Outsider Art Fair

Offbeat Exhibit Showcases Artists Who Embrace Madness

On The Town | Mariam Shalikashvili, Ana Valjak | July / August 2008

Work by Reuven Shezen

"If you speak to God you are religious, but if God speaks with you – you are considered crazy." Janos Marton


On the first day of summer we walked into the Austrian National Library, which was hosting the first European Outsider Art Fair. Around 20 galleries and museums were exhibiting works of European and international artists in brightly lit booths.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Dutch art dealer Huib van den Wijngaard, a longtime advocate of marginalized artists and Sanford Smith, organizer of the distinguished Art Fair of New York City. It is an outgrowth of work begun in Austrian in 1950 by Dr. Leo Navratil, then head of the Maria Gugging Provincial Mental Hospital, in Klosterneuburg, who started to draw with his patients, and eventually established a Center for Art-Psychotherapy in 1981 – sort of an atelier for his artistically gifted patients later renamed The Gugging Museum.

The term "outsider art" was first used by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 to translate French painter Jean Dubuffet’s art brut (rough art). This was the word Dubuffet used in 1945 to describe work created outside the definitions of established culture.

Today the New York Outsider Art Fair is the predominant venue for these unusual artists. The organizers of the EOAF want to expend the borders and bring the whole notion of the outsider art to the marketplace in Europe. Vienna, they decided, was the heart of Europe, and central to the region they hoped to serve.

"When you do it for the first time, you have to wait and see what happens," said Jan Westenburg, director of EOAF. "[Vienna] really the crossroads into Eastern Europe, which is an incredibly developing market, and into Central Asia, as well as Western Europe. We had lot of challenges, obviously the market for outsider’s art is very specific, it’s a small group of collectors and galleries."

Organizers tried to find a new body of material that had never been seen before. Westenburg was interested in finding the artists whose work is "not the part of the Western definition of how people look at marginalized arts." The collection from the Slovak outsider gallery Insita (brought with the support of the Hamer gallery in the Netherlands), are particularly important including works of people from the whole eastern block never before seen.

Next he proudly pointed out the ceramics of Yair Levy, contributed by the Aviva David-Harel gallery in Tel Aviv. A victim of the war, Levy’s sculptures have a North African sensibility combined with a sophisticated sense of structure and form. "It’s what they call the fetish sculpture, neither western nor eastern, bringing something absolutely new."

"These guys are completely in their own universe," Westenburg said, "not thinking about an audience or a show in a gallery or an interview. They are doing the work because it is their excessive sensibility, a much more intimate experience."

Many of these artists are working on a very tight margin and cost of shipping the work was often prohibitive – some of the paintings worth only €500 euros. Support from the Olof Foundation helped bring work from Amsterdam, Australia, Iceland.

Next we came to the booth of The Living Museum – a part of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, New York – founded in 1983 by the artist Bolek Greczynski and psychologist Dr. Janos Marton. After the release of many of the patients in the 1980s, much of Creedmoor was empty. The Living Museum took over the cafeteria and dinning hall and transformed it into an organic, welcoming space for gifted "outsiders" -- inpatients and outpatients – to do art.

Today, it’s filled with paintings from floor to ceiling. Artists come every day to work. Some like John Tursi, one of the first Living Museum artists, have their own studios. All find space to work, according to Dr. Marton: "No one is allowed to discuss, teach, criticize their work or to treat them; it is not a therapy." Breaking down of barriers makes possible contact with the power that artists need to create.

One of the most interesting parts of the fair was the exhibit of A Gallery from New York, including artists like Ann Grgich, Ross Brodar, Paulus de Groot. The work of Ross Brodar was particularly fascinating. A very provocative personality – wherever there is an Art Fair in New York, he pulls his truck in front of the exhibition and stands there selling his pieces – Brodar started painting to deal with the traumas of his youth – having to "gasp for breath" due to asthma. His works have extraordinarily vibrant colors and stark facial expressions that have become a kind of signature, visual "handwriting" which is always distinguishable.

Phil Demise-Smith, owner of A Gallery, got involved with this type of art from his own paintings that he described as "very spontaneous and primitive." Since then, he has been involved with outsider art for 15 years. With Dutch Galerie Herenplaats Smith, he co-organized a show called Holland Tunnel, where the art stretched from New York not to New Jersey but to Holland – a huge success. Later Smith represented them at the New York Outsider Art Fair where they shared a booth.

Another impressive artist was Paulus de Groot. He uses various techniques from aquarelle to charcoal presenting images from his inner-world, people and events that he finds important, like the death of his father, the discovery of sex, or homosexuality. Every painting or drawing pushes his limits, searching for new definitions. Some, like his vampire paintings, were inspired by horror movies, with wastes of blood. All of his creations are stories which sometimes melt one to another and can be read as a diary. His portraits reflect an inner world so deeply imagined they seemed real, reaching out from the canvas.

The work of young artist Reuven Shezen, attending the fair with his parents, seemed to capture the innocence of childhood captured in the portraits of animals, with an unsuspected seriousness reflected in their eyes. The surrounding colors are very bright, in some drawings, even surrealistic, becoming one with the animal. He takes on the notion of time, putting down the date and time of creation of each piece. Gifted with color, his inspiration is the theme of the family, mothers and children, or couples of animals and birds. His first wish in Vienna: to visit the Lippizaners.

Founder Huib van den Wijngaard plans to start a small market in Paris, while leaving the main location in Vienna. They hope to expand and make the galleries grow every year. They may or may no make money, Wijngaard admitted.

"What matters most is to show outsider art to people in Europe."

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