Band of Outsiders: Walking the Outsider Art Fair with Katherine Jentleson

View of James Fuentes's booth, with works by Joe Minter and Lonnie Holley. Courtesy James Fuentes, New York.


The High Museum in Atlanta, where Katherine Jentleson is the curator of folk and self-taught art, has the Outsider Art Fair to thank for their new hire (she started in September). “I got into this by covering the fair in 2008 when I worked at Art + Auction,” Jentleson explained, as she surveyed the layout of the OAF, whose 24th edition (Jan. 21-24) takes over the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea. “I really lobbied to cover the fair, and was amazed by the work I saw. I remember this piece by Thornton Dial at Andrew Edlin’s booth, a sort of garden hose relief with a bunch of toy cars.” (Edlin, a longtime OAF participant, bought the fair in 2012.)

Soon after she covered the OAF, Jentleson saw Galerie St. Etienne’s “They Taught Themselves,” a partial rehanging on a show Sidney Janis organized in the early 1940s. “They had a really scholarly brochure about American institutions becoming interested in self-taught art in the 1930s. It totally blew me away, and quickly sent me back to grad school.” (Jentleson recently got her PhD in art history at Duke.)

The first booth we saw at this year’s fair was newcomer James Fuentes, a New York-based gallery not particularly known for self-taught art. There Jentleson zeroed in on sculptures by Lonnie Holley and Joe Minter. “Holley, along with Minter, is part of the Birmingham-Bessemer school. One of the High’s Holley pieces is an effigy of a collector; he depicts her as an angel.”

Fuentes has represented Holley for three years. “The fair’s just been getting better and better since Andrew took over,” Fuentes said. “I’ve been coming for 10 years, since it was at the Puck Building. Back then every booth would have a display about their artists’ deficiencies. It really put me off, seeing how the art wasn’t allowed to speak for itself.”

“This is awesome,” Jentleson said, peering at an Albert Hoffman dragon (1976) in Edlin’s both. Phillip Jones, a director at the New York gallery, explained that most of Hoffman’s religious and mythological sculptures are carved entirely from cedar. Jones also pointed us toward a two-sided Henry Darger watercolor showing girls gathered on a train platform. The piece was hung so that it could be easily lifted off the wall and flipped, revealing the paper’s verso.

At Gilley’s Gallery (Baton Rouge), Jentleson was drawn to two painted tin pieces by David Butler. “I love his work. We have a few pieces by him but I really want to strengthen the group,” she said, admiring a seven-headed dragon with green spots and an alligator. She also spied a nostalgia-inducing drawing by Jimmy Lee Sudduth. “When I first got into outsider art I bought a piece by him that was sort of similar to this. A lot of his work is inspired by watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV.”

More puzzling, mystical work was on view in an intimate exhibition titled “Magic Markings” by Alexander Gorlizki, who collects Indian folk drawings by anonymous artists. Gorlizki, an artist, travels frequently to Rajasthan, where he has a studio. One particular suite of nine abstract drawings were procured from a tantric art workshop. The ovoid shapes, Gorlizki explained, are most likely lingam (abstract representations of Shiva). The series reminded Jentleson of Moravian palm cards. “There used to be large Moravian communities in North Carolina, and the cards were meant to reference Christ. They’d often show intimate domestic scenes, and would act as a cosmic portal into some type of spirituality.”

“Wow, these are a lot smaller than I thought,” said Jentleson, peering at three embroidered landscapes and a portrait of Cy Young, each not much bigger than a postage stamp, at New York’s American Primitive’s booth. Raymond Materson, who spent seven years in prison, used thread from old socks to sew his intricate scenes. Nearby, Ricco/Maresca, another New York gallery, also brought work by an artist who had spent time in prison. “I’m not sure how he got these materials in jail,” Jentleson wondered aloud, using a magnifying glass to examine a pair of intricately carved ostrich shells perched on shelves on the booth’s exterior wall by Gil Batle.

Shrine, a gallery that just opened in New York’s Chinatown last Sunday, took full advantage of its partnership with self-taught art don William Arnett’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation to deck out their back corner booth with a grassy floor and a festive gathering of mixed-medium sculptures by Hawkins Bolden. “I love the anthropomorphic quality of these works, and the combination of colors and material. Especially considering that Bolden is blind.”

At the Good Luck Gallery (Los Angeles), Jentleson was intrigued by Helen Rae’s pencil, crayon and graphite drawings, Willard Hill’s masking tape-wrapped sculptures, and Art Moura’s hanging dolls inspired by African and Oceanic art. “I love this whole booth,” Jentleson said, surveying the scene. “There’s something very Adele Bloch-Bauer crossed with Bill Traylor here,” she remarked, referring to Rae’s colorful, collagelike “copies” of advertisements and spreads from women’s fashion magazines, made over the past few years. According to gallery owner Paige Wery, her space is the only one in L.A. dedicated to outsider art. “I have an open submission policy because I’ve been open for less than two years. A lot of this work is just falling into my lap,” said Wery, describing how a friend of Tennessee-based Hill’s-“a white guy in town who went to art school”-sent her photos of Hill’s sculptures, luring her to the artist’s porch.

On our way back out into the cold, Jentleson (who hadn’t been to the fair in several years) observed that it felt “more blue-chip” than it had in the past. “There’s lots of Traylor, less Thornton Dial. Lots of Lonnie Holley who, in a way, is Dial’s successor.” Passing by Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman, whose booth had a spectacular installation of Felipe Jesus Consalvos collages and guitar cases, Jentleson also noted that galleries seem to be taking more chances with monographic exhibitions. And like most scholars interested in self-taught art, she agrees that a reduced reliance on artist biography is a welcome change. “A professor of mine called it ‘the connoisseurship of dysfunction.’ Biography is not irrelevant, but at least it’s not what people are leading with. Now, the art feels liberated.”