The Arts Company | June 2–June 28
WORDS Kathleen Boyle
American folk and outsider art is riddled with complication, due in part to its lack of representation within art history’s canon. A realm of artwork typically reflective of DIY cultural traditions and/or self-taught visionaries, folk and outsider art meld various aesthetics, often without direct, advanced studio or art- historical information. And, because of this characteristic, there has been for many years a general substandard association—even if not deliberate—that follows suit with this type of art. Adjectives such as “naïve” are frequently linked to these artists, and thus attribute a sense of hierarchy—even if unintended— between fine art and folk and outsider art. (The name of the latter even raises the question, Outside of what?) However, it is easy to overlook synonyms of naïveté that harbor a more positive connotation; words such as purity, earnestness, and unencumbered, words that truly suggest art for art’s sake. Yet even with this authenticity, an apparent question still begs to be asked:
“Does this kind of work belong in a fine art gallery?”
Fortunately for Nashville, a space resides on 5th Avenue that has upheld folk art for decades, exhibiting artists such as Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley (both of whom are now highly sought for museum collections) alongside painters, sculptors, printmakers, and photographers of fine art accord. The Arts Company is a gallery that prides itself on supporting an all-encompassing, eclectic appreciation of creativity, its numerous exhibitions a testament to the innate curiosity, keen eye, and good taste of gallery owner Dr. Anne Brown.
Just as the city’s musicians prove a scope much wider than country music, so too has The Arts Company showcased Nashville’s art scene savvy beyond one note. It should come as no surprise, then, to see the gallery kick off the summer with Contemporary Visionaries: A Modern Approach to Outsider Art, an exhibition that highlights substantial contemporary work of the folk and outsider art realm, while also calling into question the relevancy of such categorization in the twenty-first century.
“This exhibition continues The Arts Company’s long-time commitment to presenting folk and outsider artists as an integral part of the contemporary art world,” stated Brown.
Curated by The Arts Company’s Gallery Associate Aaron Head, Contemporary Visionaries is a collection of paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works by artists Butch Anthony, Amy Lansburg, Charlie Lucas, Justin Robinson, and married artist team Amy Arnold and Kelsey Sauber Olds. The artwork selection is diverse, to say the least. The artists reflect sundry backgrounds (age, gender, race, socioeconomics, etcetera) and demonstrate very distinct palettes, a nod to both the infinite possibilities of the human imagination and the open parameters of outsider art.
“I really wanted to include different perspectives within folk and outsider art. I wanted to include people who represent the incredible history of folk and outsider work, as well as new arrivals to the scene, and not just people in the South,” remarked Head, who began his curatorial practice primarily with Southern artists. “What often marks really great folk and outsider work is a deep pain, but a creation despite that pain. That is definitely represented in this show by some of the work.”
While this pain that Head perceives is present, the exhibition is nonetheless vibrant and at times even humorous. It’s as though the artists, untethered by preconceived notions of what their work should or should not be, were able to tap into their subconscious to pictorially expose a conglomeration of personal experiences and raw emotions that drive them to create.
Wisconsin-based Arnold and Sauber Olds, for example, chisel wood sculptures that explore the connections between humans, animals, and nature. In works such as Seed, a series of three androgynous human faces wear deadpan expressions as their necks and the crowns of their heads are completely engulfed in a green cloak resembling a vine. In the slender work, each of the perceived cranial forms acts as a foundation for a similar yet smaller rendering, suggestive of a totem pole or matryoshka doll sequence. Thus, humankind fuses with the botanical, each generation stemming from the one prior in a manner that suggests all elements are connected.
Arnold and Sauber Olds present their work in a manner reminiscent of Americana woodcarvings, yet their imagery brings a modern freshness to the tradition. Such observation attests to the climate of the folk and outsider artwork selected for Contemporary Visionaries. This exhibition delivers an array of unexpected charm and impressive artistry that surpasses stereotypes of the folk-art tradition.
“I want people to realize just how contemporary the work in this genre is—and that people are still making it every day,” explained Head. “A lot of people view folk art as something that can’t be authentically created anymore, since isolation is a primary component of early folk art, and isolation is harder and harder to come by. In America, folk art became a popular term for collectors and artists who were eager for a really solidified and true American vision through artwork, and I don’t think that permeating definition has changed. Folk art by definition should speak directly to all types of people, and I feel that this work does this.”
So the question then arises, is it even important to distinguish folk and outsider art from fine art? The answer is, of course, debatable, although Head believes that such differentiation is negligible. “Works by folk and outsider artists are as vital and have as much artistic merit as works by Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Yayoi Kusama, Richard Prince, and should be displayed alongside those works,” Head asserted. “People are finally beginning to realize this, due to amazing efforts by pioneering curators and collectors . . . I think there will be a point where people make no differentiation, and I can’t wait for that.”
Contemporary Visionaries blurs the line between fine and folk art, as it challenges the preconceived notions of what either arena was or ought to be. Rather, this exhibition simply celebrates talent in its open-ended navigation of visual art’s evolution. “I was, and still am, so taken by the immediacy of folk art—its complete lack of concern with institutional norms and its emphasis on unfiltered, direct emotion,” stated Head. “What more could you want from a piece of art?”
Contemporary Visionaries: A Modern Approach to Outsider Art opens on June 2 during the First Saturday Art Crawl Downtown, and remains on view through June 28. For more information, please visit www.theartscompany.com.