“Hard Knocks: Art without Art School” is a loosely curated collection of more than one hundred works of art by thirty-one artists from around the globe. By making use of their three curators (visual artists Antonio Adams, Ran Barnaclo, & Spencer van der Zee,) Thunder-Sky’s Face Book page, and exhibition blog to cast a wide net for participating artists, they reached out to artists typically outside of the mainstream gallery system. This wholly democratic process for selecting work results in an exhibition that is at turns richly rewarding, but often mediocre, and confuses the curatorial premise with the already-muddled concept of outsider art.
The exhibition’s confounding of the rejection of art education & concept of outsider artist is worth addressing. The ongoing labeling of art work as “outsider” is problematic, but let’s be clear: “Hard Knocks” makes no outright claim to consist of outsider art. Instead, Thunder-Sky, Inc. has garnered a reputation as a locus for outsider art, and the proclaimed rejection of education in “Hard Knocks” is just another point of entry for the gallery to address this issue. In the exhibition-specific blog maintained by Thunder-Sky, Inc. co-founder Keith Banner, he does tag blog entries with the keywords “outsider art” and “self-taught art.” He also states that the gallery is “dedicated to deconstructing notions of what ‘art’ and ‘outsider’ can mean.”
This concept is not proprietary to Thunder-Sky, Inc. and there are certainly other organizations in town that also explore the genre. Outsider art (originally known by the French term “art brut,”) had its roots in the work of psychiatric patients and children, but since the final quarter of the twentieth century, the meaning has increasingly been expanded to include art created by “unschooled artists living outside the mainstream of contemporary culture, uninvolved with the art world.” The latter part of that definition, which speaks to the inherent disenfranchisement of outsider artists, is the exception to the outsider rule that “Hard Knocks” opportunistically ignores.
In their statements, many of the artists acknowledge attending workshops and classes, reading instructive books, and learning from their peers. Multiple artists in “Hard Knocks” also have solid ties to the art world. Some of the most successful pieces included in the exhibition were done by artists who have taught art curriculum, had solo shows at mainstream galleries, run their own galleries, and been featured in international art publications. While there are several significant artists in this exhibition who do not meet the criteria according to the aforementioned definition of outsider artist, Thunder-Sky’s own pre-determined qualifications (“artists who could not go, did not go, chose not to go to, and/or dropped out of art school”) also seem to have been relaxed in order to allow artists whose ethos, more than their actual experience, qualify them for inclusion.
What is outsider-like about “Hard Knocks” is that there is little communality in style and content amongst many of the works. That is certainly understandable with so many pieces included in the show. It would be quite difficult with so many participating artists and such a broad thematic paradigm to successfully display consistency of subject matter or even quality. Additionally, many of the participating artists successfully demonstrate a readily identifiable personal visual language, which is yet another quality of the outsider artist.
Deconstructing the issue of outsider art is not the same as providing viewers with possible answers however, and not vetting the participating artists and their artwork thoroughly detracts from participating artists like Doug Korfhagen, Andrew Pace, & Katherine Ziff whose work is not only visually compelling but also beyond the traditional frame of the art world. Korfhagen’s wood-burned portraits are striking in their detail, and immediately identifiable. His artwork takes many forms. He makes videos, takes photos, (photo stills in this video at :08) and skateboards—which is itself an improvisational kind of performance art—yet there is something instantly recognizable about his artistic voice, and his small post card size wooden portraits are a few of the bright glimmers in a salon style exhibition of almost 120 pieces.
Other artists (outsider or not) whose work manages to speak louder than the visual static around them, include (but are not limited to): the aforementioned Pace & Ziff, collagist (and Museum Gallery/Gallery Museum co-founder) Chris Reeves, found-object-assembler Rondle West, and co-curators Adams & van der Zee. Also worth mentioning are Ukranian sculptor Andrey Kozakov who assembles pieces of wood into painted reliefs, the Basquiat-esque painting father-son pair of Jason & Jansen Taylor whom Banner met at a Folk Art festival, and Robert McFate who dropped off work for inclusion a few days after the show was already up. In their approach to art sans schooling, the curators and gallery staff seems to have emphasized providing a platform for everyone’s artistic voice over judiciously sticking to their curatorial and gallery-purported premise, and allowing those artists to really shine.
The work in “Hard Knocks” is at points inspiring and thoughtfully executed; however, the emphasis on quantity over quality of work actually demonstrates a correlation with those artists who are perhaps less “outside” of the art educational system than the show’s title would have one believe. This self-professed mission—while noble in intention—is a tough cross to bear, fraught with contradictions and caveats. I trust that if anyone can keep asking the tough questions (and looking for answers) it is the artists and organizers of Thunder-Sky.
“Hard Knocks: Art without Art School” is on view at Thunder-Sky, Inc. until August 12, 2011.
 According to CityBeat art critic Steven Rosen, Thunder-Sky, Inc.’s founders “have become local advocates for de-romanticizing Outsider Art as a product of disabilities/primitivism and seeing it more broadly an alternative to art school.”
 Art Beyond Boundaries and Visionaries & Voices both also advocate on behalf of artists who can be considered outside of the mainstream art world.
 Sandra Sider “Outsider art” The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art Ed. Joan Marter. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press, Inc. University of Cincinnati. 8 July 2011 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.proxy.libraries.uc.edu/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t321.e1519>