Whether you call it brut, primitive, intuitive, outsider, folk, visionary, or naive, identifying and critiquing work by untrained (or should we call them self-taught?) artists is never less than confusing.
And if you think you can gain clarity by visiting all five venues participating in the ensemble folk-art exhibit Shining Dunces, just forget it. One thing is for sure, though: Gabriel Shaffer, who curated the 17-artist show, believes in the genre.
“A lot of artists make art about external things. [But] we,” he ventures, boldly securing himself in the outsider camp, “make art with a different set of symbols — we deal with, and map out, our interior worlds.” That said, Shaffer feels that a great deal of art-world energy is wasted in trying to classify artists. “While hanging this exhibition, I realized that there is no real consistency between these works, and no real connections between the artists” — well, at least he admits it.
“Except,” he amends, “[for] their freedom in expressing themselves without formal constraints.”
Though young, though “outside,” Shaffer is extremely articulate. He grew up watching his mother, Cher Shaffer, make a name for herself in the world of outsider art, though he claims to hate the “o” term. Instead, he places his mother and her colleagues in the second generation of American folk artists.
He and his friends are, he says, the third generation.
The first generation, Shaffer explains, was made up of artists who created things for their own enjoyment. They lived, for the most part, in remote places. They had little or no contact with the “art world.” But Shaffer’s compatriots are no longer isolated. Even if they’ve had no art-school training, they have access to libraries, they can use the Internet, they watch TV. They are educated (at least in pop culture) and sophisticated, aware of art history and the art market. Shaffer says his generation does work that echoes the Chicago branch of the European Cobra movement — characterized by vivid paintings featuring distorted, intentionally primitive figures — more than the naive vision of the first-generation folk artist.
Some of Shining Dunces‘ artists are well known within the genre, others are exhibiting for the first time. Possibly the most sophisticated work (and yet the one bearing the least trace of “faux folk”) is “Wings for Kingston American,” by Douglas, Ga.-based Jamaican artist Anthione Clark. This construction in red, white and blue has three panels with collaged photographs: The first, framed in blue with white stars, shows three black children holding a bird. In the central panel, a painted black torso holds a white bird, and in the third, a shirtless man in tights waves his arms in a flying motion.
Swiss artist Garance is heavily represented. “Hunting Season” is her most impressive offering — a large work, black background, with white skulls thinly painted over the surface. Red animals are painted over the skulls. Similarly, a cutout of a red dog lopes across a yellow ground covered with a complex diagram of tiny rectangles and circles in an untitled work by Ashevillean Mikey Riley.
Jesse Reno’s works are consistent in vision. His passionate artist’s statement addresses issues of government, the environment and morality in very personal terms. “Give” is painted on a two-foot square of luan paneling. The colors are pastel, sparsely applied; blocks of fleshy pinks are overlaid with charcoal drawings of mystical animals, plus a human female head disgorging horns and jewelry. Daniel Johnson uses pieces of metal and a dramel to create interesting images on a flat plane, while Joe Redford superimposes power poles and wires over technical illustrations. Jacob Holmes, who works at Open Heart Art Center, contributes a number of scenes of Asheville, most having to do with rows and rows of cars parked beside the sheriff’s office.
There are colorful, Basquiat-like paintings by Mikey Welsh and found-object robots by Mark May and Matt Deterior. Like his mother, who shows a number of paintings (including the outstanding “Spirit in Tutu”), Gabriel also exhibits work in the local show. In fact, his “Too Far to Turn Away” — a title that reflects the genre’s increasingly fluid parameters — dominates the space at Bo Bo Gallery.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer whose work can be seen in The Small Works Invitational at Blue Mountain Gallery in New York.]
Shining Dunces remains on view at Push Skate Gallery (25 Patton Ave.), Bo Bo Gallery (22 N. Lexington Ave.), Artemisia Gallery (24 N. Lexington Ave.), Gallery LG (63 N. Lexington Ave.), and Harvest Records (415 Haywood Road, in West Asheville) through Thursday, Aug. 3. 280-7904.