My dream of going to the Outsider Art Fair in NYC finally came true last year. Amazing. The strange thing is that it’s in a high-rise office building in Manhattan. You step off an elevator into an alternative universe of paintings, drawings, structures, weavings and general hubbub. Then you wonder where to look first.
Works from every outsider artist you’ve ever read about is there – Darger, Ramirez, Bartlett, Traylor, Zinelli, Von Bruenchenhein. Everything. (In case you’re wondering, the Dargers are going for $100,000 – $200,000. They are magnificent, but… ) And every major outsider art dealer was there, from Japan to the USA. There had been a private opening for “special guests” (i.e., the big collectors) the night before, and I noticed some red dots and a few blank spaces on the wall where works had been carted home already.
A few things surprised me. First, there was a lot for sale by single artists (e.g., Yoakum). Why was that? Is there a super-abundance of his work, or is no one collecting it? Second, there was some pure junk. Although there wasn’t a lot of it, there was “stuff” there that made me want to avert my eyes. (Examples withheld to protect the innocent.) Third, there were some handicrafts for sale, which to me is so “folk art” (even if it is from another country), that it shouldn’t have been there. (But, I guess, you pay your money, you get a booth.) I understand that the Fair is expanding to include folk art in 2012.
I went there with some prejudices. I thought I didn’t like the work of Howard Finster, whose religious fervour informs every piece he creates. I have to say, though, that his small wooden constructions are quite beguiling. It’s like looking into a doll house, filled with angels and shiny objects, with biblical text written everywhere.
Finster was 3 when he had his first vision, and began preaching at tent revivals at age 16. According to his website, he gave up preaching when he asked who remembered his Sunday sermon later that day, and no one did. He decided to reach out to the “congregation of the world” through his art. I note that his family still maintains an enormous commercial venture based on his work, including many items on eBay. You might be interested in buying ($349.99) a wooden statue, called “Elvis at 3.” It is inscribed with the following message:
FROM GOD MAN OF VISIONS SPEAKING TO YOU BY FOLK ART
MY HANDS GET TIRED BUT NEVER STOP
I MEASURE YOUR SOUL FROM BOTTOM TO TOP
I CAN’T STAND TO SEE YOU LATE
JUST OUTSIDE OF GODS GATES
TO ALL OF YOU I MAY NEVER MEET
GET READY TO JOIN ME ON GODS GOLDEN STREETS
WHERE YOU AND I WITH ANGELS MEET
WHERE I WILL BOW AT JESUS FEET
GOD BLESS YOU ALL