Friday, October 31, 2014

On Choosing Not to Decipher

Robert Boyd

The name of the exhibit is I'll Imply, You Decipher, which could be the name of any number of contemporary art exhibits in the past 50-odd years. Much contemporary art can be described as abstruse, gnomic, hermetic, mystifying, inscrutable and impenetrable. For some viewers, this is off-putting. They may even feel insulted by it. They may feel that the work they're looking at (if not the entire enterprise of contemporary art) is fraudulent. Or they may feel that the work intentionally excludes them, they they aren't invited to the "club." That they aren't meant to "get it." They may feel that the work is a kind of puzzle to be deciphered. That it has a meaning that is hidden. The title of this show suggests that, doesn't it? But that's a game I don't play.

It's not interesting to me because "meaning" seems like the least valuable aspect of a work of art. The pay-off in drawing meaning out of an inscrutable artwork is almost always less than the cost of the effort put into the deciphering. If the meaning is right there on the surface, then I'll take it into account; otherwise, it's not worth the trouble. Because art has other qualities that--for me, at least--count a lot more. Artworks have presence. They may even have beauty. They have personal associations that are unrelated to whatever meaning the artist assigned to the work. All of which is far more important to me as a viewer than what an artist "meant."

But from the point of view of an artist like Kyle Earl McAvoy or Betsy Huete (who has written many posts for The Great God Pan Is Dead) there must be an awareness that their art may strike some viewers as difficult. Perhaps they realize that aspects of their art which presumably have personal meanings for each artist may not have that meaning at all for someone else.

Betsy Huete,  The Folly in Architecture, plastic bag, diatomaceous earth, thread, needles

For example, the use of diatomaceous earth in The Folly in Architecture by Betsy Huete. This white powdery substance is made of the fossilized shells of diatoms and has various industrial and agricultural uses. So if an artist uses a very specific "non-art" material like diatomaceous earth, she may be interested in some specific use of the material (as an absorbent substance for controlling spills of toxic liquids, for example), or in its nature as the fossilized remains of beautiful unicellular organisms, or because of its formal qualities (for example, its color or tactile qualities) or for some combination of unknowable reasons. Or she may be using it as a bricoleur, because it was handy. Maybe Huete just happens to have a lot of diatomaceous earth around.

But as a viewer, all I have if what is in front of my eyes filtered through my own experiences, thought processes, biases, desires, etc. And when I looked at  The Folly in Architecture, I mostly thought, "Bags of white stuff. huh."

Huete could have added a card with some information to help us interpret  The Folly in Architecture, much as has been done in the current show of art by Robert Hodge at the CAMH. I'm so glad she didn't. Such texts, while sometimes necessary, are graceless additions to a work of art. They never make the art better, just--at best--more comprehensible.

Betsy Huete, Harbor, 2013, dirt, table, concrete, meat, thread, needles, model trees/cacti, television, lamp

Huete's Harbor feels like a work of bricolage, except maybe for the model trees and cacti. It's an example of the time-worn genre of combining crap with crap. No aspect of it is elegant, not element of it seems new or particularly beautiful. The fact that it includes a steak that is undoubtedly starting to rot before our eyes just reminds you that Harbour may be many things, but pretty ain't one of them.

Betsy Huete, Harbor (detail), 2013, dirt, table, concrete, meat, thread, needles, model trees/cacti, television, lamp

What appeals to me--and perhaps only to me because it reminds me of a personal failing I have--is the tentative, unfinished quality. It's like she thought about making dinner but didn't get around to cooking the steak. She thought about doing a little gardening but only got as far as dumping some dirt out. Maybe making a model railroad would be a good project, but she only got as far as setting up the HO scale trees and cacti. Even relaxing in front of the tube was apparently interrupted, because now all we're picking up is snow. (The problem lies in this new antenna. If this damn set's broken, go to Allied TV Rental.)

Betsy Huete, Harbor (detail), 2013, dirt, table, concrete, meat, thread, needles, model trees/cacti, television, lamp

What does it all mean? The installation is begging you to ask that question. But I prefer to experience it as a strange presence, as if a bizarre interior decorator has installed a conversation nook in the back of galleryHOMELAND. The elements have no obvious relationship with one another beyond that we give them. And beauty? Well, why not--it's just "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table."

Kyle Earl McAvoy, 👍, socks, sandals, white briefs

By contrast, Kyle Earl McAvoy goes for more crowd-pleasing effects. Deciphering really isn't the issue with  👍 [sic, I guess]. Undies and a pair of muscular thighs are sure to get a thumbs up from about half the population. The individual elements of 👍, socks, sandals, undies and store-display half-dummy are all found objects (at least I assume the dummy is a found object), but they're all found objects that were designed to look good. Therefore it's not a surprise then that the combination of these objects looks good.

 Kyle Earl McAvoy, Solicit, 2014, mower engine, fumes

A lawn-mower engine, on the other hand, might be beautiful in the eyes of some, but it wasn't designed to look good. But McAvoy appeals to viewers in a different way here--with spectacle. The motor is bolted to the white pedestal, which is itself reinforced with angle brackets. Why? Because when you pull the rip cord and start the motor up, the whole thing bucks and jumps.

Kyle Earl McAvoy, Solicit, 2014, mower engine, fumes

It's a crowd-pleasing effect (as can be seen by the cheering Betsy Huete in the background above). There is an off-switch (which, if it is similar to other mower engines I've used, shorts the spark-plug to kill the engine) which the bucking of the pedestal eventually triggers. It's not quite a Jean Tinguely, but it does provide a few moments of pleasurable noise and movement (not to mention a lot of exhaust--on the opening night, galleryHOMELAND director Paul Middendorf had to open the gallery's bay door to keep the exhaust from overcoming the viewers).

Kyle Earl McAvoy, Solicit, 2014, mower engine, fumes

With Solicit, "deciphering" feels utterly beside the point. That's my advice for this exhibit (and really, for most art). It's an old idea and I'll defer to Susan Sontag (circa 1966). She said deciphering (or "interpretation," as she called it) was "the intellect's revenge on art." It's a wall between the viewer and experiencing the art. This viewer, at least.

I'll Imply, You Decipher runs through December 3 at galleryHOMELAND.

Monday, October 27, 2014

People Should Get Paid for Their Work

Robert Boyd

People should get paid for their work. That's the basic premise behind Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). Their mission is a little less blunt:
Founded in 2008, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is a New York-based activist group whose advocacy is currently focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions and establishing a sustainable model for best practices between artists and the institutions that contract their labor. 
The labor of artists for nonprofit art institutions is different from other kinds of labor. It's freelance instead of on-going. But it's not work-made-for-hire--the institution doesn't own the work unless a specific purchase agreement is made. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that when an artist puts on an exhibit in some non-profit space, some work is done. If it's a show of paintings, most of the work is embedded in the paintings themselves, which the artist can subsequently sell. If it's a site-specific temporary installation, the artist has no hope of gaining future income from the work. Given this, it seems fair that these two artists be paid different fees. But the question is, how do you determine the fees?

In the world of commercial art, the Graphic Artists Guild publishes a book called Graphic Artist's Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. Commercial artists are in a similar situation as fine artists--they are freelance and they usually have many clients.This book gives them an idea of what they should charge for their work. Without this, they'd just have to guess what a fair price is and be more vulnerable.

Now the presence of the Graphic Artists Guild and the Handbook doesn't mean that artists don't get ripped off or exploited. But it helps artists understand when they are getting ripped off and provides tools for artists to avoid it.

How is W.A.G.E. approaching this issue? Mainly be going straight to the non-profits (501(c)3 tax exempt arts organizations) and providing a certification program. It involves changing their budgets (both annual and for specific exhibits/events) to reflect ethical pricing, as defined by W.A.G.E.'s fee calculator. So if a non-profit is W.A.G.E.-certified, an artist knows that there is a certain floor for her fee (and visitors know that the artists got paid fair fees). The fee calculator is based on the organization's total annual operating budget. I wish W.A.G.E. had defined this better. For example, would G&A expenses or depreciation count in your operating budget? I suspect it's different for non-profits than for commercial enterprises, but I'm not sure exactly how.

My problem with certification is that it only really provides a binary tool for artists--either the institution that may host your exhibit is certified or not. So it occurred to me that the expenses of any given 501(c)3 organization are public--they report them on their 990 tax forms, which anyone can access via Guidestar. If you look at the "Total Expenses" line of an organization's 990, the vast majority of that should be operational expenses. (If it's not, then I suspect that there's something wrong with the organization.) So I thought, let's use reported 990 expenses as a stand-in for total annual operating budget. Given this, what should artists be getting paid by various Houston area art non-profits? (In reality, the W.A.G.E. minimum fee will be slightly lower for some of the institutions once you take out the non-operational part of the expenses.)

W.A.G.E. Fee Calculator Applied to Annual Expenses of Houston-Area Art Non-Profits

* Assumed the written piece was 1100 words
** Assumed 3 hours of labor

There's a lot of information here. The left hand column are the institutions in question, in descending order by total expenses. The second column is the source of the total expenses number. The third column is the total expenses for each institution. The remaining columns are the minimum level fees for a variety of artistic activities recommended by W.A.G.E. using their fee calculator.

Some institutions are not shown because they are not 501(c)3s and therefore do not publish their 990s (the Station Museum and the Art Car Museum, for example). Some art institutions are part of larger institutions so I can't separate out their finances (the Rice Gallery, the Blaffer Museum, the Contemporary Art Gallery and the Fine Museum at HBU, the University Museum at TSU and the various galleries at HCC and Lone Star Community College campuses).

W.A.G.E. also has a maximum level of pay: "At the maximum rate, or 'Maximum W.A.G.E.' compensation at the Solo Exhibition rate is capped at the average salary of the institution's full-time employees." But since I don't have that information, I have left those figures off.

The first thing you notice is that for any institution with less than $500,000 in annual expenses, the fees are all the same. This is W.A.G.E.'s floor level. For operating expenses between $500,000 and $5 million, the fees are generally a percentage of the operating expenses. Above $5 million, the minimum is capped (as you can see for the HAA, the Menil and the MFAH). These fees do not include expenses such as travel, lodging and shipping. The institution is expected to cover such expenses above and beyond the basic fee, and W.A.G.E. provides guidelines for that.

I think this could be a useful took for artists. Even if an institution is not W.A.G.E. certified, it at least gives an artist an idea of what they should be asking for for their services.

Are their problems with W.A.G.E. and their approach? Yes. I had a long conversation the other day about this and several issues arose. To simplify, here are the questions that came up and here's how I (obviously not a spokesman for W.A.G.E.) would answer them.

1) Doesn't this commodify a relationship that is about much more than money?

Yes. This is always a cost in labor agreements. The question has to be what is lost versus what is gained.

2) Doesn't the floor price mean something different in different places? $1000 in New York City is different from $1000 in Houston, for example.

I think this is a serious issue. Was W.A.G.E. thinking primarily of their home base in New York when they came up with the floor pricing? If so, maybe there should be a scale based on relative cost-of-living for a given location. Obviously doing so would make the fee calculator much more complicated--and therefore less easy to use. But perhaps W.A.G.E. believes that this floor should be national in the same way that, say, the federal minimum wage is national.

3) Isn't W.A.G.E. too militant? Isn't their tone off-putting?

The history of labor rights won is not a history of asking politely. That said, for all of W.A.G.E.'s radical bluster, they don't suggest any consequences for 501(c)3s not getting certified. For example, are they suggesting that artists boycott especially egregious institutions? Picket them?

4) Doesn't this turn non-profit organizations into "the Man"?

Yes, in the sense that it formalizes the freelance relationship between artist and institution. But 501(c)3s are already formalized institutions in a legal sense. They aren't ad hoc spaces--they've gone through the trouble to become tax-exempt organizations with charitable purpose. We hold them to account, and asking that they pay decent fees is just one more example of this public accounting. The details of the fee calculator can be argued, but expecting everyone to come through in at least some minimal way doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

5) Doesn't the fee calculator, and particularly the "floor," penalize very small art organizations?

I think so. Box 13, with its annual budget of $85 thousand, is not in a position to pay every artist with a solo show $1000. This small artist-run institution exists mainly to provide inexpensive studio space (it was founded by artists who were evicted from the original CSAW). As far as I know, they have no paid staff. But they host some of the most interesting shows in Houston. Is it reasonable to expect the same pay rate from them as from Lawndale, which has more than five times Box 13's budget?

These issues will, I assume, be open for discussion at charge, a two-day practicum at the Art League. on November 8 and 9. Alas, I will be traveling that week, so I'll miss it. It will feature a variety of speakers and seminar leaders from both the local scene and from around the country, including Lise Soskolne from W.A.G.E. If you're planning to attend, think about spending some quality time with the 990s of Houston's various art non-profits. I know it sounds boring, but if you are thinking of exhibiting with any of them, you owe it to yourself to know something about their finances.

Have you had an exhibit with any of the institutions above? How much did they pay you? If you're willing to come forward, I think it would be very useful for other artists to know. Let us know in the comments section below.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Show is So Over

Robert Boyd

I recently moved to a new place in Midtown. One of my reasons for moving was that I wanted to be close to the artistic center of Houston. While art is made and displayed all over the vast area of Houston and vicinity, it's hard to deny that Midtown--so close to all the museums and most of the galleries--is a great place for an art-lover like me to be. It's a neighborhood on the rise. In the late 70s and early 80s, I made a trek down to Midtown once a week with my friend John Richardson. We were taking painting lessons from Stella Sullivan in her house at the corner of San Jacinto and Southmore, built in 1935. It's just over the border of what is now "officially" Midtown. There have been many changes since then.

In the 1980s, as oil prices collapsed and city policies made it difficult to develop older neighborhoods, Midtown lost population and became seriously run-down. It was a neighborhood of boarded-up buildings. (It was also a refuge for recently arrived Vietnamese refugees who remain a strong presence.)

The official map of Midtown

But times change. I've heard that the city of Houston updated its sewage hookup rules, which made it possible to increase the number of hookups inside the 610 Loop. At the same time, starting in the late 90s, the price of oil began a long, slow rise. Hydraulic fracturing technology allowed small natural gas companies to grow into S&P 500 companies, bringing thousands of new jobs to Houston. The result was an increase in property development all over Houston, including Midtown. Midtown has been gentrifying over the past 20 years (as has the Heights and Rice Military). There are still abandoned buildings (I live right next to one) and empty lots. Plus there are are remnants of a time when Midtown was depopulated--specifically, the large number of homeless and addiction services are headquartered in Midtown. (Perhaps these charities and their clients will remind the dude-bros and basic b---hes who party down at the hip bars in Midtown that poor people exist.) Midtown is now a TIRZ, which means it can get tax money to help improve and redevelop the area. The Midtown Redevelopment Authority is the quasi-governmental organization that manages the TIRZ.

Midtown is defined by the Midtown Management District as being bordered primarily by I-45, 59, and Spur 527, with a few bits bordered by surface streets in the northeast corner and southernmost bit. That means that the intersection of Alabama and Almeda is officially part of Midtown. That's where Jamal Cyrus put up his temporary site-specific installation, The Jackson in Your House. The installation is part of a long term use of this site curated by Suplex.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets

The official opening for A Jackson in Your House was on a recent Friday night. It was a mild, dry evening, so I decided to walk there--I moved to Midtown precisely so I'd have these opportunities to leave the car at home. On the way, I met a couple of friends who were also headed over there, and then we ran into and chatted with CAMH director Bill Arning, who was returning from the site. I could almost pretend for a moment that I was in a pedestrian-oriented city. Midtown isn't there yet, but it's evolving in that direction.

A Jackson in Your House consists of a giant, vertically-oriented sign painted with bold display lettering. The sign is black paint on two white bedsheets sewn together. It reads, "THE SHOW IS OVER... THE SHOW IS OVER..." I'd estimate that it is about 18 feet high. It faces east into the heart of the Third Ward, and is easily visible to drivers on Almeda and west-bound drivers on Alabama.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets.(Jamal Cyrus is standing in the center.)

The phrase comes from a Christopher Wool painting which consists of a longer quote: "THE SHOW IS OVER THE AUDIENCE GETS UP TO LEAVE THEIR SEATS TIME TO COLLECT THEIR COATS AND GO HOME THEY TURN AROUND NO MORE COATS AND NO MORE HOME" There are actually several versions of the painting, but they are all similar--all caps, no spacing between lines, arbitrary line breaks in the middle of words based on the width of the canvas, no punctuation. The lettering seems to have been hand done with stencils. The quote comes from a book by Russian writer Vasily Rozanov from 1917 called The Apocalypse of Our Time (Cyrus identifies Rozanov as a nihilist, but most references I've seen paint him as a highly eccentric conservative intellectual). The phrase was quoted in a Situationist polemic from 1967, and repeated in Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces.

Christoper Wool's studio, 1991 (from Parkett #83)

Cyrus and Walter Stanciell retain the hand-lettered aspect of Wool's painting and the line-breaks, but otherwise their version is far easier to read. Walter Stanciell is a 3rd Ward sign painter, and these letters, white outlined with black with a black shadow giving them a somewhat 3-D appearance, are unlike the letters in most signs you see in one important aspect--they are hand-made. When you get up close, you can see imperfections. It's warm, human lettering. Because every letter is repeated at least once, you can see how they slightly differ from one another. They are unlike a display font on a computer. They are unlike billboards and advertisements created by designers and ad agencies. But at the same time, they are unlike amateur signs you might see in a neighborhood--hand painted signs that say "Garage Sale" or "Beware of Dog," for example.

Stanciell occupies the middle ground, and his signage is pleasing to the eye. It used to be that sign-painting was an ordinary, common occupation, and its practitioners were respected craftsmen. (Of course, pop artist James Rosenquist came out of that world, as did pioneering underground cartoonist Justin Green.) It makes sense that Cyrus would recruit Stanciell for a project like this. It's part of a long-term project of reinterpreting text-based painting.

What does it mean hung on a building in the Midtown? One thing that will help make sense of this is that about half of what we call Midtown is historically part of the Third Ward. The Wards started out as political divisions in Houston. They were abolished as political entities in 1915, but have remained to this day as descriptions of large neighborhoods. The Third Ward and the Fourth Ward  were separated by Main Street, which runs down the middle of Midtown. The Third Ward had been quite diverse at one time (with black areas and white areas), but in the post-war era, it became almost exclusively African-American (my old art teacher Stella Sullivan was one of the white "hold-outs" in the neighborhood). But that African-American character has begun to change, especially in the Midtown part of the neighborhood.

Map of the Houston Wards from 1920

Cyrus's statement reads in part:
Initially written on Parisian walls during the revolutionary student movement of 1968, the text here has been rendered by Cyrus and Stanciell in the style of sign-paintings that have for decades characterized the visual culture of black Houston, and re-inscribed it onto the side of a formerly abandoned building at the heart of the Third Ward (increasingly known as Midtown), one of Houston's most actively contested geographies. [...] the nihilistic text becomes ambivalent, at once evincing a pessimistic assessment of the fate of black neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, and simultaneously asserting the optimism of the black freedom struggle.
I asked Cyrus about the piece, and he spoke about the squeeze on the Third Ward from developers on the west and University of Houston expansion on the east. The building he hung the banner on, The Axelrad, appeared to be empty. Perhaps it had been a small apartment building, or maybe a suite of offices. I couldn't tell. But it seemed to be nothing now. I asked Cyrus who owned it, and he wasn't sure of the owner's name, but he had heard that this owner was planning to open a beer garden in the building.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets

Later, I looked up the owner on the Harris County Appraisal District website. The owner of this property is the blandly named Brookhollow Venture Ltd. As far as I can tell, this company exist for the sole purpose of owning a small number of properties within two blocks of the intersection of Alabama and Almeda.

Brookhollow Ventures' properties

One of these properties is the abandoned gas station across the street from The Station Museum. The owners have allowed that property to be used for temporary art exhibits before, so one gets the idea that Brookhollow Ventures is friendly to artists. At the same time, you don't just own abandoned properties on the edge of a gentrifying neighborhood for no reason. Such properties are investments to be developed or sold later. It struck me as ironic that Cyrus would use this as his platform for an art piece opposed to gentrification.

The crowd gathered that night was about 50% black and 50% white. They sat around chatting, congratulating Cyrus, and so forth. I don't know if Stanciell was present. I wonder if he sees himself as a collaborator or if it's just another paying gig for him. After all, he doesn't come from the art world like all the people there that night do. For those of us in the art world, a large white banner with an enigmatic phrase on it hanging from the side of a building = art. I wondered what the commuters coming up Alabama from the east would think they were seeing. Would their interpretation sync up with Cyrus's expressed vision?

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets (as seen from a car in the intersection of Alabama and Almeda)

Later that evening, I crossed to the east side of Almeda to take some more photos. An African-American man in a white baseball cap was walking south and asked me what was going on. I explained it was an art project. He asked what "THE SHOW IS OVER" meant? I explained that it referred to the changes in the neighborhood. I was careful not to use the word "gentrification." I wanted to see what his reaction was without me coloring it from the start. He was enthusiastic--in his view, the neighborhood had changed for the better.

He moved here from Denver a few years ago, living in a duplex owned by his uncle. As he described it, drug dealers and users would congregate in his front yard--he'd have to call the police at three in the morning to break up fights on his porch. But then they "cleaned up" an apartment building across the street from him and built new apartments next to those, and the presence of more people and a better class of people (i.e., fewer sketchy tenants) on the street had the effect of driving the drug addicts and dealers away. In his view, the gentrification he saw on his own block was wholly positive.

This intrigued me, and I wanted him to tell his story to Jamal Cyrus, so I suggested he cross the street to meet the artist. He begged off--he had just been working for 12 hours in the sun stripping cars, and he was eager to go get a beer. I couldn't blame him. He crossed Alabama and I crossed with him because I wanted to take some pictures from the south-east corner. Another African-American man was walking towards us. The car-stripper greeted him, "Hello, Mr. Jordan!" They shook hands and he continued south. Mr. Jordan asked me what was going on. I explained it was an art project and started taking some photos. He asked me if I could spare some change, explaining that he was homeless. I gave him a couple of bucks. Right then a car drove by and someone shouted out, "You better not take my picture!"

Mr. Jordan took that as an opportunity to warn me that I was in a dangerous neighborhood. "You're in the Third Ward! You can't be taking pictures at night!" He suggested that for my own safety that I should go home, and suggested the same for the crowd of people across the street at the installation. Well, I had taken all the pictures I wanted to take, so I took Mr. Jordan's advice. I didn't feel like I was in danger as I walked home--at least not until I got a block from my home in Midtown. There is an abandoned building one block from home with a covering over the sidewalk. It's very dark and there are always one or two people hanging out there. If someone wanted to commit a mugging, it would be a good place for it. I always feel a little nervous walking there at night. It's not like other parts of Midtown, where the sidewalks have lots of pedestrians at night.

But nothing happened, of course. Mr. Jordan may have been just playing a game of "Freak out the white guy." On the other hand, crime happens. And crime, as the man in the white baseball cap implied, is one thing that gentrification can positively impact. Another irony.

And a final irony--who are often in the vanguard of gentrification? Artists. You want a neighborhood to attract artsy people, do installations like A Jackson in Your House. Just beware of unintended consequences.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Some Thoughts on Quilts

Robert Boyd

I know some readers may get the idea that I'm leaving contemporary art behind and diving into folk and self-taught art given some of my recent posts. These are long-time interests of mine, but I don't often get the opportunity to write about them. When I learned that a new quilt show was opening in La Grange, I figured I'd check it out and continue this exploration of folk art.

Except that this exhibit, Art Quilts from the John M. Walsh III Collection (showing at the Texas Quilt Museum in La Grange through December 31), is not really a folk art exhibit. Almost all of the quilts made in this exhibit were 1) made by artists who received specialized art educations, and 2) made exclusively for display, not to put on a bed.

Catherine McConnell, Vermont Swimmers, 1991, heat transfers on acetate, cotton backing, machine quilted, 82 1/2 x 77 1/2 inches

My knowledge of quilts is quite limited. I don't know who started making quilts, or when the quilted blankets that we usually think of when we hear the word "quilts" became popular. My grandmother made beautiful quilts. I know quilting is often a collective, communal activity (quilting bees). I have a feeling that it is traditionally rural, but I don't know that for sure. I have that impression because my grandmother was a very rural person. I know that the designs on quilts are abstract and geometric, which is one aspect of them that has always appealed to me. I know that they are often made with scrap fabric--worn out clothes, for example, or left-over fabrics that are too small to be used for anything else. This recycling aspect also appeals to me. Quilting is something you learn from someone else, often an elder.

Given my limited understanding of the world of quilts, the quilts in this show were quite a departure. We can see that with Catherine McConnell's Vermost Swimmers, which is constructed like a traditional quilt--the top layer is constructed of a variety of patches sewn onto the batting and bottom layer. But instead of being "scrap", these patches are photographic heat transfers.

I think it's quite lovely, but part of me asks why it's a quilt in the first place. This could have been a photocollage on paper, for example. Of course, when you see Vermont Swimmers in person, you can see the puffiness of the batting. You see it hanging--not stretched or mounted. So it's slightly different than it would be if it were produced on some other kind of material.

Also, you are seeing it in a quilt show. I don't know anything about McConnell (she hardly exists online), but if she identified herself as a quilter, that's reason enough for this to be a quilt instead of something else. And if you are a quilter in 1991, you have the choice to avail yourself of whatever technology and subject matter you want--you don't have to imitate quilts from the 19th century. That's the attitude of the artists in this show.

Lenore Davis, Florida Surf, 1984-1985, hand paitined on velvet with Procion dye, 58 1/4 x 58 3/4

I sometimes think of quilting as sewing scraps together, but the definition of quilting has to do with binding three layers--top, batting and bottom--together with stitching. Lenore Davis (died 1996) used a single piece of velvet as the top part of this quilt. Then using Procion dye (which you may have used if you've ever made tie dye clothes), she painted the quilted design. I'm guessing that she used an airbrush because she seems to have hit the raised quilted shapes from the edge. The effect is quite striking.

Rebecca Shore, Night Light, 1991, wool, cotton and blends, cotton batting and back, machine pierced, hand quilted, 65 x 63 inches

Part of me prefers the traditional geometric quilts, and many of the artists in this exhibit hearken to that tradition. Rebecca Shore honors the tradition, but she is a highly trained artist (a graduate of and adjunct professor at SAIC) who has gallery representation and works in a variety of media, including very traditional ones like painting. So while she may have been thinking of traditional quilts, she may have also been thinking of the history of geometric abstraction in modernist painting. In any case, the precision of the image in Night Light feels a little to perfect for my tastes, though.

Anna Williams, Strings and Triangles, 1995, cotton, machine sewn, hand quilted by Mary Walker, 80 x 68 inches

Anna Williams (1927-2010) is apparently the only "unschooled" artist represented in the John M. Walsh III collection, and her biography on KnowLA describes her as "self-taught". But it also describes her first quilt as one made at age nine, which to me suggest that she had some instruction from an adult--a mother or grandmother or other relative. In any case, her quilt in the show is the closest to what I think of when I think of a quilt, and I like Strings and Triangles best. But this perhaps represents a sentimental, conservative impulse on my part when thinking about this art form. This exhibit was definitely an eye-opener about the possibilities of quilts.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Diminishing Returns of Being an Artist

Robert Boyd

I recently read a graphic novel called Angie Bongiolatti by Mike Dawson. It's his third book. It was published in April and when he got his first quarterly report from the publisher, Secret Acres, it had sold all of 106 copies. He wrote about his anguish over this in a poignant blog post entitled "Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience." In the world of comics, this got a lot of attention. Here was a well-known cartoonist who has published three books. For many cartoonists, that spells success. But reading Dawson's cri de coeur shows this not to be the case. Dawson seems committed to comics. "But, sadly, as much as I’ve contemplated it recently, I just don’t feel like I can give up. I’m stuck with cartooning. I’m a lifer." But given this commitment, he writes, "Lately, writing a book feels like I’m taking my ideas, spending years building something elaborate with them, putting them in a nice box, and then burying them in the yard. Then I’m asking everyone I know to find a shovel and hunt around and see if they can dig them up."

Now as many of you readers know, I worked in the field of comics for a long time starting in 1989, when I took a job with my favorite publisher, Fantagraphics Books. And before then, I had been a devoted reader of "alternative" comics. And when I think about the 80s and 90s, I think about many of my favorite cartoonists: Michael Dougan, Carel Moisievitch, Mark Zingarelli, Dave Cooper, J.R. Williams, Doug Allen, Scott GilbertCarol Lay, Mark Marek, William Messner-Loebs, Mark Beyer, Krystine Kryttre, J. Bradley Johnson, Matthew Guest, etc. Maybe you don't know them. That could be because as far as I know, none of them still make comics. Each of them did a certain number of pages of comics. Some did maybe a few dozen in all, and some did hundreds. Dougan, Cooper, Allen, Lay, Marek, Messner-Loebs and Williams each had book collections published. But at some point, they each decided to stop being cartoonists--or at least to minimize the comics part of their practice. I'm sure they each had very specific, very personal reasons. In some cases, it might not have even been a conscious decision--cartooning had always been a sideline and they moved on. In other cases, it may have been an economic choice because comics--particularly alternative comics--is a spectacularly unremunerative occupation. In some cases, a better opportunity came along. Some may still do the occasional comic here and there, but their output has diminished to the point of near invisibility.

This reality breaks my heart. Obviously I'm not just talking about comics--I'm talking about art in general. So many artists start off with great promise--even great achievement--but ultimately give up in the face of economic reality, indifference from viewers, etc. It's one reason I started The Great God Pan Is Dead--to lessen the feeling of indifference that some artists feel. When I put up a post, I hope it lets an artist know that someone is paying attention. That someone who is not your mom cares about what you do. The same is true when I buy a piece of artwork or a graphic novel like Angie Bongiolatti. I mean, don't get me wrong--I'm not doing this as a charity. I get pleasure out of doing this blog (as well as collecting art and reading comics). But in addition to pleasing myself, I also hope that in some small way I contribute to some artist somewhere not giving up.

As for Angie Bongiolatti, it's not a bad book. The heroine is a young woman working in an e-learning start-up sometime after 9-11. She is involved with ultra-left wing protests and has a complicated personal history. It's not really her story--it's about people she knows, their attractions to her and their pasts with her. Dawson also rather deftly weaves in segments quoting Arthur Koestler about the psychology of revolution. It doesn't totally work, but it's the kind of sophisticated comic that I've always wanted--a multi-dimensional story with well-defined, complex characters. For what it's worth, I'm glad I was able to push its sales up--by precisely one copy.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Everyday Geniuses at the Art League

Robert Boyd

One of a Kind at the Art League

When it rains, it pours. First there was Kindred Spirits at the Art Car Museum. Now there is One of a Kind: Artwork from the Collection of Stephanie Smither at the Art League. Both are shows of self-taught artists. This is a type of artwork that is quite dear to me, and it my review of Kindred Spirits, I proposed a theory that this kind of artwork didn't "become art" until "discovered" by someone who has enough artworld credibility to declare it to be art. This theory was received with the vast indifference that it probably deserves, but as I was researching some of the artists in Kindred Spirits, I came across mention of Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity (2004) by Gary Alan Fine. Fine looks at the world of folk/outsider/self-taught art from the point of view of a sociologist. This is a potentially fruitful way to look at art--Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker both famously studied the art world (indeed, their studies helped to define the "art world"), and both men's work is referenced by Fine in Everyday Genius. And Fine does deal with what happens when a hitherto isolated self-taught artist comes into contact with a representative of an artworld.

Writing about art often comes from two poles as identified in the Raphael Rubinstein-edited book Critical Mess as bellelettrist and theory-derived. The former writers are poets and literary writers with an interest in visual art--think Baudelaire or John Ashbery--and the latter are those more heavily influenced by philosophy--think Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss. But there are other schools of art writing that in many ways I find more appealing. There are journalistic writers--Robert Hughes and Jerry Saltz for example, and writers who come from the social sciences like those mentioned earlier, as well as sociologist Sarah Thornton and economist Don Thompson. My preference is for the latter two types--journalists and social scientists--because they tend to deal with art as a class of people and objects and activities that exist in the real world. This is what Fine does in Everyday Genius. He writes about the artists, of course, but also collectors, the market for this work, the institutions that collect and/or display it, the community that has developed around world of self-taught art, the issue of boundaries (what falls into this category of art and what doesn't?--"boundary-work" being a key concept in sociology, apparently), and the idea of an art world for this kind of art.

Part of creating boundaries for the field deals with what to call the field, and this is contentious. Almost every commonly accepted name for this kind of art is problematic--folk art, art brut, outsider art, naive art, vernacular art, self-taught art, visionary art and some even more obscure terms. When I first became aware of this art in the 1980s, "outsider art" was commonly used, but it has fallen out of favor. But some of the terms, regardless of their problems, remain in use because they have been institutionalized in one way or another--the American Folk Art Museum, Collection de L'Art Brut Laussane, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Outsider Art Fair, etc. Fine chooses "self-taught art" because it seems the most neutral, and I'll follow his lead here.

As I suggested in my review of Kindred Spirits, this is art that has a relationship with the mainstream art world but is not fully congruent. Many, if not most, museums are reluctant to collect this kind of material. While there are "mainstream" galleries that carry this kind of art--the best known was Phyllis Kind Gallery, which closed in 2009 after 42 years in business--many of the galleries that feature the work of self-taught artists look and operate quite differently from the standard white cube (for instance, the Webb Gallery). There are few places where a prospective art historian can study this work, and few places where an expert art historian can teach it. Collectors tend to specialize in it, as we can see in this exhibit. And while some pieces by a small number of artists can reach six figures, the prices for self-taught art are, on average, far lower than that of mainstream contemporary art. Fine doesn't mention it, but lower prices help make it easier in one key respect to collect the work of self-taught artists. But acquiring knowledge about what to collect is harder than it is for mainstream art, so while one barrier drops, another grows higher. (This is equally true of a kind of art I personally collect, original comics art. I am a collector of modest means, but I can easily afford to buy artistically-significant works of comics art because generally this original art is not terribly expensive. On the other hand,  my ability to identify artistically-significant work is the result of a lifetime of critical study of the field.)

Howard K. Finster, A Great Wood Carving Year, 1983, wood carving, 29 x 15 x 3.5 inches

Smither's collection includes work by some of the best known self-taught artists, like Bill Traylor , Howard Finster and Thornton Dial; work by regional (Texas) self-taught artists like Ike Morgan, Rev, Johnnie Swearingen and Frank Jones; and anonymous folk artwork. Without knowing for sure, I am going to assume that this show only represents a portion of her entire collection. (I make this assumption because every collector I know, including myself, is a hoarder at heart.)

Nearly all these artists learned their art more-or-less in isolation from other artists (obviously this is not the case with many kinds of folk artists who learn their art from elder craftsmen--quilters for example). This doesn't mean they were isolated from images--they live in a world where mass culture exists, and they can hardly have avoided coming into contact with movies, magazines, TV, advertising signs, graffiti, etc. But nonetheless, they are profoundly unlike elite artists who get MFAs during which they are immersed in both art history and in current artistic practices.

It is therefore surprising to see how so many works of self-taught artists exhibit certain similarities.

Ben Hotchkiss, untitiled, 1980, colored pencil on paper, 14 x 17 inches

One commonality that we see frequently in Smither's collection is horror vacui--the seeming need for many artists to fill every bit of the surface on which they're drawing or painting. I first noticed this when I saw an exhibit of Adolf Wölfli in 1988, whose extemely dense artworks astonished me. We see it in the work here by Ben Hotchkiss (above), Frederick Harry Kahler, Alan Wayne Bradley (a.k.a. "Haint"), Timothy Wehrle, Winfred Rembert and others.

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled, ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled (detail), ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

When I first encountered this tendency to cover the entire surface with a dense skein of marks, I thought it might have something to do with the mental state of the artists. Wölfli was a mental patient when he produced his remarkable body of work, so I thought this might be a symptom of his mental illness. But now I reject such amateur psychoanalysis. There are two other explanations that I think are just as plausible. First, these artists cover ever square centimeter because to do otherwise would be wasteful. And a corollary to that might be that the artists might feel like they aren't giving their viewers their "money's worth" if they don't cover the surface with dense detail. Second, because they haven't received an ordinary art education, they aren't beholden to conventional esthetics that would require that artists give the viewers' clear foregrounds and backgrounds, "balanced" compositions and places to "rest" the eye. When an elite artist like Jackson Pollack broke all these rules, art history saw it as admirable iconoclasm. But with self-taught artists, there are no rules to break in the first place.

Of course, these are just guesses on my part. I find this density of design appealing and something you are much more likely to see in the work of self-taught artists than in the work of a conventionally educated artist.

Alan Wayne Bradley (a.k.a. "Haint"), untitled, mixed media collage, 15 x 38 inches

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled (detail), ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

Timothy Wehrle, One of many wrong remedies to put out an ungrateful flame, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 23 x 42 inches

Timothy Wehrle, One of many wrong remedies to put out an ungrateful flame (detail), colored pencil and graphite on paper, 23 x 42 inches

Winfred Rembert, Chain Gang Picking Cotton, dye on carved and tooled leather, 37 x 33 inches

Another feature of self-taught art, especially that by Southern artists, is that much of the art is by African American artists, particularly rural African American artists who had little or no access to art education because of their poverty. Such is the case with Winfred Rembert (b. 1945), who was unjustly imprisoned. Chain Gang Picking Cotton, done on carved leather, reflects his personal experiences as well as many other African American men caught up in the post-Civil War version of forced servitude. (You can see a documentary, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, on Hulu.)

The thought of bourgeois white collectors and dealers driving the backroads of the South looking for rural black self-taught artists is slightly uncomfortable. It has hints of colonialism, paternalism and slumming. This comes up in Everyday Genius.
This art world involves the intersection of groups who would not ordinarily meet. Such contact can produce condescension by the more powerful (and rage or amusement by those less powerful.) Does contact invariably involve colonization? [...] If elites treat the impoverished by elite standards, they can be criticized for cultural imperialism, but if they treat them according to their perspective of the other's culture, they can be accused of being patronizing." (p. 108)
Fine points out that African-American collectors rarely collect art by self-taught African-American artists. Some see the collecting the work as condescending. Whatever the reason, Fine writes collecting and viewing the work of  African-American self-taught artists is primarily done by white people. This is a complaint by Rembert, expressed in All Me. Rembert particularly regrets this because all his work depicts the historical reality (and biographical detail) of a youth and young adulthood in Cuthbert, Georgia, during the 50s and 60s. Rembert, who now lives in Connecticut, is pained that younger African-Americans don't know the painful histories of their parents and grand-parents. The film climaxes with an exhibit of his work at the Albany Civil Rights Institute (about 50 miles away from Cuthbert), where it finally gets wide exposure to many of the African Americans who shared aspects of Rembert's upbringing.

Of course, the most obvious "colonial" aspect is that collectors, gallerists and scouts can often get away with paying little (or even nothing!) for the work of a financially naive self-taught artist and selling it for many multiples of what the artist gets. That feels like raw exploitation, and often it is. Not every seeming case of exploitation is so straightforward.

Bill Traylor, untitled, 1943, poster paint and pencil on cardboard

For instance, One of a Kind features a painting by Bill Traylor (1854-1949). His work is the opposite of the horror vacuii school--his drawings, like this one, are minimal and witty, like a cartoon by Charles Schulz or William Steig. Traylor was born a plantation slave, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama in1936 because, "my white folks had died and my children had scattered." Homeless, he started amusing himself by drawing on discarded pieces of cardboard. He tried to sell them for five cents a piece without much luck until a white artist, Charles Shannon, discovered them (the standard discovery story). Shannon worked at the time to promote Traylor's work, putting together exhibits in Mongomery and New York City. Although the exhibits generated a lot of interest, sales were not forthcoming. Perhaps it was just too early for people to really see Traylor's astonishing work.

In the mid-70s, Shannon tried again to interest the art world in Traylor's remarkable oeuvre, which he had kept stored for nearly 30 years. This time he was very successful, and the work entered museums and became highly collectible, individual pieces achieving six figure prices. In the mid-80s, descendents of Traylor discovered that Traylor had become a well-known artist. They sued Shannon for a cut, claiming he had cheated Traylor. The case was settled out of court, with the family getting a large settlement.

So was Shannon a colonialist exploiter of Traylor? If Shannon hadn't come along and bought Traylor's work, it would never have become valuable in the first place. Nonetheless, the work did end up becoming a huge windfall Shannon--as if he had bought a seemingly useless piece of land and 30 years later discovered oil on it. My feeling is gratitude towards Shannon (and others like him)--otherwise, I would never get to see Traylor's art. And if Shannon had been more successful in promoting Traylor's art in the 1940s, Traylor probably would have shared the benefit in the years before his death. It wasn't like Shannon planned to hold onto the art until the 70s and get rich off of it then. But at the same time, such a relationship is obviously unequal.

Thornton Dial, untitled, watercolor and graphite on paper, 35.5 x 38 inches

Thornton Dial is represented in this exhibit with an atypical piece. Most of the work by Dial I've seen involve thick layers of scrap material collaged onto a surface. His works also tend to be much more abstract than this. Dial is one of the few well-known self-taught artists whose work seems not dissimilar from his contemporaries who got MFAs and came up through the contemporary art world. I find Dial's work tremendously appealing in general, but this watercolor does nothing for me.

He has a tight relationship with dealer/scholar/impresario William Arnett. I've written about this relationship before. Arnett has been raked over the coals more than any other art dealer because of the "exposé" on 60 Minutes. It's hard not to see his relationship with Dial as being paternalistic. However, when Fine visited Arnett, Arnett told Fine that he "consider[ed] this art [African-American self-taught art] to be the most important art of the century" and that Thornton Dial was the "Michelangelo of the twentieth century." Furthermore, he felt the reason that these judgments weren't universally held  was because of the racism or "Afro-phobia" of the art world. He hardly comes across as a colonialist.

Moses Ernest Tolliver, untitled, house paint on plywood, 24 x 30 inches

Moses Ernest Tolliver (1920-2006) is one of the most popular and respected of the African American self-taught artists. After an industrial accident left him crippled in the late 60s, he took up painting to pass the time. The birds in this painting remind me a bit of Bill Traylor, but the electric color on the faces made me think of Madame Matisse. This brings up the question of comparing the work of self-taught artists to art from the "mainstream" art world. Does self-taught art have a distinct aesthetic that requires a separate judgment? I don't think this is an easy question to answer. For one thing, almost all these artists started creating their work in isolation from one another. In the world of contemporary art, we can say that a young artist was influenced by an older art, or is responding to the work of older artists, or even was a student or studio assistant of an older artist. But we know for certain that Tolliver wasn't "influenced" by Traylor.

Sam Doyle, untitled, housepaint on found roof tin, 52 x 31 inches

Sam Doyle (1906-1985), another African American self-taught artist, lived on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. Like Winfred Rembert, his subject matter is highly localized.Many of his subjects have to do with illness and local traditional healers. This one seems particularly grim. What sticks in my mind, however, is the combination of blue and black and especially the corrugated tin on which it is painted. This provides a connection between self-taught art and contemporary art--bricolage. Self-taught artists by necessity and because of their lack of formal training use whatever materials are available. We can relate this to assemblagists like Robert Rauschenberg or Ed Kienholz. But for fans of self-taught art, this bricolage is a sign of authenticity, one of the most valued qualities that a self-taught artist can possess. Sam Doyle gained a certain amount of fame from his inclusion in Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, a 1982 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery, and the market for his work expanded accordingly. If he had started using Winsor Newton paints and doing his work on stretched and primed canvas, would it have lost "authenticity"?

Ike Morgan, untitled, pastel and pencil on paper, 26.5 x 18.5 inches

I was a little startled to see this drawing by Ike Morgan--up to now, I had only seen his portraits of presidents and historical figures. But his style is instantly recognizable. He has two big wins in the self-taught artist authenticity race--he's an African American from a rural background (born in Rockdale, TX) and he is mentally ill (schizophrenic). (He even has one further somewhat dubious mark of authenticity--he committed a horrible crime. Morgan murdered his grandmother. It was this act that landed him at the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane and later the Austin State Hospital.) Synonyms for "authentic" might include "unpolluted" or "uncontaminated." "Childlike" and "naive" are two rather patronizing synonyms for authentic. It's a problematic term, in other words. Of course Fine discusses this at length, without really trying to define authenticity or judge whether or not it is a positive aesthetic quality. His interest is in the use of "authenticity" within the field--its value to collectors, dealers, curators and the artists themselves. He writes, for example, "Members of this art world have a strong preference for early 'uninfluenced' works by self-taught artists, although later works my have more artistic power, as an artist learns from experience, but such a view flies in the face of the assumptions of the field." A dealer Fine spoke to remarks that artists whose authenticity is beyond question--Bill Traylor and Martin Ramirez, for example--are the ones most likely to sell in the six figure range.

As problematic as the various categories of the authentic (self-taught, rural, impoverished, mentally ill, isolated) and the inauthentic (MFA, contact with other artists, middle-class, mainstream, subscription to Artforum) in this field are, perhaps the most dangerous notion is the idea that if an artist is a good businessman, that makes him less authentic. A key example of this is the Rev. Howard Finster. When his work was discovered by collectors, he and his family started to aggressively market it (even setting up an 800 number). Somehow this overt concern for one's own career rubbed collectors wrong, and now works from the late 80s, when Finster started marketing the work heavily, is worth less than the earlier work, which is seen as more authentic. For a self-taught artist to achieve a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle (much less to become rich) is to lose authenticity. Poverty is seen as authentic and real.

Frank Jones, untitled, colored pencil on paper

Frank Jones (1900-1969) scores super-high on the authenticity scale. Convicted of murder, he served a life sentence in Huntsville, where he began to draw. He saw "haints" (ghosts) and devils, which he housed in spiked dwellings, as in the picture above. It seems symbolic of his own circumstance and dwelling--where monstrous men were locked in tight cells in a sturdy building ringed with barb wire. Jones' drawings are humorous (the devils are smiling) but also disturbing. Jones' devil houses are fearful places.

Roy Ferdinand, Jr., Portrait of Frank Jones, 1994, paint, marker and ink on paper

Roy Ferdinand, Jr. (1959-2004) was an artist who painted violent scenes from his home of New Orleans. (Despite what you might guess given his subject matter, Ferdinand's early death was due to cancer.) Smither commissioned  portraits from Ferdinand of other self-taught artists. There are four of these portraits in the show, including this one of the late Frank Jones.

François Burland, untitled, watercolor on paper

Smither's collection includes European self-taught artists, like the Swiss artist François Burland. Burland's work in this show reminds me of Stéphane Blanquet's silhouettes--they each have a deliciously creepy quality.

Alfred Marie (a.k.a. A.C.M.), untitled, mixed media, 20 x 18.5 x 9 inches

Alfred Marie (aka A.C.M.), unlike most of the other artists here, received an art education and couldn't be reasonably said to have created his art in total isolation from the art world. But he withdrew from world of mainstream art and his work gets classified as "visionary." A.C.M. is a good example of how the nomenclature doesn't totally overlap. One can be a visionary artist without being a self-taught or folk artist. I'd put Charlie Stagg in that category.

anonymous, untitled, ink on three envelopes

Fine doesn't much discuss anonymous art. One exception is the Philadelphia Wireman, whose identity is unknown but his works are distinctive. In the context of, say, a museum exhibit, he wouldn't be treated by an ordinary anonymous folk artist--his work would be credited to him particularly. But often when we think of folk art, we think of truly anonymous works. A real folk song is not one written by Woody Guthrie or Pete Segar--it's a song written by nobody, a song that has been passed around and tweaked by dozens if not hundreds of anonymous performers. But in the world of visual folk art, biography is important. For one thing, it adds authenticity.

But Smither showed some truly anonymous works. Some were classic examples of folk art, but I was intrigued by these envelopes, which are identified as "prison art." The catalog that accompanies the show has a paragraph accompanying each piece--but this one is blank. The art is skilled and reminds me of the kind of art you'd see on vans in the 70s. Symbols of freedom and imprisonment cover the envelope in a dense design. They were obviously meant to be used to send letter--the artist left spaces for the stamps and mailing address. It's easy to imagine the prisoner fighting the boredom of prison life creating these lovely envelopes, which he could then trade to fellow inmates.

Anonymous, untitled, matchstick clock sculpture, 38 x 9.5 x 8 inches

This clock feels more like traditional folk art. It may not be the work of a self-taught artist--this artist may be part of a tradition and learned this craft from an older master. Nor is it personally expressive. While the designs may be original, they are fundamentally decorative. For many collectors, this is not appealing--they want work that is highly meaningful to its creator. Visionary and religious art is highly desired. But Smither's collection displays a wide spectrum of art that falls within the folk/visionary/self-taught field.

Collectors specialize. We have some category that we end up focusing on--whether it is the work of particular artists, work in a particular genre, or work by a type of artist. Fine suggested that self-taught art is a kind of identity art, where the art is important, of course, but so is the biography of the artist. Some collectors may specialize in African American art, others in art by women, others in Japanese prints and others in Netherlandish art--Smither chose this field. The paradox is that this identity may be prevent self-taught art from ever being mainstream. It is its separation from the mainstream art world that makes it so treasured by its aficionados. So even though Thornton Dial does work that to my eyes seems strikingly contemporary, he is not considered in the same breath as other more mainstream assemblagists. Some self-taught artists choose between the self-taught art world and the mainstream art world--Bert Long and Patrick Turk (whose work is included in this exhibit) seem to have deliberately chosen to be part of the mainstream art world of grants and prizes and residencies. But many of these artists weren't given that choice due to their poverty, lack of education, mental issues, etc. Nonetheless, this exhibit amply demonstrates that their art is worth considering alongside that of the mainstream art world. It is equally capable of being exciting, beautiful, provocative, expressive, etc. It is a bizarre coincidence that two similar (indeed overlapping) exhibits of self-taught art are happening in Houston simultaneously. Do yourself a favor and see both.