After the first of two important (for different reasons) outsider art openings at Intuit this summer, I had a revelation about the field while witnessing a fight between transvestites on the train home. It was a weekend night on the south side of Chicago, and everyone on the train seemed to have had a few drinks, which is why none of us initially reacted at all to what was at first just a loud verbal sparring match between four young, obviously poor African-American men dressed in sexy tight dresses and heels.
Despite heavy makeup and wigs, they didn't come close to passing for women. The two pairs of transvestites had gotten on our train car downtown; one pair seemed to be following the other belligerently. The two people that got on first had a giant umbrella they later poked the others with, but at first the fight was mostly just trash talking, some aggressive territorialism about the train car. At separate ends of the train at first, the two pairs screamed insults at each other to the other passengers' laughter, one mooned the entire train car to the snapping of camera phones, but eventually, just after we passed Chinatown going south, the fight got real. When the fight escalated from calling one another names to physical pushing on my end of the train, other passengers still reacted with amusement rather than concern. All four ended up throwing punches and elbows, ripping off wigs, and pulling limbs--really hurting one other-- while people in the train car laughed, cheered and took pictures. Even when someone warned that one of the transvestites had a knife, very few people switched train cars. Eventually someone convinced the person with a knife to put it away, but the fight was still going on when I got off the train.
Walking home I felt increasingly uneasy-- not at the threat of a fight so close to me, but at the lack of threat I and everyone else on the train seemed to feel. A fight between aggressive young men not dressed in drag, on a train car at midnight with knives, would have felt dangerous to me. But as soon as the men wore dresses, dangerous or no, it became a diversion, reacted to with, if not mirth or glee, a kind of dismissal. If not a taunting dismissal, then at least a semi-patronizing one.
That night clarified for me a few of the conflicts and paradoxes of outsider art and the world I had left to get on the train. It would obviously be facile to create a forced parallel between the outsider art show I had left and the transvestites on the train, but both involve particular kinds of threat (or lack thereof) and fantasies of identity that are highlighted in Intuit's two shows this summer.
ALMOST THERE AND THE FANTASIES OF OUTSIDER ART
Drag and outsider art are both fantasies. When the fantasy of drag is in the public sphere, it's a fantasy of identity: choosing to be the other, the group of which you are not, and performing it. However, there are, as I see it, two major competing fantasies of outsider art -- work by artists who not only didn't go to art school, but also may have never left their homes, or even learned to write and speak, or are mentally ill or disabled. Critics and dealers argue about an entire spectrum of labels for this art, from art brut to naïve, to describe where a particular self-taught artist falls, but what's usually most compelling is that these artists aren't creating for an art market.
The first and more disturbing fantasy fetishizes the biographies of outsider artists, showcasing the life of the artist and putting it up for display: the supremely naïve, uncorrupted, the hermits. Frankly, sometimes it can resemble a freak show when taken to the extreme: "look at these people with their bizarre subjectivities -- now look at their art!" This fantasy is becoming less and less common, thanks to the work of curators to showcase the work rather than the biography of outsider artists, where formal readings of the work -- treating it like any "insider" or "real art" -- are on the rise. (See the James Castle show at the Art Institute of Chicago this year.)
One of the current shows at Intuit falls into this trap of privileging the life over the art. Intuit Museum is the most tireless promoter of a wide variety of marginal art in Chicago, and while they've got the Henry Darger room and have at their disposal the ability to show the most canonical of outsider artists, they don't rely on only big names and have a wide range of exhibits. Intuit calls itself a museum of 'intuitive and outsider art,' which they define as "the work of artists who demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world, and who instead are motivated by their unique personal vision."
The title of their most recent show, which opened this weekend, Almost There: A Portrait of Peter Anton, gives a clue that the life of the artist is going to be highlighted. In the case of Peter Anton, this approach might make sense: the artist's work consists of paintings of many subjects, but the most major work is an epic series of colorful scrapbooks of his hardscrabble life in East Chicago, Indiana, filled with drawings, newspapers clippings, and writing decorated within an inch of their lives. The show includes a dozen of these scrapbooks in a case in the middle of the room, where only the inside of one is visible, and around the room, in chronological order, a written page about the artist's life explaining a certain period of time in his life with a single painting incorporating a self-portrait relating to that time. But then, offputtingly, each painting is surrounded by dozens of photographs taken by the curators of the show of Anton's house that show the artist's current living conditions, along with some images from the scrapbooks--literally framing the artist's work with his life in pictures. There are some decorated videotapes from Anton's house and some pins in a bowl for viewers to wear, with "Almost There" printed on them (referring to the title of the scrapbooks and Anton's self-coined "almost there" successes). The curators call the stuff that's not Anton's art "ephemera," and what visitors can see is 75% ephemera. At the opening of the show, you could buy a $5 raffle ticket, and if you won, Peter Anton himself would draw your portrait in pastels. This is not the opening we would imagine for a "real" artist.
Anton's life is certainly that of an outsider. A hoarder living in a dilapidated house with a long life story of poverty and desperation, his story is important. And the curators, Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden, obviously care deeply about him; they have spent the past five years documenting Anton making his scrapbooks and paintings "under brutal conditions." My immediate impression is that they think they've got the next Henry Darger, which they explicitly suggest in their notes on the museum's website (and the exhibit certainly resembles Darger's room in clutter and color, not to mention the epic illustrated book project). But during the curator's talk, where Anton was present, they compared him more to Edie Bouvier Beale from Grey Gardens--who wasn't a visual artist. And the conversation about the formal qualities of Anton's work is mysteriously absent from the show. Even with Darger, there's interest in the sources he traced for his drawings, the content of the epic illustrated book about the Vivian Girls, and even his influences. Almost There is a double-framed documentation of a life, but is it an art exhibit?
In the end, this show is important in the way it seems to have helped Anton (and, one hopes, the curators) to get some recognition for their work, and I would be surprised if there weren't a book deal for the 700 pages of scrapbooks depicting the difficulties of Anton's life in the works. But what about the scrapbooks' display, which shows only the covers over the books, along with one open page and some curator photographs, and seems to deny us real access to the material inside? And what about the curatorial choices of Anton's paintings? I can't tell what kind of artist Anton is from the show because all the self-portraits that were chosen are formally similar, and the subject of his face (sometimes surrounded by other figures) doesn't change stylistically over time. As far as I could tell from the show his style is Technicolor, flat, pop-art-esque, but a single photo of him holding another painting he made, a dark, gorgeous landscape of a movie theater, which I'm told he sold in order to fix his roof, makes me feel like I'm not being given enough to understand Anton as an artist rather than just an outsider.
In the gallery talk, the curators admitted that while Anton fought to get some of his non-portrait paintings in the show, "there wasn't space for other work, and it didn't fit in with the concept of the show." I wish they had included a variety of Anton's work; I want to get a sense of his style and the way his work has changed over time, which I can't from eight self-portrait paintings and photographs and covers of scrapbooks. In the end, Almost There is almost an art show, and it misses because it falls into the fantasy that the artist's life is what fascinates us about outsider art.
CHARLES STEFFEN AND THE UNIFYING FANTASY OF ART-MAKING
But there's another, more useful fantasy of outsider art, and one that creates closeness with the art (rather than alienation, a looking in at the artist as other), that allows the art itself to affect and change us. Rather than participating in a fascination, celebration and/or voyeurism of the artist's life, the best shows of self-taught artists allow us to deeply connect and identify with the making of the work. Chicago institutions in general have done an increasingly impressive job of not isolating outsiders, not pushing the rhetoric of how different outsider artists are from us and detailing the strangenesses of their lives (which might go back to the important relationships between outsider and insider artists in Chicago, beginning with the Chicago imagists), when what makes them so compelling is our fantasy of how close we can be to their acts of making, as opposed to most "insider art." Roger Cardinal, who coined the phrase "outsider," has written better than I could about the "fantasy of participation" viewers can have with outsider art, in which we can imagine joining the artists in the process of art making, being invited to share in the creative process. Outsider art is immediate, and it's made out of a strong sense of necessity -- the outsider artist, we imagine, makes the art because they have to, and that sense of intimacy and purpose carries through for the viewer.
Intuit's other current show, the one I left the night of the transvestite fight, is a successful example of how powerful the presentation of the work can be,, with little need to attend overly to the artist's life. Their compelling show of Charles Steffen's work, Life Lines, could easily have fallen into the biographical trap, but it focuses on the work itself, and the work is incredible, and I think, one of the most important art shows this summer.
Charles Steffen, I have written elsewhere, could be called a beau ideal figure of "outsider art." He had a nervous breakdown while in art school and spent 15 years in a mental hospital, before going home for the rest of his life to live with his family. When he got home he drew everything he knew and saw, on giant pieces of butcher paper, with notes in the margins about his life, everything from lists of groceries and art supplies to his own evaluation of the work. Steffen's drawings thus also act as informal diaries, but where the life writing is presented in tandem with the art. Intuit has devoted their larger room to a large grouping of these drawings, appropriately entitled Life Lines.
The subjects of his drawings in Life Lines are simple: Steffen's mother, neighbors, burlesque dancers drawn from memory, flowers, his own hands; but watching his relationship with these figures change through studies and iterations over the years is deeply affecting, and the writing adds even more intimacy. This isn't a life up for display; it's a quietly profound way of entering into an artist's life.
And it evokes a fantasy I'm not ashamed to enter. I can imagine making my own portraits-cum-grocery lists at the table next to Charles Steffen; but even more, I can imagine him drawing his figures in the Life Lines show, each playful or melancholy line, and imagine myself creating them with him (as opposed, for example, to my inability to imagine painting a Caravaggio portrait or to manufacturing a Koons sculpture). And while I walked out of Almost There feeling sorry for the artist and happy that he was getting attention, I left Life Lines with a strong sense of Steffen's aesthetics, his process, and the way he used art to connect to the world.
The fight I saw on the train was no less real than any other verbal and physical fight between four intoxicated, angry, vulnerable people on a Saturday night. It felt to me and others on the train like a simulacra or a reproduction of a fight (even a kind of imitation or a substitution, in the way that outsider art might been seen as a substitute for "real art") or contrived, like drag itself, but it wasn't. We should have felt in more danger than we did. Say the person who pulled out the out knife hadn't been in a dress -- that fight could easily, we might have imagined, change the lives of those on the train; a knife, even a gun, could have been used, traumatizing or even hurting us, but because these four people were wearing drag, we didn't expect the fight to change our lives, to traumatize us, educate us, affect us (however else we might imagine a real confrontation would feel), even when the knife did appear. It was a purely entertaining, a merely aesthetic experience, that provided interest and entertainment but no real threat. We can also let a similar problem of expectation keep us from experiencing outsider art, which too often is seen as merely interesting -- something to be looked in at, something that's different and some combination of fascinating and, at worst, piteous. Art can and should, at best, terrify us, educate us, scare us awake, or at least force us to look at things differently. It should affect us. It should threaten, or at least temporarily shift, our view of the world.
Of course there's the other kind of threat: the perceived threat of contemporary art, our anxiety as spectators and critics of not getting it. There's the threat to collectors of being hoodwinked in the market, in this age of Hirst and Murakami, as artists seem to be compromising and colluding with dealers in a spectacle of capitalism. This threat of being tricked is one outsider art doesn't make; outsider artists promise a lack of corruption because they're, by definition, not active, participating members of the market. They're usually not even aware there is a market. Their relationship to their art, we imagine, is pure: creating only out of a need to create. In fact, it's common to hear the rhetoric of purity and corruption in any conversation about outsider art. In this way, outsiders are more authentic than "real" artists. (And, as you might imagine, more and more trained artists are marketing themselves as "outsiders" in order to cash in on this capital of authenticity.)
But while outsider artists have an authentic compulsion to create art that's not market driven, they're often seen as less authentic (in the sense of being less valid, or even lawful) artists. They aren't the real thing somehow -- an imitation, substitute, a peculiar kind of fake. Like drag. And so we dress the art up in the biography, accessorize it to the hilt with "ephemera," rather than simply letting the work speak for itself. This is the most deadly kind of dress-up for art. Is this a response to another kind of threat? When you're an artist, the general idea goes, it's the biggest part of who you are, the most important thing about you. And if I, a woman, dress up in drag, the general idea goes, I lack the qualities of a man even if I look like a man. It would be easy to talk about the criteria of gender here, and get into a conversation about performativity, but it's also useful to compare Y chromosomes and art degrees instead. If you can be a man without a Y chromosome, or an artist without art school or even identifying as an artist as such, all you need is creativity, or all you need to do is to dress up. And if someone creates art who doesn't have an art degree, we put them in a drag all their own.
The term "drag" may have originated in ancient Greece, when those who wouldn't conform to gender norms would be dragged through the streets in punishment. The fight I saw on the train was a fascinating, threatening jostling for territory that nobody involved in the fight could really own; paying attention to this fight for space is infinitely more useful. The drag show of the autodidact's biography is boring and reductive; the fights they're taking part in aren't.