Thursday, May 30, 2013

Outsider Art Exhibit: Part I

Earlier this month, I went to the Outsider Art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, entitled, "Great and Mighty Things:  Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection."

I didn't think that I would be allowed to take photos inside the exhibition, so I took a picture of this trolley advertisement out front, thinking it would be the only visual I could share with you from my amazing day at the museum.  Incredibly, this is one of the few special exhibits allowing photography!
Outsider artists are self-taught artists.  They haven't gone to art school and they don't run in professional art circles.  They lie outside the canon of traditional Western art.  In some cases, they use unorthodox materials.  In many cases, their biographies seem to include interpersonal and mental health issues.  Often, they do not seek recognition for their work, but their work has been discovered and valued, sometimes before and sometimes after their deaths.  

An essay by Ann Percy explains:  "...the best outsiders produce work that is, variously, out of the ordinary, edgy, visionary, imaginative, proselytizing, obsessive-compulsive, or popular-culture-driven, often raw or crude in execution but also masterful in color choices and composition."

There were 27 different artists represented in this exhibit, and I'll share six of them with you in this blog post, and a few more in the next.
"Prayer" by Elijah Pierce, 1966
Elijah Pierce used paint and glitter (love it!) on carved wood for this piece entitled "Prayer", and created his own frame.  He was known for these kinds of colorful carved wood panels, often with biblical scenes, African American figures, and images from American life.  Pierce was a barber and a preacher by trade, and created and displayed his work in his Ohio barbershop.  His works have been described as "sermons in wood."
"Red Vest With Buttons," by James Castle, 9-1/2"x6", cardboard and string
I am already a huge fan of James Castle's work.  Philadelphia had an exhibit of his work alone a few years ago, and I was enthralled by both his biography and his body of work.
"Abstract Construction," by James Castle, 4-3/4"x5-1/4", found card  and string
Castle was born deaf in 1899, and never acquired language--never speaking, writing, or reading.  And yet he created hundreds of hand-bound books, and incorporated all kinds of text and graphic imagery, making use of food cartons, cigarette packs, matchboxes, envelopes, and other "detritus" as his art materials.  Much is made of his technique for mixing soot and spit, and applying the mixture with sticks to create many of the lines in his pieces.
"Red Dresser," by James Castle, 4-1/4"x5-1/4", cardboard and string, soot and spit stick-applied lines
"Assemblage of Faces," by Simon Sparrow, 56-1/2"x107"x3-1/2"
This absolutely spectacular mosaic-style piece by Simon Sparrow is created with glitter, paint, plastic figures, shells, jewelry, buttons, beads, and glass (to name just some of the materials!).  Notice that it is 107 inches long; that, according to my weak math, is over five feet long!
The artist also created the wooden frame as an extension of the art inside, a feature of some of his other works as well.
Here is a close-up of some of Sparrow's materials:  shells and beads and plastic figures and glitter, oh my!
Notice the plastic Star Wars figures!
A booklet provided for children attending the exhibit challenges them to find as many faces as they can within Sparrow's assemblage of faces.  In many cases, there are faces WITHIN faces.  It is a fun challenge to try to identify them all.
"Balance" (54"x18-1/2"x8") "Airplane" (78"x19"x4-1/2"), and "Single Balance" (43-1/4"x6"x6-1/2") from Emery Blagdon's "Healing Machine"
Here are three sections from Emery Blagdon's Healing Machine.  Blagdon used iron, brass, and copper wire for his sculptures, along with materials like aluminum foil, nails, can pop tops, masking tape, and bandages.  Some portions of his healing machine include jars or bundles of different minerals hanging around the space.

Blagdon's mother died of stomach cancer, and his father died of lung cancer, so he spent the last 25 years of his career trying to ward off disease with this creation.  His plan was to channel the earth's electromagnetic energy for its healing powers.  He built more than 600 segments like these three in a shed on the farm where he lived.  Sadly, Blagdon died of cancer himself in 1986.
Jon Serl spent his early life with his family of traveling vaudevillians.  Themes from that life are evident in his work, including this piece:
"Family Band," by Jon Serl, 43-3/4"x104"
Serl painted mainly with oil on fiberboard.  He is said to have painted every day, creating over 1200 works before his death in 1993.
"Three Figures," by Jon Serl, 82"x50"
I am going to end my first post about the art show with the Artist Books of Purvis Young.  Several of his books were displayed in a glass case (hence the shadow of my hands holding my iPhone in the picture above!).
Young never went to high school, and spent time in a Florida jail as a young man for breaking and entering.  In jail he began making art, and dedicated his life outside of jail to improving his community.
Young used old library books and magazines for his artist books, and drew or pasted his own imagery over top of them.  Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

I have several more artists and works of art that I want to share with you, so I will save them for a second post so as to not overwhelm you all at once!

I walked out of this exhibit feeling the same way I did after seeing James Castle's work a few years ago:  honored to have had the opportunity to see this work, and fascinated by the unorthodox lives and styles of all of these people.

Everything in this exhibit appealed to my own personal aesthetic (well, maybe not the chicken bone sculptures right at the entrance, but that's another story!), and I have such respect for the people who created these pieces with such pure intentions--to honor their divine calling, to save the lost, to beautify their communities, to heal the sick and dying, or simply because it was WHO THEY WERE, their very identities.

No other word but "spectacular."

More in my next post.

13 comments: said...

an art tour... how exciting Andria.

** thank you for sharing!! very inspiring. ~xx

aimee said...

ohmygosh... I have to get to this exhibit!

Sue said...

Neat stuff there. Thank you for your post.

VivJM said...

Wow - this looks like a great exhibition. I especially love the Simon Sparrow assemblages - just amazing!

Anne said...

I've always liked collage work like Sparrow's with such eye-popping items that usually get ignored. But am completely amazed by Castle's work -- he may not have had normal outlets for expression but it didn't hinder his beautiful imagination. Goes to show that an artist can be whoever wants to be one.

Parabolic Muse said...

Wow, Andria. When I think about all the great work being done by 'outsiders', people who just love the act of creation, it is overwhelming! I have never heard of these artists and am so glad you talked about them. There's so much good out there, isn't there?

Joyfulploys said...

Hi Andria...What an exhibit! I love outsider art! Think of the time that Sparrow spent to create that long mural. Thanks for sharing your visit to the exhibit.

uncustomary said...

I'm obviously in love with Simon Sparrow's pieces. So wonderful. Outsider art is a really great thing. I'm glad you were able to take pictures!

Janet said...

Thanks for taking us along to the museum and for sharing these artists. I would love to be able to see this exhibit in person...especially the art journals you showed at the end.

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this. I'd never heard of any of these and love the Sparrow and Young works - but what sparked me most was James Castle's work - I've been sat here going through google links about him and am amazed.

scrapwordsmom said... just have soooo many COOL places to see art. I wish we had that around here!!! So very inspiring:)

Thanks so much for my postcard...I can't remember if I thanked lifted me up on a rather down day!! It is now on my studio wall. I appreciate your friendship so much!!!


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