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Art A lesson from LACMA’s “Outliers and American Vanguard Art”

Apr. 16, 2019
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“Outliers and the American Vanguard,” located at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an exhibition that laments forgotten voices in the last century. The term “outlier,”popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, commends strength in variance and deviation from the norm. It’s only fitting that “outlier” reclaims not only self-taught, primitive, folk, and outsider artists, but art that, in general, doesn’t fit the conventional, institution-approved mold. While this exhibition is described as exploring how trained and untrained artists converge, instead it demonstrates how “outsider” is a mentality that goes beyond academic classification. 

This exhibition considers three periods in the 20th century that gave rise to the diasporic voice of this country. The first section takes us through American Modernism, a period between the world wars when art departed from institutions and academies to become more accessible to the public. The separation from Europe birthed a voice and culture that was distinctly American. At the same time, under the guidance of founding director Alfred H. Barr, the Museum of Modern Art championed self-taught artists. He felt that the simplicity and unmediated nature of these artists granted them a seat at the table. But its conservative trustees disagreed and dismissed him in 1943, preluding a similar dismissal that happened last year (read: the Museum of Contemporary Art and Helen Molesworth). The artworks here present us with a narrative that isn’t usually brought to the forefront—a painting that depicts an overturned boat of mariners in Dominique-Paul Peyronnet’s The Ferryman of the Moselle, as well as a greedy boy with European features swiping fruit on a table in Boy Stealing Fruit by Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Who knows how expansive the selection of artwork in this gallery would have been if Barr had a longer reign.

Before we’re given time to consider this, the next gallery takes us to the ‘70s, a time dedicated to “civil rights, gay liberation, feminist, and countercultural movements.” This period gave rise to the Chicago Imagists, a collective of experimental artists bred from the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as a fleet of self-taught artists that were considered “outside” the channels of conventional art. Outsider artists demonstrated a freedom from the politics of art institutions—an appealing alternative to the modish worlds of Abstract Expressionism and commercial art. Here we see the trained and untrained start to converge as “outsider” shifted to embody an attitude and mentality. However, as the lines between the two began to blur, it also meant that comparisons were made. Critics condemned self-taught artists by stating that their work was incommensurable to the trained—too unlike and incompatible to be on the same plane. 

In this section of the exhibition, both trained and untrained are presented side by side to allow the viewer to examine the “difference.” Howard Finster’s unschooled aesthetic is characterized by his evangelical background, supernatural landscapes, and excessive handwritten text spilling over the paper. In contrast, untrained artist Patrick J. Sullivan, who produced only nineteen known works, depicts two surrealist beings in a cosmic landscape looking out into the infinite universe in The Fourth Dimension. While each work is unlike the next, it seems extraneous to state that the work is incomparable—each artist drew from their own personal experience that made it unlike any other artist’s work. But to disparage the work of the self-taught by describing it as incommensurable to the academically-trained seems like a deliberate attempt to remove them from the larger conversation.

In the last remaining galleries, the wall text prompts us to consider outsider artists and their current role in the conversation of contemporary art. Here we see the gauntish yet glamorous dolls of schooled Greer Lankton, who was described as blurring the lines between folk art and fine art. Lankton, who underwent gender-reassignment surgery, created dolls that examine the fragility of the human body. Rosie Lee Tompkins’ elaborate, grid-like quilts preserve the southern African American quilting tradition, which she learned as a child from her mother. Matt Mullican’s bedsheet drawings hang from the ceiling—pieces created under hypnosis by his subconscious, an identity he felt was its own distinct person. The breadth and range of artistic expression is so expansive that it feels trivial to confine it in a label such as “outsider.” 

This exhibition asks us what the conversation of modern art could’ve been had there been more representation—perhaps a little more democratic, a little less European. These key moments in the last century pushed the expression of a different league of artists and creators. Despite the insight this show offers, the idea seems a bit conflicting. Were these artists left out because they were untrained or because of other systemic social prejudices? This exhibition unpacks the many layers of the untrained “outsider” artist—the freedom gained by lack of institutional acclaim, the pitfalls of obscurity, and the struggle to recover these voices. We find that the difference between the famous and the anonymous is the lack of cultural inclusion.