Outside of “Outsiderness”

Thornton Dial, Courttney Cooper, and other “Hard Truths”

In an essay in the catalog for “Hard Truths,” Thornton Dial’s brilliant retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (up until September 15, 2011), Greg Tate takes on the “hard truths” involved in trying to figure out how to locate Dial on an art-world map:  “For far too much time, Dial’s work has been tethered to a critical and curatorial limbo somewhere between high art and what’s known as ‘folk art’ and ‘outsider art.”  The difference between how those categories are received in the world often has more to do with art world agendas than with any true disparity in the cognitive and emotional powers of the work itself.”

Visiting Dials’ retrospective, I felt that power while willing myself out of the “outsider art” headspace intentionally.  Even though I am a huge fan of anything outside of the normal, I also understand what is at stake in sacrificing great art and artists at the altar of whimsy and charity.  Artists given the identity of “outsider” are often cordoned off.  A list of diagnoses, or idiosyncratic “tricks” they have up their sleeves, and/or a list of all the hardships they’ve endured often becomes the substitute for a resume or curriculum vitae or full-on critique, and that in turn becomes the conversation:  not art, but “special and heroic struggle,” not aesthetics but a cultural vacuum created by good intentions and a need on the part of “outsider art” collectors and curators to critique “insiderness” via “outsiderness.”

Dial’s show evoked in me not a sense a pity for his circumstance but a sense of total respect, that feeling you get when you see great art and you want to make connections with other great art.  Dial’s work echoes art history and aesthetics way more than “race” or “class” or “outsiderness,” even though these are issues he goes after with his aesthetic chainsaw.  Take for example a penultimate piece like “Blood and Meat:  Survival of the World.”  Crusty, romantic and lush, it has the vibrancy of a Technicolor boxing match fused with the wit and meanness of someone about ready to sing “Strange Fruit” while holding a butcher knife.  A jungle of yellow, black, red and white, it transmutes into a knotted flag that signifies fury and loss (in this case, as is detailed on the wall text, concerning the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King).  The politics are there, but it is Dial’s manic attention to aesthetics that brings on the emotion, that lets you know he knows what he is doing.

The show’s curators, to their great credit, ensure that “sympathy” is not in any way contextualized or even conjured in the way they have installed and fashioned “Hard Truths.”  It was a huge undertaking, and the works themselves are positioned expertly in room after room.   As I walked through I had this sense of a story being told, but not the one Dial or even the museum curators intended.

Something fierce and magical happens when all of Dial’s works share space with one another.  The imagery and strategies bleed together, and yet each piece has its own ecology and strangeness, as if the museum walls and floors are oceans and the chunky, brutal, elegant paintings and sculptures are islands sprouting out of them, with layer upon layer underneath.  I was lost in a very good way, floating from island to island.

“Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill),” constructed from animal carcasses, crutches, toys, and other ephemera, conjures up backyard childhood nightmares merged with a strangely innocent capacity to look at the Beast with both eyes wide open and even find a way out of terror and into worship.  “Looking out the Windows” is “Lost Farm’s” exact opposite:  elegant, color coordinated, roped in, but also frenetic.  An altar created after the tornado has blasted its way through town, “Windows” conjoins Matisse’s spiritual elegance with Rauschenberg’s brute-earth Surrealism.

Comparisons to Matisse and Rauschenberg are necessary because Dial is not “outside” of the Matisse/Rauschenberg radar.  He is participating in art history, whether he knows about art history or not.  His art demands that kind of attention.  When you juxtapose Dial’s oeuvre with the oeuvre of more canonized artists you understand instantly that Dial is working towards clarity and his own aesthetic in the same manner “insider” artists do.  He is doing this not because he is “insider or outsider,” but because he is “omni-sided,” approaching his art as his vocation and vacation simultaneously, creating an amazing body of work because that’s what great artists do.

The Matisse/Rauschenberg back and forth, ferociously organized, gray-boned hell versus candy-colored heavenly chaos, is repeated throughout “Hard Truths,” until finally you find yourself in the last room of the exhibit, and you have somehow been transported to a cathedral that wants to be an amusement park.  The pieces in this final gallery of the show are a culmination of struggle, fascination, ambition, and just plain cussedness.  They have a diligence made of the colors of what is good in life – thunder-storm blue, velvet-dress red, Christmas-tree green, beauty-parlor lavender…  The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle

“The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle” is one of the penultimate moments in this room and the whole show, pure gorgeousness only elevated by the fact that it has been made from ungorgeous things.   Messy yellow-painted dolls, artificial flowers, old sheets, plastic bags all become a parade of mischief and kindness.  The statement “Laughing and crying at the same time” transforms into a landscape, a junkyard romance.

“Hard Truths” is Dial at the peak of his powers, and also it is a museum at the peak of its understanding of how to showcase an artist too often shut out of the canon.  In fact, this show canonizes Dial effortlessly, gives us an artist worthy of discussion and rapture.  Joanne Cobbs and Eugene W. Metcalfe, curators of the exhibit, write in the introduction to the beautiful catalog, “Margins have begun to critique the dominant conceptions of those who once defined them.”

“Hard Truths” critiques through splendor, using the best of Dial’s works to allow the definition of “folk artist” or “outsider artist” to be deconstructed, perhaps even destroyed.

Dial is 83 years old, and while he is still prolific and finding new ways to fashion art out of the nothing clutter around him, he is at the zenith of his career.  Courttney Cooper, 32, is a local Cincinnati “outsider artist” just beginning his.  He draws intricate maps of Cincinnati on a large-scale with an ink pen, creating webs of streets and buildings and words with a high-intensity series of lines that mutate and vibrate like ghosts anxious to tell you secrets.  He is a master of both obscuring and clarifying:  his maps, unlike Dial’s paintings and assemblages, are skeletally structured and have a hide-and-seek, almost coy quality.  Cooper seems to be constructing a vast maze, taking something as humble and historical as a street-by-street survey and creating poignant, precise grandeur, a combination of Cy Twombley and M. C. Escher.  (While Cooper’s one-man exhibit at PAC Gallery in Walnut Hills, “Cincinnati USA:  Before and After,” ends May 15, 2011, Cooper’s work can be seen at Visionaries & Voices, an art studio for people with disabilities in Northside www.visionariesandvoices.com.)

Cooper’s sophistication is on display in his drawings, not the “rawness” of his vision.  From its very beginnings, via French artist Jean Dubuffet, “outsider art” was a reaction to “insider art,” not a new way to see, but a way to criticize the hegemony of Western culture.  In philosophizing about “art brut” (in French it means “raw art,” and this term is the forebear of “outsider art” in America), Dubuffet writes, “Personally, I believe very much in the values of savagery.  I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.”

“Savagery, violence, madness” are of course wonderful things for artists to indulge in and play with, but they are also words that delegitimize and colonize artists who may not be art-schooled or have access to pedigree.  Often “outsider artists” do not have the choice of how to construct their own narratives.  The identity of “outsider” fills in the blanks.  In positioning an artist (especially if she/he is labeled “developmentally disabled” or “African American working class”) as “outsider,” the art produced by this artist becomes evidence that he/she is human and capable and talented, even though they are “mad or moody” and outside of “our world.”  We assume these characteristics in other artists who are not labeled “outsider.”

An “insider,” non-labeled artist’s work is not seen as evidence of identity:  it is seen as the way they create it.  Cooper creates himself in each of his large-scale “map” drawings – using cartography as autobiography, and his sophisticated, snappy line as a way to seduce and supplant.  He is in charge of his own destiny by being astutely connected to his own aesthetic.  You could argue that this connection is part of his diagnosis, as a man with autism; linking his intense practice to a disability is reductive through.  It would eliminate a lot of other avenues of thought; much like consigning Dial to the “rural South,” Autism becomes a place where Cooper can be relegated, and the mysteries of his gifts attached to one note.

If you willfully overlook the fact that Cooper has autism, the drawings will still be impressive, and maybe willfully not knowing  – doing a blind taste test, so to speak – might even be a way to open up new vistas of investigation into the drawings themselves.  Leaving autism behind you lose the sacredness of “sympathy” and “awareness” perhaps, but you gain the sacredness of associations and connections between you and the work, you and the artist.  You begin the process of reinventing for yourself what Cooper’s art and status are, and you begin to locate other metaphors, experiences, and reactions within and outside of the work, other ways of seeing and discovering meaning beyond the narrative of biography and diagnosis.

In other words, we could connect Picasso’s prolific genius to his supposed diagnosis of “schizophrenia,” or Edward Munch’s “Scream” to his purported “bipolar disorder,” but at the end of the day what we are experiencing in their works as we view them is not diagnostic recognition or even interpersonal association:  it’s the work, pure and simple, that reveals what we want.  It’s what has been done (not the biographical or biological processes that went into it) that is the landscape we travel through, locating our own trances, our own pleasures inside each city, town, palace and shack.  This (new jargon alert) de-outsider-ization process becomes a way as well for you to approach the work of other artists who have been deemed “outsider,” and to make an honest assessment of how you feel without having to tiptoe around political correctness and other hazards of identity politics.  You can just let the art be what the art is.

In Brady Udall’s magnificent novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, he creates a character that could be assigned “outsider” as a catchall descriptor.  As a boy, Edgar survives a traumatic brain injury and winds up spending a large majority of his life in institutions.  He is poor, Native American, and orphaned as well, as the novel follows his picaresque exploits we witness Edgar begin to create his own identity by becoming the author of his own life.

Early on in the story he is diagnosed by a trove of doctors with the disorder “dysgraphia,” or the inability to write, due to the brain injury:  “You have dysgraphia,” they [the doctors] told me, relieved, as if this diagnosis were a solution to something.’”

Edgar goes on:

“More than my fits or headaches or the ghosts in the night, this dysgraphia (a word I would chant over and over again, hoping to lessen its power over me) tormented me.  The doctors believed that with enough therapy this was something I could overcome.”

The doctors in charge regard the diagnosis and treatment as a narrative of relief.  Edgar finds it to be a narrative of torment.  This torment comes from the fact that he is seen by others as having no way out of his predicament outside of what they prescribe for him.  In effect, the diagnosis becomes his identity – one of the only ways he has to connect to others.  But in reality, as the novel points out beautifully, Edgar is an incredible writer.  It is his voice that Udall uses to gives us the gorgeous lyricism and revved-up plot.  What the diagnosis tells us is nothing.  What the novel tells us is everything.

The way out of Edgar’s predicament ironically comes from Art, his crazy old coot hospital roommate, who has a variety of unrelenting ailments.  While Edgar is being tortured with therapy one day, Edgar blurts out:  “Get the boy a damn typewriter.”

The nurses give Edgar a Hermes Jubilee 2000, a huge hulking manual typewriter that becomes Edgar’s main means of communication.  The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint actually turns out to be a Bildungs-roman about a writer, kind of like a jet-fueled, hallucinatory revision of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  The diagnosis of dysgraphia is just a jumping off point for Udall to prove the limitations when creativity is tethered by diagnosis.

Edgar writes about typing:  “I typed because typing, for me, was as good as having a conversation.  I typed because I had to.  I typed because I was afraid I might disappear.”

Edgar uses the urge to be creative as a way to escape his own disappearance, much like in reality Cooper and Dial have done, positioning themselves in a world that would hardly recognize them if it weren’t for an art museum or gallery showing their works.

Cooper works at Kroger’s during the week, and Dial was a factory worker.  They did not attend art school; they are not a part of a network.  They had to do what they do, it seems, in order to prevent cultural disappearance.  Ironically, what they have produced as artists is proof of how unimportant and limiting biographies, especially the ones created to package “outsider art,” can be.  Cooper and Dial both disappear into their incredible drawings, paintings and sculptures, merging biography, myth, intelligence, taste, and humanity into art that allows them to be seen without the constraints usually attached to their presupposed identities.  Their art gives us a reason to connect with them outside of “outsiderness.”

-Keith Banner



4 Responses

  1. Great article. The terms “folk” and “outsider” are in some respect, demeaning. How one categorizes or labels art is really based upon several criteria: perspective, relevance, and point of reference. If you compare the work of Thornton Dial or Bill Traylor, both Alabama born folk artist, with Twombly’s sculptures, Basquiat, Chris Ofili, and Schnabel’s plate paintings, there really is a fine line between what is contemporary and what is folk. A critic could point to the quality of work in some instances but in today’s art world “bad painting” is sometimes lauded with praise. Jules de Balincourt and Dana Schutz come to mind. I find their work interesting, especially in Schutz’s case, but they are for the most part, well done paintings with strange subject matters. This strange subject matter or media is sometimes used to differentiate what is folk and what is not. Many artists are using such varied media to stand out today that the term folk is no longer relevant.

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