At the Outsider Art Fair, Passion Trumps Prestige

At the only fair focused on self-taught artists, passion trumps prestige. Back for its 31st edition at New York’s Manhattan Pavilion, the Outsider Art Fair (OAF) features artwork from 64 exhibitors representing 28 cities in countries including the United States, Japan, Croatia, and Canada. Aficionados, dealers, and everyday New Yorkers are converging this weekend to marvel at works such as Wesley Anderegg’s ceramic figures, which are seemingly straight out of a Henry Selick animated film, or Andrew Sloan’s colored pencil drawing “’81 Chevy in the City” (2021).

Della Wells, “Untitled” (2022), collage, 20 inches x 16 inches (image courtesy Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art)

There’s something for everyone, especially folks priced out of Chelsea or Midtown galleries. Brooklyn-based artist and former School of Visual Arts professor Esther K. Smith told Hyperallergic she comes yearly to see other artist friends exhibiting work and for the camaraderie. She likes that the art is financially accessible and to her taste — which she says includes dolls, quilts, and eccentric found objects. Booths wind around the room like a maze, with works by established and first-time artists displayed at each corner, such as “Untitled” (2022) by Della Wells, a Milwaukee-based artist whose collages recreate stories from her mother’s childhood in North Carolina. 

So-called “outsider art,” as a category, holds many genres and styles often dismissed by mainstream or prestigious galleries and institutions. Perhaps as a consequence, the artwork displayed at OAF through March 5 tends towards the absurd or consists of unexpected materials. Artist Montrel Beverly, an Austin-based sculptor, for example, works exclusively with pipe cleaners. Four works on display at SAGE Studio’s booth are a part of his imagined amusement park named Barrington. “Mr. and Mrs. Barrington’s Ferris Wheel” (2022) and “Joseph’s Train” (2022) are two rides the Bearringtons, a fictional married couple who are bears and business partners, made for humans following their first successful squirrel park.

Montrel Beverly, “Mr. and Mrs. Barrington’s Ferris Wheel” (2022), pipe cleaners, 29 1/2 inches x 23 inches (photo Taylor Michael/Hyperallergic)

Meanwhile, a wall of embroidered female cult leaders caught the eye of many visitors at the March 2 opening. First-time OAF exhibitor Alexandria Deters regaled passersby with stories about her series False Prophets. Deter features a portrait of Brigitte Boisselier, a leader for the UFO religion Raëlism founded in the 1970s, amidst a background of aliens, which represent the chemist’s extraterrestrial preoccupations.

“You first think of men when you think of cult leaders, but with women, it is often more subversive,” Deters told Hyperallergic. “I’m hoping to show that manipulation takes all forms.”

Nancy Josephson, a mixed-media artist who has sold work at OAF for several years, displays sculptures made of vintage and contemporary beading and black gasket sealant. Although these sculptures are stationary, the Delaware-based artist uses materials that can withstand a speed of 70 miles per hour. Along with her decorative busts, she is best known for art cars, like the one she designed in memory of her late father

A crowd of visitors around False Prophets (2022–2023) by Alexandria Deters at Outsider Art Fair (photo Taylor Michael/Hyperallergic)

The capacious show also encompasses marginalized artists barred from receiving formal art education due to their race, socioeconomic status, or ethnic background. Bill Traylor, a well-regarded artist whose work has been acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was born into slavery and spent much of his life as a sharecropper. Drawings like “Untitled (Man with Blue Torso)” (c. 1939–42) combine realistic depictions of life as a sharecropper in Alabama with puzzling lessons and folklore. Martín Ramirez, whose work has been honored with a US Postal Service commemorative stamp, was institutionalized in various California mental institutions. I was also excited to find pieces by Winfred Rembert, who became an artist after surviving a lynching and serving seven years in prison for stealing a car and attempting to escape prison. His work has received renewed attention with the 2021 release of his memoir Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2022.

At the end of the day, why an artist is self-taught does not matter at OAF. The moniker fosters a welcoming environment for all those who have an earnest appreciation for art, regardless of their educational background or technical know-how. It’s a value that resonates with Harlem-based rapper and creator YAAHZZYWAAH The Artisan, who told Hyperallergic that OAF proves that “if you love doing something and are passionate, that’s all you need to make great art.”  

“Untitled” (n.d.) by Winfred Rembert (photo Taylor Michael/Hyperallergic)
Owen Lee, “Everything Happens at Once But Not at the Same Time” (1987), two-sided, paint on fabric, 79 x 36 inches (photo Taylor Michael/Hyperallergic)
Tom Duncan, “Inside, Outside” (2016), mixed media, 46 x 61 x 6 inches (photo Taylor Michael/Hyperallergic)
Ralph Fasanella, “Mill Town – Weaving Department” (1976), oil on Canvas, 50 x 70 inches (photo Taylor Michael/Hyperallergic)

Leave a Reply