoring a strange illustrated epic, In the Realms of the Unreal, which pitted the cherubic Vivian Girls (with their cute Mary Janes and male genitalia) against various forces of evil.

Based in Berkeley, Calif., dealer Bonnie Grossman has long handled the work of Achilles G. Rizzoli, a draftsman in a San Francisco architecture firm who made ink-on-rag-paper drawings of his own ornate, Beaux-Arts building designs—fantasy monuments to his beloved mother that were never erected. At the Outsider Art Fair, for the first time ever, Grossman will show a batch of similar drawings Rizzoli made on plain vellum. “They reveal aspects of his thought process in relation to the more elaborate, better-known works,” the veteran dealer says. Also emerging from the shadows are the strange, psychedelic-feeling drawings in ballpoint or colored inks on paper of the Texas-born artist Thomas Burleson. Depicting elaborate contraptions with thickets of pipes and with densely packed abstract compositions, Burleson’s art gave expression to an emotionally troubled soul. “Like the most authentic, definitive Outsider artists,” says the New York dealer Luise Ross, who handles Burleson’s work, “he was compelled to make his art; it was therapeutic for him and reflects a very singular vision.”

So do the paintings of female nudes and landscapes of the Italian immigrant artist Anthony De Bernardin, who settled in the Pittsburgh area and ran a variety store. Smitten by a local girl, he depicted her again and again. Although she never knew she was the artist’s muse, he left her his life savings when he died. De Bernardin’s works are marked by quirky details that should appeal to postmodern ironists, like hand-drawn phrases that label certain parts of each image. (Inscribed on a ribbon of water in one landscape: “Up the deep blue river is no work for the beaver.” David T. Owsley, a former curator of decorative art at the Carnegie Museum of Art, who discovered De Bernardin’s works at a flea market near Pittsburgh in the 1970s, says, “We may never know exactly what his purposes were in making these pictures.”

Ron Jagger Fine Arts will show De Bernardin at the Outsider Art Fair, where Jagger, Kind’s longtime collaborator, will launch the exhibition program of the new Manhattan gallery that bears his name. Also at the fair, the New York dealer Andrew Edlin will present the work of Pennsylvania-based Brent Green, a 31-year-old self-taught mixed-media artist, musician and filmmaker whose handcrafted sculptures and related props, which appear in his stop-motion animated films, are sold as separate works of art. With their rough-hewn yet knowing air, Green’s works easily jump the border between the contemporary and Outsider categories.

Such works have emerged at a time when the long-held dream of many Outsider art proponents has finally come true: This art is now appreciated by many contemporary collectors and even hangs in mainstream museums. In London last October, collector James Brett opened his new Museum of Everything, which presents the work of self-taught artists with a sensibility that appeals to the hip attitudes of pop-culture mavens. Contributors who provided commentaries in the new museum’s inaugural exhibition of some 200 works by Outsiders included such arbiters of cool as David Byrne, Ed Ruscha and the French artist Annette Messager.

Still, even as this art has won mainstream praise, Kind herself has reminded us in recent years to “remember that this work is special and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Another researcher in the field, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: “Could Outsider art as we’ve known it actually be on the way out? I believe it’s being diluted by the poor-quality output of art-therapy programs that’s coming to market and by the fact that the best Outsider work is being absorbed into the contemporary art sector. This will lead to the greatest Outsiders, like Darger or Adolf Wölfli, being fully incorporated into the mainstream.”

Brooke Davis Anderson, director and curator of the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, disagrees. She points out that “this field often seems to have a sense of amnesia about its own history,” and says, “That a contemporary artist like Maurizio Cattelan should be interested in Martín Ramírez or that other contemporary artists should be inspired by Darger—this is just a continuation of the appreciation of gifted self-taught artists’ work that Dubuffet and Breton expressed decades ago.” What is novel, though, is the focus that an exhibition Anderson has organized at AFAM has placed on the formal qualities and overall expressive character of the works themselves—instead of the anecdotal emphasis on artists’ biographies that is usual in the Outsider field.

The show, titled Approaching Abstraction (on view through Sept. 6), examines the visual languages many self-taught artists employ, which include random patterns, private codes and symbols and exuberantly exaggerated or distorted forms. It convincingly suggests that such powerful works can hold their own alongside modern art’s more familiar abstract icons. “Some of the most interesting work by self-taught artists is full of shapes, letters, numbers or lines that are so densely packed, they almost disappear,” says Lorri Berenberg, an Outsider art dealer in the Boston area. Works like those by Dan Miller, which she will show at the Outsider Art Fair, fit that description. Berenberg adds, “The strongest abstract work by self-taught artists easily crosses the old Outsider-contemporary art divide.”

While Cavin does not completely ignore self-taught artists’ interesting life stories or the intentions they might have had in creating their works, she believes that “looking at this art from a formalist perspective is one of the best things we can do.” Therein, she hints, lies the impulse for new waves of excitement about Outsider art and for the market that supports it, whose latest discoveries promise rewarding surprises.

Ames Gallery, Berkeley, Calif.
510.845.4949 amesgallery.com

Berenberg Gallery, Boston
339.368.6699 berenberggallery.com

Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York
212.226.2768 cavinmorris.com

Edlin Gallery, New York
212.206.9723 edlingallery.com

Luise Ross Gallery, New York
212.343.2161 luiserossgallery.com

Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York
212.627.4819 riccomaresca.com

Ron Jagger Fine Arts, New York

Stuart Shepherd, New Zealand

Sketches of the Past http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2009/04/sketches-of-the-past/ Wed, 01 Apr 2009 23:21:49 +0000 http://aamag.carolinaluxury.com/?p=265 Continue reading ]]> By: Edward M. Gomez

Born in Jamaica in 1794 into a well-to-do Sephardic-Jewish merchant family, Belisario spent part of his life in England and died in London in 1849. His major work is Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population, in the Island of Jamaica, a series of lithographs of Jamaican slaves dressed up for a popular music-and-dance celebration, which the artist, who was based in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, issued to subscribers in 1837 and 1838. Those memorable images, with accompanying descriptive texts composed by Belisario himself, offer a cultural anthropologist’s treasure trove of information about one of the most colorful folk customs to have emerged in colonial Jamaica.

Belisario’s reputation got a boost in 2007 from the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. As part of the commemorations, Yale University’s Center for British Art presented the exhibition Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds. It featured Belisario’s Sketchesprints, artifacts from the slavery era and an accompanying catalogue in which the famous prints were reproduced from the complete set of three parts, in their original bindings, that are housed in the Yale museum’s Paul Mellon Collection.

Very few other complete or incomplete sets of Sketches are known to exist. In Jamaica, Valerie Facey, the founder and director of The Mill Press, a Kingston-based company that focuses on works about Jamaican art and culture, and her husband, Maurice Facey, a well-known Jamaican businessman, own one complete set, whose pages are separated from their original bindings. The Faceys are one of the best-known families in the Jamaican business world, and some of their ancestors were Jewish. To some degree, this aspect of Valerie’s own family’s history has spurred her longstanding interest in the story of the Belisarios of Jamaica. In Kingston, the University of the West Indies owns another complete, bound set of Sketches(including two sets of part two), as does the National Library of Jamaica, whose set is unbound.

Late last year The Mill Press issued Belisario: Sketches of Character, a new, exhaustively researched and lavishly illustrated book written by biographer Jackie Ranston and printed in Verona, Italy, by the famed Stamperia Valdonega. Belisario is the most ambitious project this small press has undertaken to date. At the heart of the book is the story of the artist’s creation of his portraits. To provide a sense of the historical and cultural contexts in which Belisario’s Sketches emerged, the British-born Ranston, who has lived and worked in Jamaica since 1970, goes back to the Inquisition, which the Catholic Church established in Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, and to the migratory movements of branches of the Jewish Lindo and Belisario families that survived it. Their descendants’ paths crossed two centuries later at a London synagogue that became the spiritual home of the British capital’s small community of “Mosaic” people, as Jews were sometimes referred to at the time.

Decades later, the paths of certain members of the Lindo and Belisario families crossed again¾in Jamaica. They were among the countless Jewish families in the Caribbean who traced their roots back to England, Spain, Portugal or other countries and who distinguished themselves for generations as merchants and financiers. Reminders of the contributions Jews have made to the societies and institutions of the Caribbean islands can be found in the graveyards and national archives of many of the region’s small, independent, post-colonial countries. As for Jamaica, in the past some of the island’s most prominent Jewish businessmen were deeply involved in its notorious slave trade, right up until Jamaica freed its slaves in 1838. It was against this commercial and social backdrop that the Belisario’s life unfolded.

His father, Abraham Mendes Belisario, arrived in Kingston from London in 1786, at the age of 18, and went to work for Alexandre (Elisha) Lindo, a slave trader and merchant whose daughter, Esther, he later married. Ranston writes that “Lindo’s thriving port business included his role as a prominent prize agent, selling off enemy vessels and their cargoes that had been caught off Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico and along the Spanish Main.” As Lindo’s eventual business partner, Abraham became prosperous, too. But in 1803, after becoming involved with his father-in-law in a disastrous loan to France of half a million British pounds to help provision French forces fighting rebels in St. Domingue—the French colony that would become the independent nation of Haiti—Abraham returned with his family to London. Lindo, ruined, sailed back on the same ship. For such businessmen, who had been deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which transported human cargo from the coast of West Africa to European colonies in the Americas, the final economic crunch came, Ranston points out, in 1807. In that year, Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act “made it illegal for British ships to be involved in the trade.”

Even before this time, Belisario had set his sights on becoming an artist, despite his family’s expectations that he assume a role in its enterprises. He gave up his job as a London stockbroker and studied with watercolorist Robert Hills and showed his own work with the Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours. He also painted landscapes in oil and in 1831 exhibited a watercolor portrait (Lady in Black) at the Royal Academy of Arts. Belisario’s lady was Ellen Terry, one of the most-admired young actresses of her time. However, while his artistic career progressed, Belisario suffered from respiratory ailments, so he returned to Jamaica in 1834 in search of a warm, soothing climate.

There he set up a studio on the Parade, the main plaza in downtown Kingston. He had been away from the island of his birth for 31 years. As Belisario became established, wealthy landowners commissioned him to paint portraits of their family members or pictures of their estates; the relatively small number of the artist’s paintings that are known to exist today are mostly in private collections in Jamaica or in the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston.

When Belisario arrived back in Jamaica, he found a small art scene made up of only a few itinerant foreign artists. Notable among them was the Frenchman Adolphe Duperly, who became known for his hand-colored lithographic prints of typical Jamaican scenes. Belisario’s keen eye for detail and Duperly’s printmaking skill would come together in the production of the Jewish-Jamaican artist’s ambitious but, ultimately, incompletely realized Sketches series documenting a masquerade festival known as Jonkonnu.

African in origin, Jonkonnu was, Ranston explains, “a fantastic fusion of African and European traditions that had its origins in the early days of slavery, when the Christmas and Easter holidays … provided the only real recreational opportunities for the enslaved.” For a few days at Jonkonnu time, plantation owners allowed their slaves to bang drums, make music and celebrate. Since slaves and slave-owners alike joined in the festivities wearing costumes and masks representing both mythical and real-life figures, Jonkonnu became a great, if temporary, leveler of the era’s strictly hierarchical society. (The word Jonkonnu—sometimes rendered “John Canoe”—might be derived from the name of an 18th-century West African chieftain. The festival occurs in other parts of the Caribbean and in slavery days was practiced in North Carolina.)

Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Jonkonnu developed its own stock characters, such as the Queen (or “Ma’am”) of the singing and dancing Set Girls and Jack-in-the-Green, a male figure covered with a palm-frond shroud. In Belisario’s emblematic images, the Queen appears in a brightly patterned hoop skirt, puff sleeves and a broad lace collar, along with a wide-brimmed hat topped by a thicket of fluffy white plumes. In Belisario’s own words, she was the “conductress of a lively and graceful band of female dancers” armed with a “cow-skin whip” to keep her charges in line. At Jonkonnu time they would “sally forth in the morning,” accompanied by a band, to “parade the town” until nighttime. Belisario also depicted Jaw-Bone, or House John-Canoe, a character who wore a mask and a long-haired wig, a military-looking jacket and a headdress shaped like a house or houseboat. That unusual headgear had roots in west-central African societies and symbolized a man’s wealth, which was measured by how many people lived in his home.

In Belisario, Ranston notes that the mask-wearing and cross-dressing associated with Jonkonnu would have reminded the artist “of the Jewish Purim celebration that plays with the themes of identity,” and that, in the late 18th century in London, after those festivities had become too boisterous, Jewish elders decreed to their community that in the future, “no person of our nation of either sex or of any age shall, on Purim, or at any other time of the year, appear in the streets in masquerade or disguised in the dress of the other sex.”

In documenting Jonkonnu characters for posterity, Belisario took a turn away from the landscapes and society portraits for which he had become known. With hisSketches, he also helped validate a form of cultural expression that had become an integral part of Jamaica’s multiracial and already multicultural society. Although he had intended to produce a dozen separate installments (known as parts or numbers) of the Sketches, each containing several images, because he could not find capable assistants to help him hand-color each print he was forced to cease production of the series after issuing only three numbers. They contained a total of 12 images. In April 1839 Belisario informed subscribers who had paid to receive forthcomingSketches installments that he had fallen ill from overexertion in hand-coloring the prints. Shortly thereafter, Belisario sailed back to England. In London he resided with his sisters until his death from tuberculosis, that “dread disease,” as Charles Dickens described it, by means of which “day by day and grain by grain, the mortal part withers away.”

Despite Ranston’s exhaustive research, her subject remains something of an enigma. “Of Belisario,” she writes, relevant documents offer “no mention of a wife, mistress or children¾legitimate or otherwise. All that has emerged of his personal life is that he was a vestryman at the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ synagogue in Kingston from 1838 until he left” Jamaica for good the following year.

Unfortunately, despite the considerable resources that supported Yale’s presentation, some of its researchers got basic facts about Belisario’s life wrong. For example, confusing him with his Jamaica-based cousin who shared the same name, they claimed the artist had owned slaves. In fact, as Ranston has established, the painter-printmaker was never a slave owner, despite his family’s close ties to the notorious business.

Today, Jamaica counts only a few hundred Jews among a total population of nearly three million inhabitants. That they contributed significantly to the development of the country’s commercial infrastructure is no secret. Neither is the fact that, in Jamaica, as throughout the Caribbean, successive waves of immigrants from different countries and cultures¾including Indians, Chinese, Lebanese and Jews from Europe and beyond¾have routinely intermingled, creating a pageant of complexions and often closely intertwined family trees.

Take this fact, for example: Belisario’s Jamaican-born mother, Esther Lindo, was the great-great aunt of Blanche Lindo Blackwell, the Sephardic-Jewish mother of Chris Blackwell, the legendary record producer who catapulted reggae star Bob Marley to international fame in the 1970s. Never mind that Belisario might still be known only to a handful of art-history experts and collectors. Ranston notes, “Blanche Lindo Blackwell is Belisario’s cousin, twice removed, and very proud of the fact.” It is such personal connections to the little-known artist, plus the sense of wonder at the sophistication and quality of his achievement each new discoverer of his Sketchesseems to feel, that will ensure this mysterious artist a lasting place in the art history of his time.