'Outsider' Art Is Going Mainstream. But In Chicago, It's Always Been In
Outsider art is having an “in” moment.
It’s a label given to self-taught, unconventional and often uncelebrated artists, but in recent months exhibitions of outsider art have shown up at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
While mainstream interest in the genre may be on the rise, it’s always been in the spotlight at Intuit: The Center For Intuitive And Outsider Art, a small gallery founded in Chicago in 1991 that is one of the few museums in the world dedicated solely to outsider art.
Deb Kerr is the gallery’s the executive director. On a recent afternoon, she’s helping set up for a new exhibit showing the work of Susan Te Kahurangi King, an artist on the autism spectrum who stopped speaking around the age of 4.
“She does these incredible drawings where she sort of deconstructs popular culture, so there’s some deconstructed Donald Ducks in some of her art,” Kerr says. “She is someone who is on the autism spectrum and she does not speak, but the art speaks for her in very powerful ways.”
Kerr says good art always speaks for itself, but outsider art is as much about the story of the artists behind it as what’s on the canvas. Outsider artists, sometimes called folk artists, are usually self-taught and often have had to overcome some hardship to create and exhibit their work.
“Many of our artists have been the victims of abuse or have had some institutionalization of some kind,” Kerr says, “but these are people who are so driven to create, they’re compelled to create, and without even having access to fancy art supplies, sometimes they just create with whatever’s at hand.”
Take Henry Darger, one the genre’s best-known names. In January, one of his works sold for $684,500 at a Christie’s auction in New York. But Darger was a recluse, and his art wasn’t discovered until just before his death in 1973.
Darger worked as a janitor in a Chicago hospital and spent his free time writing a kind of graphic novel — thousands of pages long and full of vibrant watercolors depicting a fantastical battle between good and evil.
Intuit acquired much of Darger’s collection and even re-created the artist’s apartment inside their gallery. It’s a small, dimly lit room with Darger’s Remington typewriter and Victrola record player. There are a few tables piled high with bundles of old magazines, boxes of crayons and coloring books. He had boxes marked “small rubber bands” and “large rubber bands,” balls of twine, and kept a daily handwritten log of the weather for 10 years.
Darger never exhibited his artwork. Even if he had wanted to, he might have struggled to find an outlet. But today, because of museums like Intuit, it’s easier for outsider artists to find an audience.
One of those artists is E. Nix, whose work is on display now at the Chicago gallery. Nix apprenticed as a blacksmith and uses those skills in multimedia sculptures that deal with themes of trauma and addiction.
His self-portrait is a sculpture subtitled “Pinnochio,” drawing on a childhood nickname. It’s his version of an nkisi — an African “fetish” figure or spirit object. His is made from found objects: salvaged school chairs for legs, nails hammered into its shoulders and empty plastic bottles of methadone inside his torso.
Nix says he’s always felt compelled to make art.
“As far as I can remember, I’ve always been making things. I’ve always done things with my hands,” he says. “I don’t have a formal education in art, so I kind of had to do this on my own through just experimentation.”
Nix says he’s never considered himself an outsider artist, but he accepts the label.
“For me, it’s not a powerful label, you know? It’s not something that moves me in either direction,” he says. “But I have no problem being considered an outsider artist. I’m considered an outsider [in] everything else anyway, so why not add art to it?”
Another outsider artist exhibiting alongside E. Nix at Intuit, Robert Johnson is known among Chicago collectors for his reverse oil paintings done on salvaged windows. Images of guns and bags of white powder evoke Johnson’s past struggles with addiction.
His newer work is full of brightly colored skulls and grinding gears inspired by his time as an Army mechanic in Iraq.
Johnson says making art is like a form of therapy.
“I can just empty my mind, I can forget about the stresses I’m dealing with on a daily basis and just open up,” he says. “So it helps me manage all the jumble of thoughts in my head, the anger and things like that, I can just put it out right onto the canvas, right into a piece.”
Like Nix, Johnson is also ambivalent about being labeled an outsider artist, but he says people in the traditional art world never really made him feel welcome.
“There’s a lot of, ‘Oh, you made it into this gallery?’ Or, ‘Where were you schooled at? I have my sculpting degree, I have my MFA, I have this.’ Well, OK, does that lessen somebody who doesn’t have that? I don’t really think so, but unfortunately so far in the art world, that’s the way it’s been working,” Johnson says.
That could be changing, in part because of museums like Intuit that blur the lines between who’s considered part of the art world — and who’s outside it.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.