Oct/Nov 2000 Humor/Satire

An Inside Look at Outsider Art

by Craig Butler

Outsider Art--work created by people whose lives are somewhat outside the norm, when not totally beyond the pale--has come into its own in the modern world. In other eras this work was more likely to appear as "Exhibit A" in some grisly murder case than as an exhibition in a museum; today galleries devote entire shows to cheese whiz sculptures created by individuals whose social circle is limited to cockroaches, ringworms and a rat named Dr. Hoffman.

Where did Outsider Art come from? Who are the leading lights in the field? Where can one find examples of this Art, and will one be able to recognize it by oneself or does one need a two? Or even a three? These are among the questions that I will attempt to answer, possibly without giggling.

I should perhaps point out that the "Outside" portion of "Outsider Art" does not refer to a geographic location but rather to societal/psychological/emotional disenfranchisement--although, trust me, most of these people you would prefer to keep as far outside your home as possible. (See Gertrude Crustacean-Malone's FEAR OF BATHING AND THE OUTSIDER PSYCHE.) By the same token, the term "art" is employed in its loosest possible sense, as the phrase "Outsider Dreck" tends to dampen the bidding at Christie's.

Outsider Art has been with us in one form or another (and both during leap years) for almost as long as there have been Outsiders. (Mycroft Klingstein, the noted art historian and chief salad dresser at Lindy's 53rd, disputes my use of the word "almost." He argues that the placenta of the first bonafide Outsider should count as, to quote his monograph ART AND REBELLION: HOW TO FEED BOTH ON A BUDGET, "not only a work of art, but as perhaps the single most important work of art up to the redevelopment of Times Square under Giuliani." This opinion explains why those of us who know Mycroft hurry to the other side of the street when we see him dribbling along in our direction.)

Many critics consider Outsider Art as a subset or niche or perhaps an intensely ugly stepsister of the larger genre of Folk Art. Many Folk Artists, however, wish we would keep such opinions to ourselves. "We'd jist es soon not have 'em at our dinner trough, if ya know whut I mean," said famed American primitivist Granddaddy Bryznsky, adding, "I shore wouldn't want my daughter to marry one of 'em." When I pointed out that his daughter did, in fact, marry one, Mr. Bryznsky turned off his hearing aid and returned to his latest work, a felt board recreation of key scenes in the life of Anna Magnani.

Speaking of felt, one characteristic which many Outsiders share with some Folk Artists is a fondness for non-traditional materials. Noted Outsider Frank "Scar-Mouth" Porter, a prominent orthodontist who forsook dentistry and founded his own militia after the ADA came out unequivocally in favor of rinsing, uses only cruciferous vegetables in his sculptures. His nude likeness of then-President George Bush demolishing the United Nations building is crafted from over one thousand stalks of broccoli (and is largely responsible for Bill Clinton carrying the state of California in 1992). Mrs. Henrietta Obelisk of Ames, Iowa, used only salt and pepper "and just a dash of paprika" to create her controversial Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt Kissing Lenin in a Snowstorm. (Some question whether Mrs. Obelisk, a former homecoming queen and president of the local Ladies Auxiliary and Bowling Society, should be classified as an Outsider. Judith Campribellinni of the Museum of Condimental Arts decisively refuted this argument with her now-classic observation, "Please, she's from Iowa.")

Outsider Art is not limited to the visual arena, of course. Clynetta Fielding's DINNERTIME CONVERSATION is a prime example of Outsider Art as drama. Presented in a limited engagement at New York's Theatre de la Mal Cow, the one-woman show was rapturously received, though not by either of the people who actually saw it. Experimental in nature, the text of DIN/CON (as it is frequently called, at least in polite company) consists entirely of recipes for various dishes involving beets, each of which ends with the instruction "Place contents in blender and puree for as long as it takes to grab knife and GUT YOUR HUSBAND LIKE THE SUCKLING PIG HE IS!!!--All the Doo-Dah Day!" (It should be noted that Disney's animated film version, MICKEY AND MINNIE: MAKE MINE MADAGASCAR!, takes extreme liberties with the original script.)

And contemporary music aficionados will doubtlessly recognize the name of Gonorrhea Jones (ne Gonorrhea Smith), arguably the greatest sweet potato player our country has ever produced. Although exceedingly short lived--approximately four minutes and twenty-eight seconds--the "spud metal" craze which he pioneered influenced a later generation of musicians, including perhaps the only guitarist under forty who has not slept with Courtney Love. Mr. Jones died a tragic, early death. An excruciatingly private individual, he spontaneously combusted when he spotted Barbara Walters approaching him with a microphone. (As luck would have it, the person he thought was Barbara Walters turned out to be Claude Akins carrying a banana).

Museums and galleries regularly feature Outsider Art, but if you live in American Siberia (i.e., somewhere other than Manhattan) you may not have access to such establishments. Fortunately, like pollen, dust motes and creeping rot, Outsider Art is probably all around you--in your neighbor's den, on the walls of the local gun shop, in the cubicle of that co-worker who just won't stop cackling as she types. If you see something you think might be Outsider Art but aren't quite sure, try the following simple test.

You have most likely been exposed to Outsider Art if after viewing a work, you experience one or more of the following:

* You have an uncontrollable urge to run home, strip naked and cleanse yourself with Janitor-in-a-Drum.

* You develop a firm conviction that the Nation of Islam is plotting to put rutabagas in your shoes as you sleep.

* You become convinced that aliens have replaced your eyebrows with those of Amelia Earhart.

* You vote for Pat Buchanan.

If you discover that you have never been exposed to Outsider Art, you may wish to seek it out. (Stranger things have happened, though not to anyone I know.) The easiest method is to open the Yellow Pages to "Misanthropic Gathering Places" and find the nearest comic book store. Once there, select one of the dozen ponytailed men in their late thirties whose bellies are not quite covered by their She-Hulk t-shirts and casually strike up a conversation about who is stronger, Alan Greenspan or The Mighty Thor. Don't let the argument die until he invites you to his home, where he has the very comic that will prove he is right. Chances are he will have also some work of art--a sonnet to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; a collage entitled "The Soggy Murder of Snap by Crackle and Accomplice Pop;" a gouache-and-Spyrograph rendering of Jeffrey Dahmer's intestines; a sculpture formed from take-out Chinese food cartons entitled Lizzie Borden's Father Between Whacks--in his apartment over his parents' garage.

If so, settle back and enjoy your first exposure to the Outsider Art experience. Just make sure he leaves the door open and that you don't turn your back to him for even a second. And that you have plenty of Janitor-in-a-Drum at home.


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