by David M. Roth
For the past 35 years Creativity Explored, a San Francisco nonprofit, has nurtured the talents and aspirations of developmentally disabled Bay Area artists, providing materials, a studio environment and professional instruction. Many have gone on to gain wider exposure and, in some cases, establish bona fide careers. Two, for example, Andrew Li and Pablo Calderon, currently appear in a bicycle-themed group show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. Others, most notably, the late Judith Scott (1943-2005), have garnered international acclaim after having been mentored at Creative Growth, an Oakland organization that provides similar services.
Nine artists currently enrolled in the CE program have work on view at Jack Fischer’s Potrero Ave. gallery through September 1. Looking at art like this always feels like a window’s been thrown open, and so it is here. These artists don’t work to feed markets; they work to feed their own needs, and in the process they exhibit techniques and presentational “strategies” that are often the envy of their better-educated counterparts. The defining characteristics — unfiltered emotional content, repetition, obsession and horror vacui– long ago infiltrated the modernist (and postmodernist) canon to a point where today it’s sometimes hard to distinguish insiders (i.e. those with formal training) from the self-taught, mentally ill, developmentally disabled and others operating en marge. However, in this realm as in so many others, nothing satisfies like the real thing, and in Nine Hearts Exploring visitors get a good strong dose of it.
John Patrick McKenzie’s magic marker-on-wood scrawls are particularly compelling. The artist vertically elongates individual letters and blackens in those that have volumetric cavities (e.g. Os, Ps Bs), making for drawings that resemble twisted musical scores or leaning hieroglyphics. Ice cream flavors, words seemingly selected at random, and, in one notable instance, words that catalog of the particular likes of a person named Kevin Mitchell appear on piece of scrap wood with a hole at the center. It has the look of an all-seeing eye.
Daniel Green is similarly obsessed: with local broadcast media, wrestling and food, and his paintings on wood, crammed with handwritten names of old TV shows, favorite foods and legendary WWF bouts are impressive, the work of a connoisseur. He places these citations one atop the other, accompanied by seemingly significant dates and crudely painted figures and faces (Elvis George Michael) that pull you in. Andrew Li’s“peaceable kingdoms,” populated by cows and raccoons, are easy to love for the bemused expressions worn by the animals and for the flattened, almost-byzantine perspective employed. Untitled (neon grid), Roland Record’s rendering of a city, composed of off-kilter geometric shapes, combines aerial views and cross sections in a jam-packed, tropically colored labyrinth whose complexity dazzles.
Outsiders don’t always work from imagination; they sometimes copy famous artists and add fresh twists. Samedi Djeimguero’s riff on Rothko, Untitled (Black and Blue), for example, stands
out for an amazing flash of light running across the top center. It strikes like an epiphany. Nubia Ortega’s cockeyed ceramic cars – eight of which are mounted on a long pedestal — look like what Soutine might have come up with had he worked in clay and collaborated with Robert Crumb.
The show breaks no new ground, nor does it pretend to. What it mainly does is extend the gallery’s support for Creativity Explored and underscore its own longstanding commitment to artists whose output is strongly influenced by outsider practices and aesthetics. Art like this satisfies a need for direct communication: a need signaled by the insistent blurring of terms like “insider” and “outsider” and by the growing public interest in art that flourishes beyond academy-sanctioned categories.
To wit: The Outsider Art Fair, the biggest, most respected outlet for outside-the-mainstream expression, this year celebrated its 26th anniversary, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year put on display 57 works of southern African-American art acquired from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation: proof that barriers are continuing to erode.
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Nine Hearts Exploring (from Creativity Explored) @ Jack Fischer Gallery Potrero Avenue location through September, 1 2018. The exhibition also includes work by Camille Holvoet, Evelyn Reyes and James Miles.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.