Sunday, December 25, 2016

Turning The Art World Inside Out

by Drew Martin
Turning The Art World Inside Out is a BBC arts documentary from 2013 hosted by Alan Yentob as part of its Imagine series. It serves to explain what is Outsider Art. I became particularly interested in Outsider Art in the late 1980s when I went to school and started to officially study art history as part of my art studio curriculum. Western art history was all fine and good but the formality of it made me switch to African art studies because I was interested in art that was more part of day-to-day celebrations and rituals. But then I found out about Outsider Art and how all-consuming it is for the artists. While the total immersion of this kind of art for its creator is often associated with debilitating mental issues and histories of childhood sexual abuse, the idea of living in one's own creative landscape is a romanticized notion for many trained artists; it certainly was for me. One of the artists featured in this documentary, Ionel Talpazan (a Romanian artist based in Harlem who only paints  and sculpts UFOs), expands the scope of an imagined world,

The artist is like an astronaut. With the mind you can travel the entire universe. 

I was first exposed to Grandma Prisbrey and her Bottle Village in Simi Valley, California, and then a visit to Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles made me even more interested, especially when I learned that his eclectic scrap material towers were visited more by people living outside the United States than by Americans. [Unfortunately, neither of them are mentioned in this film.]

The real turning point for me, however, was when I got to see dozens of work by the Swiss outsider artist 
Adolf Wölfli in a show at my campus art gallery at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Wölfli, was one of the first outsider artists to put this kind of work on the map. He even created his own system of musical notation, which was embedded in his densely packed drawings.

The professional French artist 
Jean Debuffet is credited with bringing this kind of work out of the asylums and into the art world in the 1940s. He loved that it was a stranger to culture and innocent of calculated trappings. He gave Outsider Art its first name, l'Art Brut, a term he borrowed from the wine industry, meaning raw and without sugar. The term Outsider Art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for l'Art Brut.

While I certainly did not need an introduction to this type of art, I really liked this BBC production because it showed me the work of many artists and centers I did not know about, and Yentob is a patient and thoughtful host.