The one trick pony



Photos: Gregory Crewdson, August Walla,  Cindy Sherman

Sometimes people ask me about certain outsider artists. They comment that all his/her work looks the same and ask if the artist ever does anything different. I usually comment on the artist’s signature “style” and leave it at that. (But I certainly know what they mean.. some of it does look remarkably alike.)

One of my favourite photographers is Gregory Crewdson, who creates elaborately staged scenes of small town America. I recently saw a documentary about him, called Brief Encounter. When talking about his own work, Crewdson remarks that every artist has one story to tell and he tells it over and over again. The images may be different, but the story is the same.

Is this true?  I decided to watch some interviews with artists that I admire to see what they had to say about the body of their work. Kara Walker was quite explicit about the narrative of her work. Her silhouettes of Deep South slavery scenes are instantly recognizable, but she describes them as being about an exchange of power. And sculptor Kiki Smith describes her work as being about morbidity.  Walker talked about her experience of being an African American female artist and Smith talked about death masks of family members being around the house when she was growing up. It made perfect sense how and why their personal narratives were so integral to their artwork.

This pattern is even more exaggerated in the world of outsider art. I look back to Kuhler’s Roccaterrania where justice is done in his fantasy world. Darger’s children avenge evil adults. Morton Bartlett mourned the absence of children in his solitary life. The artists’ styles are consistent, and little is done to explore other ways to represent that theme. Why is that? Perhaps they are not interested in exploring other techniques. Or maybe it doesn’t matter to them. Their artwork is for themselves, not the public, so there is no need for Kuhler, for example, to find a new way to represent “justice.” The story is of primary importance, not the image.

I can only think of one outsider artist who has explored a variety of artistic methods – August Walla, an artist at Gugging in Austria. He collects and converts trash, he does calligraphy, and he paints. He installs symbols and signs in the landscape, on trees, and on roads. He poses for photographs in different places, with self-produced objects in different places. (Wait a minute, haven’t we heard this before? See photos above.)

What other outsider artists use a variety of techniques and styles in their work?