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Posts Tagged ‘Outsider Art’

I ran the post below a number of years back and thought I’d revisit it and add a video slideshow that shows a bit more of Wolfli’s works accompanied by music that he composed.

Fascinating stuff…

I’ve written here before about some of my favorite Outsider artists, those untrained artists who follow their obsessive need for expression even as they suffer hardships such as illness, extreme poverty and mental disabilities.  People like Martin Ramirez, the Mexican-born artist who was committed to an asylum in his thirties and spent the rest of his life, 30+ years, locked away as he created an amazing intricately designed world in his art.

There was another artist years before Ramirez whose road was very similar and who work was as deeply designed and engaging.  It was the Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli who was born in 1864 and died in 1930, about the time Ramirez was committed.  Wolfli was considered one of the first acknowledged Art Brut artists, as Outsiders are called in Europe and, like Ramirez, he had a difficult life that ended with him living the greater part of his life locked away.

Wolfli, an orphan at the age of 10, was physically and sexually abused throughout his childhood.  He suffered from severe mental illness which manifested itself in violent outbursts and hallucinations.  It was this and a series of child molestation charges that led to his committal in 1895.  He was about 31 years old.  He never left.

He began to draw at some point during his life in custody, it soon becoming a true obsession as his inticate drawings covered every scrap of paper he could lay his hands on.  Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at the psychiatric hospital who documented Wolfli case in a book, wrote this about the extent of Wolfli’s obsession:  Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimetres long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.

Wolfli’s work incorporated musical notations that were woven into the designs, an odd looking notation that seemed purely ornamental but was later proven to be an actual  idiosyncratic notation sysytem that could indeed be played.  Wolfli would sometimes play the music on a paper trumpet he had crafted.

Wolfli produced a prodigious body of work in his years in the asylum, including a semi-autobiographical epic that was a massive 45 volumes in size.  It consisted of over 25000 pages and 1600 illustrations.  His work has been largely kept together as a collection which is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland.  There is also the Adolf Wolfli Foundation which was formed in 1975 to bring his work to the attention of the public through education on and exhibitions of his works.

Like many of these artists about which I write, Wolfli’s work is new to me.  But it is so immediately grabbing in its design and its harmony of color and form that I am enthralled by it.  When I clicked on the Google images page for his work, there was such a gorgeous continuity that ran through every image on the page that I found it hard to choose which image to explore first.  Such beauty revealed in the dark recesses of a life spent locked away.

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No Rules

I do what I can to convey what I experience before nature and most often, in order to succeed in conveying what I feel, I totally forget the most elementary rules of painting, if they exist that is.  In short, I allow faults to appear, the better to fix my sensations.

–Claude Monet, 1912

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I have had this little sign hanging in my studio for the last 16 years or so, a rough reminder to myself when I begin to feel like my work is bending to the rules and judgments of others.  It reminds me that I am working in my own realm, my world.  I control the parameters of what is possible, of what defines reality in my work.  The rules of others mean nothing in my little painted world.

Over the years  I have glimpsed this small sign at times when I have been feeling that my work is stagnating or beginning to adhere to  accepted conventions  and have been spurred to push my work in some  new direction.  Heightening the intensity of color or introducing new hues that seems incompatible with nature, for example.  It’s as though these two words are prods that constantly  tell me that nobody can control me when I am here in my created world.  There’s a great liberation in this realization and I find myself trusting my own judgment of my work more and more.  Because I have created  my own criteria for its reality, criticism from others means little now.

I think that’s what I am trying to get at here, that an artist must fully believe that they are the sole voice of authority in their work, that they, not others, determine its validity. Maybe that’s why I am so drawn to  Outsider artists, those untrained artists who maintain this firm belief in their personal vision and create a personal inner world of art  in which it can live and prosper.  Rules mean nothing to them- only the expression of their inner self matters .

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Ulysses Davis- Lost Tribe in the Swamp with Alligators

I recently came across the work of another folk/outsider artist whose work really resonates with me.  It is by Ulysses Davis, a barber who lived in Savannah, Georgia, passing away in 1990 at the age of 76.  His medium was woodcarving and over the course of his life he created a very diverse body of work that had both the simple and free feel of the Outsider artist’s vision and the compositional sophistication of a fine artist.  His subjects covered a wide spectrum,  ranged from the fantastic to straight portraiture including a series of busts of all of  the US Presidents up to the year of his death. Very striking stuff.

Ulysses Davis- No No Bird

He  seldom sold his work, saying “They’re my treasure. If I sold these, I’d be really poor.”   As a result, his work never garnered the exposure or the recognition it deserved although he did receive a few honors before his death, his work showing in an important 1982 exhibit of modern Black Folk Art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  In the years since, the American Folk Art Museum did mount a retrospective of his lifework in a 2009 exhibit called The Treasure of Ulysses Davis,  the title playing off of Davis’ own words on his work.

And what a treasure it is, one that we are fortunate enough to at least share in images and in a few museums.  Beautiful work with a unique vision…

Ulysses Davis- Get Off My Back

 

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I’ve written here before about some of my favorite Outsider artists, those untrained artists who follow their obsessive need for expression even as they suffer hardships such as illness, extreme poverty and mental disabilities.  People like Martin Ramirez, the Mexican-born artist who was committed to an asylum in his thirties and spent the rest of his life, 30+ years, locked away as he created an amazing intricately designed world in his art. 

There was another artist years before Ramirez whose road was very similar and who work was as deeply designed and engaging.  It was the Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli who was born in 1864 and died in 1930, about the time Ramirez was committed.  Wolfli was considered one of the first acknowledged Art Brut artists, as Outsiders are called in Europe and, like Ramirez, he had a difficult life that ended with him living the greater part of his life locked away.

Wolfli, an orphan at the age of 10, was physically and sexually, abused throughout his childhood.  He suffered from severe mental illness which manifested itself in vilent outbursts and hallucinations.  It was this and a series of child molestation charges that led to his committal in 1895.  He was about 31 years old.  He never left. 

He began to draw at some point during his life in custody, it soon becoming a true obsession as his inticate drawings covered every scrap of paper he could lay his hands on.  Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at the psychiatric hospital who documented Wolfli case in a book, wrote this about the extent of Wolfli’s obsession:  Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimetres long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.

Wolfli’s work incorporated musical notations that were woven into the designs, an odd looking notation that seemed purely ornamental but was later proven to be an actual  idiosyncratic notation sysytem that could indeed be played.  Wolfli would sometimes play the music on a paper trumpet he had crafted. 

Wolfli produced a prodigious body of work in his years in the asylum, including a semi-autobiographical epic that was a massive 45 volumes in size.  It consisted of over 25000 pages and 1600 illustrations.  His work has been largely kept together as a collection which is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland.  There is also the Adolf Wolfli Foundation which was formed in 1975 to bring his work to the attention of the public through education on and exhibitions of his works.

Like many of these artists about which I write, Wolfli’s work is new to me.  But it is so immediately grabbing in its design and its harmony of color and form that I am enthralled by it.  When I clicked on the Google images page for his work, there was such a gorgeous continuity that ran through every image on the page that I found it hard to choose which image to explore first.  Such beauty revealed in the dark recesses of a life spent locked away.

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I have a real soft spot in my heart for self-taught and outsider artists, the untrained artists who are driven to create by forces that no one truly understands.  There is something about their passionate need for expression that really fills in the voids of the work they do,  making their sometimes unsophisticated creations sing as a reflection of the artist.  Many of these artists have interesting stories or lives that have been overtaken by their need to create their work.  One of these is the late Lee Godie.

Godie (1908-1994) showed up on the steps of the of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 60’s and for the better part of the next three decades was a fixture there, hawking her rolled canvas paintings to museum-goers and art students.  Her work was often made in ballpoint pen and watercolor and depicted mainly figurative work, often fashionably attired people in a style resembling fashion plates.  Over the years,  her work and her persona became almost legendary in the Chicago area and there was a career retrospective of her work at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992,  just two years before her death.

I mentioned her persona, which may have been the biggest part of her work. While little is known of her life before her years as an itinerant artist on the steps of the museum, she was a big personality.  Although not French and with work that was not of the Impressionist school of art, she called herself a French Impressionist and often attached the title to her name on the back of the canvases she painted.  It was actually a nod to the inspiration she got from the Imprssionist paintings she saw in the museum.  As she said of her favorite artist , “Renoir was the greatest artist of all time. He always said he painted beauty. Now I always try to paint beauty, but some people say my paintings aren’t beautiful. Well, I have a beauty in my mind, but it isn’t always easy to make paintings beautiful.”  

Like many Outsiders, Godie lived a hard and homeless life, often sleeping in the bus terminal or, when sales were good, in flophouses.  But it didn’t deter her search for beauty.  One of the interesting things she did was to take advantage of the bus terminal photobooth, taking a series of photos over the years of her in different personas, often in heavy stage makeup.  She would often touch-up these photos with the colors with which she painted, creating photos that in themselves are as much works of art as her paintings.

I didn’t know much about Lee Godie before stumbling across her work but there is something quite special in her work, a childishly naive yet full view of her world that reaches out beyond the surface.  Knowing a bit more of her story makes that sensation even more profound.

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“Known in New Orleans art circles as a sort of ‘Goya of the ghetto,’ Ferdinand has described his work as rap in pictures, while some critics have placed his utterly honest depictions of inner city decay within the social realist tradition of Courbet.” —Times-Picayune

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I was on a site that had a few images of some self-taught and outsider artists and saw one of the pieces from Roy Ferdinand.  In a lot of the work from outsiders artists there is often a child-like quality in the work, a feeling of naivete expressed in the rendering and brushwork.  Looking at Ferdinand’s work, there was a definite sophistication and stylization that really differentiated from the typical outsider.  It made me want to know more about this guy and, in my search, I came across the quote above calling him the Goya of the ghetto,  pretty high praise, I was really intrigued. 

Ferdinand was born in 1959 and hedied from a long battle with cancer in 2004 in New Orleans.  Though his work showed more sophistication, he did share much in common with other outsider artists.  Coming from a world of poverty, for example.  He depicted the hard world of the urban streets of New Orleans.  Often, there was implied violence and explicit sexuality in his work, with gangsters, drug dealers and junkies, pimps and whores often populating his images.  The pictures were gritty and tough snapshots of his time and place.

And while much of his work dealt with the harsher elements of his life, Ferdinand also painted the everyday gentler side of his world, providing a full view of his New Orleans.  I particularly love this piece, showing an older woman holding a piece of corrugated metal with a rough outsider-ish image painted on it.  I suspect it is her own painting she is holding from the gentle smile of pride on her strong face, which is rendered with tenderness, and the other piece of corrugated metal in the bottom corner with a simlilar painting on it.  Moreover, it’s just a lovely image and moment, far removed from the world he often painted. 

To my eye, his work has real eye appeal.  The colors work well together and there is a real harmony in the images as a whole.  The drama of many of his scenes only serves to make these images more compelling and probably will make them grow in stature through the years.  It would have been interesting to see what Roy Ferdinand would have painted in the aftermath of Katrina.  It would have been epic work for an artist so tied to the streets of New Orleans.  It’s a shame such a distinct and powerful voice wasn’t around to document it.

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I’ve always been drawn to the work of self-taught artists and the way they synthesize their experience into their work, finding forms for their need for expression.  There is a great freeness and rawness to much of the work of self-taught artists, an energy that is so electric that many well trained artists try to capture it in their own work.  Expressionism is pretty much based on this energy.

This point is well made in Purvis of Overtown,  a 2006 documentary made about outsider artist Purvis Young who lived his life in the Miami neighborhood called Overtown.  Being not well educated and poor, Young found trouble at an early age and spent time in prison before pursuing the art that led him to some pretty spectacular heights before his death in 2010 at the age of 67, from diabetic complications.  He has said that he was called to his art by a meeting with angels in a dream.

He basically lived much of his life in the warehouses where he painted, sleeping among the accumulated trash and eating junk food.  His whole existence seemed to be driven by his need to create and he produced what appears to be a huge body of work.  The work itself had that electric energy that I wrote of above, a blistering raw qualityand rhythm that marks it as authentic.  It was not a contrivance for Young, not the product of some intellectual exercise.  It was pure emotion and it can’t be replicated through style alone.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary Purvis of Overtown:

 

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Calvin Black, Folk Artist 1903-1972

There’s another terrific website out there called folkstreams.net which is an archive of films that describes itself in its site’s header as “ A National Preserve of Documentary Films about American Roots Culture.”  It is a treasure chest of great fims about roots music (Cajun, Delta Blues, etc.), lost American crafts and folk or outsider art.   Most relate to things that are fading fast in our culture, a sort of  expressive ephemera.  I could spend a day just browsing this site, which makes all of its films available for viewing online.

 
One of the first films I came across was Possum Trot, made by documentarians Allie Light and Irving Saraf back in 1977, which shows the work of Calvin Black.  Black and his wife, Ruby,  ran a rock shop in the Mojave Desert and in 1954 he began to create life-size female dolls as an added attraction for his shop as well as an outlet for eslf expression.  He created more than 80 dolls each with distinct features, costumes and personalities.  Some were crudely animated and performed in his Birdcage Theatre there, singing in voices recorded by Black himself.
 
Black died in 1972 and Ruby maintained the attraction for several years but eventually Possum Trot was abandoned and no longer exists today.  The dolls have been dispersed into the folk art collections of the world, one recently fetching about $80,000 at auction. 
 
There something kind of haunting in seeing this created world that no longer exists but for photos and a little film, as haunting as the dolls themself.  The full 28 minute film is available to see here on the folkstreams.net site.  Here’s a short trailer that gives a great overhead shot of the place when the film was shot in 1977 and has the voice of Calvin Black singing in falsetto as one of his dolls.  Interesting stuff…
 
 

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I am always fascinated with the need for self expression displayed by many folk or outsider artists.  There is a great purity in it,  a direct line to the artist’s inner drive and self that can’t be replicated with all the craftmanship available to the most trained of artists.  It’s just real.

I was reminded of this when I came across the painting shown here for sale on the Candler Arts website.  It’s a wonderful  nativity scene painted by the late Jimmy Lee Sudduth, a self-taught artist from rural Alabama who died in 2007 at the age of 97.  His drive to express himself started at an early age and, despite having few if any resources, was able to create paintings with pigments with the red and grey muds of his home soil.  In later years he used house paints and finally acrylic paints as his fame (he was fortunate enough to have his work discovered by the larger outside world) peaked.  But his lack of supplies or training provided no obstacles for his need to create. 

Probably a lesson there for us all.

I was immediately struck by this painting.  There’s a real sense of rightness about it that really resonates with me.  I don’t know if this is a mud painting or whether he was using house paints here but it doesn’t matter.  It’s simply a raw and real expession, something I wish that more us could capture with our own works.  To put aside craft and technique, or at least make them secondary to the expression of something deeper pulled from within.

Then we might be on to something truly special.  Like Jimmy Lee Sudduth.

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