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In a recent review of the Henry Darger Exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center (Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1998), Alan Artner raised some interesting (might I say long overdue) questions about the nature of Outsider art. Artner accurately focuses in on one of the nagging problems with Outsider art: the fact that it is in the main beyond criticism. To set up zones of no contest because someone has not been trained as an artist does not serve anyone, least of all the Outsider artist.
What interests me more than the merits of Darger's art are the art-world machinations that have promoted this work, and the desire on the part of the viewer/collector to consume it. What are we looking for in this type of work, what hidden truth has escaped the trained artist?
Certainly biography plays an enormous role. Part of the fascination with Darger's work is what it reveals about the strangeness of his solitary life. He was so isolated from human intimacy, he may not have known that the genitalia of women were different. This kind of bizarre and sometimes dangerous existence seems to be the draw. Witness the interest not too long ago in the paintings of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The hysteria for this kind of morbidity haunts Darger. John Macgregor, Darger's biographer, speculates that he may have killed a young girl after having just escaped from a psychiatric institution at the age of 19. This begins to read more like a James Patterson novel and less like a sober analysis of an artist's work.
The most troubling conceit of Outsider art is its perceived presence of some special truth. The insidious subtext is that art-school trained artists are not the real thing—just maybe you wasted a lot of money on your education as an artist. (I have a New York friend who once proposed to me teaching a workshop on Outsider art.)
Lastly, we do not know what Darger thought about his work as art
and how he would have felt about his recent canonization. Remember, his work
came to the attention of the art world after his death, and then only by
accident. I can imagine an interview with him: Interviewer: "What do you
think of the success of you work?" Darger: "What's the question again?"
Better Weimaraner Lays an Egg
The "Spring Chicken Show" at the Better Weimaraner Gallery exemplifies the word "foul" indeed. Viewing Tamara Staples's unexceptional photographs of the prized attractions of poultry shows, and Melissa Schubeck's cartoonish ceramic chicken and planet creations is almost enough cause for one to cancel future visits to this new Wicker Park storefront gallery.
If freshness of ideas, substance, etc., is to be implied by the show's title, then visual and conceptual salmonella is certainly rampant in this offering. Staples's color Ilfochrome prints are portraits of specific breeds of hens and roosters whose exotic plumage inspires the name of each breed. But looking at the "Barred Plymouth Rock" or the "Red Pyle Old English" is about as exciting as viewing mallard prints on wallpaper. Any sense of playful kitsch, irony, symbolism, or anthropomorphism that might occur in these supposedly glamorous treatments of her lowly subjects is missed by Staples. Her photographs are too nice and pleasant, leaving a vacuous purpose that cannot be filled by the puffed chest of her strutting subjects.
Schubeck's lumpy, white ceramic chickens, and piles of earth-toned
glazed planets, could set the debate between crafts and the fine arts back
fifty years. Her crude, pinched chickens sit atop crusty planets, making
a none-too-subtle reference to the mythical cycle of creation. But the weakness
of the symbolism is only underscored by shameless craftsmanship, whose child-like
simplicity yields little youthful wonder. One is left with the feeling this
"Chicken Show" should have its head chopped off and its carcass thrown back
on the recycling heap of artists and curators who have yet to develop their
taste buds. –John Brunetti
So let me get this straight: an art critic went to a gallery named "Better Weimaraner" to see "The Spring Chicken Show" and found sculpture that was "cartoonish," "crude," and short on craftsmanship, and photographs lacking "playful kitsch, irony, symbolism, or anthropomorphism." Hello? What was he expecting?
The current scene includes art being made at all levels of craftsmanship and conceptualization. There's art worthy of Ph.D. programs, and art inspired by comic books. It doesn't make any sense to use one standard for all. This show was light, whimsical, and amusing. I also thought the obsessiveness of both artists' work was interesting. I also think Brunetti misses each artist's point. Staples doesn't try for any of the things he suggests. She was just fascinated by the act of photographing chickens—and some of that fascination comes through, in the way the chickens seem animated and about to move, and in the diversity of poses and markings. Sometimes art just helps us look at the world, or some tiny part of it, with greater care. I didn't even know about "show chickens" before seeing this show. Schubeck's fantasy installations suggest a creation fable too cuckoo not to seem appealing; the chicken came before the egg, giving birth to the whole universe; her eggs are the planets. (My review in the April 27 Chicago Reader goes on a bit longer on this.)
The real problem I have with Brunetti's review is a problem I have with most negative criticism, which is why I rarely engage in it. It seems to me clear from any study of twentieth-century art that there are no longer any objective standards or rules for art-making. If good craftsmanship is a requirement for good art, for example, where does that leave a lot of outsider work? For every verbal argument that I've constructed against art I don't like, I can imagine a different work of art that my tirade could also describe—but that would be great. Why are "nice and pleasant" photos that lack "playful kitsch." etc. necessarily bad? --Fred Camper
...and another thing...
To move this discussion away from "The Spring Chicken Show" and toward a more general issue raised by these reviews: Perhaps, as Fred Camper states, "there are no longer any objective standards…for art-making." Does this mean we should have no standards at all? By his logic, it seems all artwork should be judged against nothing but itself. I don't think John Brunetti was implying that all "'nice and pleasant' photos that lack 'playful kitsch,'etc." are "necessarily bad," I think he meant that THESE "'nice and pleasant' photos that lack 'playful kitsch,' etc." are. If we don't have a set of objective standards by which to judge art (and we don't), subjective ones will do nicely. –Ann Wiens