BRATTLEBORO—Probably since the first paintings started appearing on cave walls, people have argued over art: What is in and what is not?
Continuing this age-old discussion, a new exhibit at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC) challenges traditional views of fine art.
“Visions from the Edge: An Exploration of Outsider Art” showcases art from 12 artists whose creative impulses emerge from their personal experiences with autism and other developmental disorders. All 12 artists featured in the exhibit — Oscar Azmitia, William Britt, Susan Brown, Chase Ferguson, Evan Gozali, Elisa Huberman, Barry Kahn, Michael McManmon, Walter Mika, Jessica Park, Alba Somoza, and Shmuel Taurog — create remarkable art while struggling with mental disabilities.
Guest curator Tony Gengarelly, a professor of art history and museum studies at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), chose works for Visions from the Edge that, as he writes in the program notes, “exemplify the strength, variety, and individuality of Outsider Art—from evocative drip paintings to whimsical fairy tale images, folk art depictions to dramatic cubist expressions, arresting landscapes to meticulously articulated transformations of reality, personal narratives to fluid portraits, and imaginative representations of city life.”
But what exactly is Outsider Art?
According to Gengarelly, the term refers to “work made by self-taught artists situated geographically or culturally on the margins of mainstream society, producing their creations mainly for themselves.”
Defying easy labels
“Celebrated for its originality and expressive power, the genre encompasses a broad range of work by those living ’on the edge,’” Gengarelly writes on BMAC’s website. “The best Outsider Art, whatever its specific form may be, is characterized by a unique vision, innovative technique, and deeply powerful creative expression.”
According to Wikipedia, “Outsider Art was a name coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for the french term ‘art brut.’” This earlier designation, meaning “raw art,” was first used by the French modern artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s to refer to works that could not easily be classified according to existing labels.
“Initially, these were individuals in institutions who were producing artistic work, often aligned with therapy,” says Gengarelly.
While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term “outsider art” is often applied more broadly, according to Wikipedia, “to include certain self-taught or naïve art makers who were never institutionalized.”
BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld concedes that Outside Art is a broad term that can apply to a lot of things.
“It refers to art made by people who were not formally trained, and were in some way socially marginalized, whether culturally, economically or through disabilities,” he says. “However, a lot of different work can fall under this rubric. It can be anything from Native American blankets to sketches on a cardboard box by a homeless person.”
Though “outsider” may be an established term in art circles, Lichtenfield calls it a “risky” one.
“For instance, there is a geographic component to the term,” he explains. “Take Alaskan Inuits who make sculpture out of seal bones. In New England, they would be called an Outsider artist, but in Anchorage they would not.
“Yet the undeniable thread in anything designated Outsider Art is the element of self-taught. Ironically, the outsider is never recognized until he is brought into the mainstream art, such as through this show. Some curator can find that homeless man painting on a cardboard box and call it brilliant, and we have a designated Outside Artist, but also now in some ways an insider artist too.”
While “Visions from the Edge” focuses only on those artists with mental disabilities, Gengarelly thought it important to situate the work in the larger context of Outsider Art.
“Carefully crafted and presented in a museum setting,” he writes, “the works challenge the term ‘outsider,’ and shows like this play a vital role in affording Outsider Art and Artists the recognition they so richly deserve.”
“All this outside or inside dichotomy aside, the work in the Visions from the Edge is amazing stuff under any context,” Lichtenfeld says.
A broad spectrum
Two years ago, Gengarelly presented a solo exhibit by celebrated Outsider Artist Jessica Park (who also is included in “Visions from the Edge”) at BMAC. The museum invited him back to curate this show to feature a fuller spectrum of works by artists with developmental disorders.
Gengarelly became acquainted with Outsider Art in 2003 when MCLA gave Jessica Park an honorary degree.
“I was teaching a museum-studies course, and my students and I were invited to present an exhibition of Park’s work,” says Gengarelly. “The show was such a successful event that it led on to two books about Park, a traveling art show, the BMAC exhibit, and a future exhibit at the Bennington Art Museum in 2018.”
Gengarelly soon became familiar with other Outsider Artists.
“The people I chose for the Visions from the Edge are artists I have come to know personally and whose work I admire,” he says. “Most are established artists in the field of Outside Art.”
Many of those who create Outside Art do not see themselves as artists, Gengarelly says.
“They take what they do very seriously,“ he says, “but these are artists who do not pander to public demand and/or make art that is self-conscious.”
Gengarelly believes art is therapeutic for those on the autism spectrum, but also says “there is more to making art than therapy. You might say that in creating art their disability becomes an ability, since through the work they create, these individuals have found a way to communicate their special perspective.”
Space to create
The number of Outsider Artists is growing all the time, as diagnoses of mental disabilities such as autism have become more prevalent.
“The public needs to be aware of what art can do for people with disabilities,” Gengarelly says. “Outsider Artists need social support to promote their work, and space where they can create it. A show like ’Visions from the Edge’ works for that aim not only by entertaining the public but also by educating them.”
With this goal in mind, BMAC will host a panel discussion on Outsider Art April 30 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The panel will include Gengarelly, director of the Jessica Park Project, and Pamala Rogers, Pure Vision Arts; Jamie Franklin, curator of the Bennington Museum; and Michael McManmon, an artist who is also director of the College Internship Program, a post-secondary program serving students with developmental disorders and learning differences. A workshop on art and autism led by Prof. Christie Herbert of Landmark College will follow from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Art from the Edge was organized by BMAC in partnership with Pure Vision Arts of New York, Good Purpose Gallery of Lee, Mass., and MCLA’s Jessica Park Project.
Alongside “Visions from the Edge,” BMAC is presenting four other exhibitions until June 13, according to Lichtenfeld:
• “Contemporary Artists vs. The Masters: Homage, Battle, Reclamation” features the work of “13 artists grappling with the influence of their creative forebears.”
• “In flow-MOTION” by photographer Michael Sacca “immerses the viewer in a mesmerizing installation of water images.”
• Jonathan Gitelson’s “Are You Here?” consists of photographs and video in the museum’s Ticket Gallery and “a 25-foot-wide, billboard-like banner affixed to the back of the museum.”
• “Wishing for the Moon” presents a series of 14 scratchboard drawings by Karen Gaudette that “metaphorically reflect a middle-aged woman’s journey to find true love.”