Your Weekend Itinerary: A Guide to the 2012 Outsider Art Fair

by John Gawarecki-Maxwell on January 25, 2012 Events

Various paño drawings by an unknown artist.

The Outsider Art Fair, one of the most high-profile annual exhibitions of folk and self-taught artists, will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary this weekend.  The fair has long been a hotbed for presenting interesting outsider art from around the world and trends within the field, and from the looks of the schedule, this year’s fair – which opens this Friday, January 27, and runs through Sunday the 29th – will be no exception.  A number of notable new exhibitors will be in attendance, including James Brett, the renowned outsider art collector whose critically lauded Museum of Everything will continue their first American excursion and host two of the fourteen panels.  New exhibitors for this year also include Switzerland’s Collection de l’Art Brut and local gallery MAKE Skateboards, among others.

Below, we've listed the five panels we're most looking forward to at this year's fair.  A full list of panels, in addition to an exhibitor list and other information, can be found on the Outsider Art Fair's website.

Is This Art? Premiere Screening
Friday, January 27. 2 – 3 PM
In their most recent exhibition in London, The Museum of Everything showcased works from studios for self-taught artists with learning and other mental disabilities.  Along with the exhibition, the Museum hosted a discussion on whether we can consider a work “art” if the creator cannot do the same, either by choice or because they lack the cognitive ability.  Maybe I'm in the minority of not wanting to put a gun to my temple every time another “Is ____ art?” discussion happens, but the film of this discussion sounds fascinating to me as someone who is enamored with idea of creator's intent versus subsequent interpretation.  Plus, it just so happens to feature a Murderer's Row of notable British art critics, curators and other generally smart people, including Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, art historian Roger Cardinal, and journalist and Channel 4 News host Jon Snow.  Bonus points for watching this after scoping out the booth from Pure Vision Arts!

Voices from Inside: Paño Drawings by Mexican-American Inmates
Saturday, January 28. 2 – 4 PM
Believed to have begun in California, New Mexico and Texas prisons during the 1940s, paño drawings are elaborate illustrations done on handkerchiefs.  Paños combine the iconography of Chicano history and popular culture into articulate drawings that tell personal stories or relay messages to other allies in the system.  If an in-depth discussion of a virtually unknown school of amateur art doesn't inherently appeal to you, perhaps the assemblage of experts will: the panel is being moderated by El Museo del Barrio's Director of Curatorial Programs, Deborah Cullen, as an extension of their “Testimonios” show opening on February 1.  Panelists include Martha Henry, who has previously curated a traveling exhibition of paño drawings.

Collecting Obsession
Saturday, January 28. 6 – 7:30 PM
The Museum of Everything founder James Brett, abcd Paris founder Bruno Decharme and MoMA and American Folk Art Museum board member Lawrence Benenson delve into the depths of their passion for outsider art and discuss finding and procuring these works from untrained artists.  That's all well and good, but what has me most interested is the note that the panel will also observe “the fact that several prominent self-taught artists have created remarkable bodies of work despite having suffered from mental illnesses.”   Will attendees be treated to stories of the difficulties of attempting to procure pieces from artists not fully in their right minds?  Color me intrigued!

Uncommon Artists XX Symposium
Sunday, January 29. 10 AM – 12 PM
This is the only event that doesn't take place at the fair itself.  You'll have to go to the Folk Art Museum if you want to see their the twentieth edition of their yearly symposium.  However, the four talks lined up sound excellent, and the symposium has the added benefit of being the only panel you won't have to pay to attend, thanks to the Folk Art Museum's free admission.  Here's the two talks I'm most looking forward to: first, Dr. Charles Russell, professor emeritus and American Studies director at Rutgers, has a talk entitled “Women and Love, Real and Imaginary: Aloïse Corbaz and Morris Hirshfield.”  Corbaz, you might not be aware, began drawing after an obsessive crush on German Kaiser William II led to her being diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, which should make for a very interesting perspective.  Second, Jane Kallier, co-director of Galerie St. Etienne, closes this year's symposium with “Dating Darger,” a talk that will most assuredly disappoint me if it doesn't involve explicit details about Henry Darger's sex life.  A guy who drew hundreds of watercolors of young, naked girls with penises had to have been into some freaky shit, right?

Incorporating Self-Taught Artists into Art History
Sunday, January 29. 3:30 – 4:30 PM
Cara Zimmerman, executive director of Philadelphia’s Foundation for Self-Taught Artists, closes Outsider Art Fair’s slate of panels with what is possibly the Fair’s most self-explanatory talk.  Central to this talk, we assume, will be the new online research database the Foundation will be premiering at the Fair.  If nothing else, I’m just happy to see a talk that acknowledges the uneasy relationship between outsider art and academia while also attempting to bridge the two.  Let’s be frank: the art world has some elitism issues.  Many artists sell their importance based on both their work and the fact that they went to good, noteworthy art institutes and got formal training; these schools, in turn, sell themselves on the idea that you need to get training from them to be taken seriously as an artist.  Far be it from me to indict academia for people being selfishly elitist – for those wondering if the writing world is any less elitist, have I got news for you! – but the question is raised: what place do artists that eschewed formal training have in institutions that sell themselves on the importance of formal training?  Hopefully Zimmerman can answer that in a way that addresses the necessity of both academia and the work of those who forgo it.

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