Outside? Who Says?

The annual Outsider Art Fair is going on right now at the Puck Building in New York. Absent this year will be visionary artist and hardcore eccentric Joe Coleman, prohibited because he's not "outside" enough (he studied art for two years). Curious, considering the amazing artist Paul Laffoley--who graduated from Brown University, attended Harvard's design school, and apprenticed with Italian sculptor Mirko Baseldella--is a mainstay of the show. I'm a big fan of so-called "outsider art" (see my Raw Vision piece on Simon Sparrow), but I'm wondering if it's merely the gallery owners and art buyers who get to draw the borders of "outside." To me, this type of art is a spirit--urgent, raw, personally meaningful--not a club with a membership dictated by galleries. I asked Coleman's gallery representative Katherine Gates if she knew whether well-educated Laffoley was excluded too--I checked the art fair's website, but it only lists the exhibiting galleries and not the artists (which is pretty telling)--and she responded:
Not sure about Paul Laffoley. I doubt it, as he's represented by one of the
more powerful galleries in the show. It was really all about the power plays
of various galleries against each other.
Unlike Jean Dubuffet's hard-line criteria for "art brut" artists, "outsider" is a pretty loose definition. And unfortunately, it's often used to exploit artists who are portrayed as naives and isolates. Which doesn't fly with Coleman:
"I'm no retard," says Mr. Coleman, who these days commands $50,000 for a painting. "But I've been at the fair for 10 years, and this feels like a betrayal. When I finally get some success in my life, then I'm not an outsider anymore?"

See the Wall Street Journal's article on the Coleman affair (link requires subscription):

When Is an 'Outsider' Really an Insider?


Thrown out of art school and rebuffed by mainstream galleries, Brooklyn
artist Joe Coleman is used to rejection. But he was stung when he recently
learned that his work won't be shown at the Outsider Art Fair in SoHo
because he's not "outsider" enough.

The annual fair, which runs tomorrow through Sunday, has always been a
flashpoint for the never-ending debate about what "outsider" means. Some
artists whose work is exhibited there have serious mental disorders, while
others are rural recluses or urban eccentrics. Many in the field prefer the
label "self-taught," which covers anyone who paints or sculpts without
benefit of academic art training.

This year, however, term warfare has teeth. For the first time in its
11-year history the fair has barred work by Mr. Coleman and several other
artists for not meeting "outsider" criteria -- even though neither the fair
nor the outsider art field has ever been able to specify exactly what those
criteria are.

"I'm no retard," says Mr. Coleman, who these days commands $50,000 for a
painting. "But I've been at the fair for 10 years, and this feels like a
betrayal. When I finally get some success in my life, then I'm not an
outsider anymore?"

Mr. Coleman's fanatically detailed acrylics certainly aren't standard-issue
contemporary art. His style crosses 1960s comics with medieval illuminated
manuscripts, and his paintings portray his obsessions with death, disease,
serial killers and carnival freaks.

Chicago gallery owner Ann Nathan dropped out of the 2003 fair after she was
asked not to show Mr. Coleman's work. Fair organizers cited the 2? years
that Mr. Coleman spent at the School of Visual Arts in New York in the
1970s. "He might have had some training for a very brief period of time,"
Ms. Nathan concedes. "But he's such an outsider artist that it's crazy to
eliminate him."

This year, though, being weird isn't enough to make you an outsider. "Over
the years we've been criticized for being all over the place, anything
goes," says Caroline Kerrigan, one of the fair's directors. "And with
certain artists, questions came up every year -- does he really belong in
the fair? Something had to be done."

In 2002, almost 10,000 people attended the fair, which added a day this year
to accommodate the crowds. And the hotter outsider art becomes, the more
artists see "outsider" as a desirable label. Now the flood of wannabes
threatens the fair's credibility. "This material is very collectible," says
Carl Hammer, a Chicago dealer on the fair's advisory committee. "What
happens when people collect these artists and spend several thousand dollars
and then find out they aren't really outsiders after all?"

Carolyn Walsh, whose Sailor's Valentine Gallery has shown at the fair every
year, was among those urging stricter standards. "We all agreed that we
needed to clean up the fair," she said.

She was shocked when the cleanup turned out to include her gallery, which
was disinvited this year. One key reason is her championing of Matt Lamb, a
funeral-home tycoon who extols peace and tolerance in clumsily Chagallesque
paintings. Fair organizers nixed Mr. Lamb for being "a savvy and successful
businessman with a keen awareness of the art world and marketing

Ms. Walsh insists that Mr. Lamb's lack of formal art training and compulsive
need for self-expression qualify him for inclusion. And she questions the
fair's motives. "He's not toothless and not marginally brain-dead and he
doesn't live in Appalachia, so he can't be snowed by some dealer who can
make a lot of money off of him," she said.

"They said I was a millionaire -- what's that got to do with anything?"
asked Mr. Lamb from his studio in Florida, one of five he maintains
world-wide. He added that he's through with the fair, saying "I will never
go to something that discriminates against people."

But Ms. Walsh plans to bring a van packed with paintings by Mr. Lamb and
others to the fair's doorstep where, in a kind of fringe replay of the 1863
Salon des Refuses, she will hand out fliers inviting fairgoers to see the
"outsider outlaws."

For Mr. Hammer, the defining question is whether artists are responding to
the art world or are oblivious to it. With outsider artists, "there's a lack
of self-awareness," he explains. "They have no idea what the mainstream
definitions of art are all about. Artists that actually want to be outsider
artists know exactly where they fit in -- they just haven't been accepted

Another member of the advisory committee, New York dealer Roger Ricco,
concedes that judgments about who is an outsider are ultimately as
indefensible as judgments about quality. "This is necessary for the field to
grow up, because it's reaching the point where exclusions will be made," he
says. "But what this field really needs is not criteria about whether the
artist is feeble or deprived, but whether the art is good."

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