Saturday, August 18, 2018

Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars

Robert Boyd

Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars (cover art by Charles Dellschau)

Jay Wehnert has been writing about outsider art, specifically Texas outsider art, since 2011 on his blog, Intuitive Eye. And now he has taken his research and put it together in one very handsome volume, Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars. He's not an academic, but the level of research here is impressive. In addition to learning what he could about each artist (and that varies with each one--in some cases, their biographies are well-documented, in others not so much), he bases a lot of what he writes on the ideas of Jean Debuffet and Roger Cardinal. Debuffet created the category with his essay "L'Art Brut préféré aux arts culturels" (1949) and Cardinal's book, Outsider Art (1973) which coined the term now in common use. But writing since 1973 has called the terms Art Brut and Outsider Art into question, although the basic ideas are still valid in my opinion. For me, the go to book on the subject is Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity by Gary Alan Fine, which I wrote about here. Fine was a sociologist so he was not just interested in the work of these artists and the artists themselves but the whole world in which the existed--the artists, but also the people interested in outsider art (collectors, scholars, etc.).

Key to that world is how the work was "discovered"--how the work of an isolated artist not working within a particular folk tradition is found by someone who sees that this work is something that the art world might find interesting. The classic example of this was when photographer Nathan Lerner discovered Henry Darger's art in his apartment shortly after Darger's death. Lerner was sophisticated enough to realize that Darger's work was something special--one shudders to think what would have happened if Darger's landlord had been almost anyone else other than Lerner. Similar stories can be told for any number of great "outsider" artists.

And these discovery stories become part of what Wehnert writes about.  The complicated story of how the notebooks of Charles Dellschau (1830-1923) were discovered and preserved is a miracle of several people coming across his notebooks which were thrown out by his family in 1967. If any of these people hadn't stumbled across them, they might have been lost. But the stories of Ike Morgan, Felix "Fox" Harris and Vanzant Driver are more typical. In each case, one person discovered the art and brought it to the attention of the art world.

Ike Morgan, George Washington, 2004, acrylic on poster board

Ike Morgan was locked away in a state mental hospital when he was 19 in 1977 after murdering is grandmother. He was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, and like many mental patients turned artist, drawing for him started as a form of therapy. In 1983, Jim Pirtle, a budding young artist, got a job as an orderly at the Austin State Hospital and met Morgan. He befriended Morgan and saw his drawings. After Pirtle moved to Houston and took on his vocation as an artist, he showed Morgan's work to people and began selling the pictures, sending the money back to Morgan. Morgan has developed a small, devoted following. (Long time readers will know that I'm a big fan of Morgan's portraits--I used one of them on the cover of a magazine I published called Exu, which can be ordered here.) He is currently represented by the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. They provide Morgan (who is no longer institutionalized) with high-quality art materials for his work. And Pirtle is now a well-known performance artist in Houston.

Vanzant Driver, Untitled (Church), not dated, broken glass, mirror and wood

Vanzant Driver started building churches out of shattered pieces of glass. (Indeed one of the things one finds with many of the artists described here is a deep, traditional religiosity. They often ascribe their work to a religious impulse.) Once he began making his churches, he brought them to various art institutions in Houston, which showed no interest. But he lucked out at the Contemporary Arts Museum when his work caught the eye of Sheila Rosenstein, director of the museum bookstore. Wehnert doesn't describe the meeting, but it seem reasonable to assume that he went to the bookstore because it was one part of the museum that is always open to the public. It's not like the director or head curators are out and available to any random person who comes in. But not surprisingly, Rosentstein was, and she had connections that  made it possible for Driver's work to be seen by collectors and curators.

Keith Carter, Homestead, Felix Fox Harris, 1983, photograph

Felix "Fox" Harris is one of those artists who takes to decorating his lawn. Like Driver, he was a visionary artist, inspired by God to create his elaborate yard art. This is one example where the "outsider" label seems false. This sculpture garden approach has a long tradition. It's known as a "yard show", and Wehnert points out that some writers suggest the tradition goes back to "Angola-Kongo influence". So while it might not be a folk art in the sense of a traditional craft passed down through practitioners over generations, it is something that continually pops up. In fact, I was surprised that Wehnert left out Cleveland Turner, the "Flower Man" of Houston who decorated his house in a similar fashion. To me, this kind of tradition suggests that "outsider art" might be a bad term, particularly for certain kinds of African-American vernacular art. I prefer the term "self-taught", but that is also inadequate fior the entire range of such art.

In any case, part of the reason we know about Fox Harris is that an excellent Beaumont photographer Keith Carter stumbled across Harris's house and started recording it in photographs. Harris's yard show was acquired by the Art Museum of Southeast Texas after Harris's death in 1985. Without the "discovery" of the work by Carter, it would probably be gone.

Wehnert gets to claim his status as a "discoverer" of an outsider artist. Richard Gordon Kendall was a homeless man who drew obsessively detailed drawings of buildings in Houston that he could see from the streets where he lived. Wehnert found him through a friend who mentioned seeing a homeless man in downtown Houston, where Wehnert subsequently found him in 1995. Unfortunately, in 1998, he "disappeared"--or at least stopped hanging out at his usual haunts in downtown Houston. He was quite old at the time (68), and I doubt if living on the street was doing his health any good. So he may have died. In any case, Wehnert was never able to find out.

The book rather inexplicably leaves out Cleveland Turner and Jeff McKissack, creator of the Orange Show. It may be that Wehnert felt like those artists have been discussed in detail elsewhere, but in any case, they are both prime examples of outsider artists in Texas. However, it does cover the work of eleven artists, with ample information (where it's available) about each and lovely reproductions of their artwork. This is an illuminating book.

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