As one of those annoying and agendaless hangers-on at the Outsider Art Fair these last few years, I couldn’t resist the additional prospect of artist/socialite Takashi Murakami making time between his mass-market endeavors to oversee a large-scale group exhibition of around two hundred sculptural works by approximately 60 visionary and vernacular folk artists from around the world, entitled Super-Rough (contra “Superflat”, Murakami’s coinage for Japanese graphic art, anime and manga-inspired pop culture.)
This collaboration with the regular art fair dealers and Andrew Edlin Gallery presents us with a jammed highway of anti-slick, yet no less seductive, surfaces. Perhaps what keeps us coming back and back to this genre of art resides in the way each artist responds to their societal exclusion through skillful compulsion and manic devotion. It gets dark, it can be joyful, it tells extraordinary stories, more than we can handle here.
One of many things I appreciated about this presentation was the absence of your usual suspects such as Henry Darger and Thornton Dial who, while certainly important, have already had a lot of airplay and institutional praise over the years. This decision makes room for new and unexpected discoveries.
For the purposes of this selective listicle, I will assume the role of hypothetical art advisor to any Outsider-inclined collector with spare chunks of change. Here are a few things I would accept as a gift in return for my services of discernment:
1. Forget your garden variety garden gnome! This lurid green alligator/dragon fly thing with a rusting slave chain around its neck is one of the first things you encounter upon entry to the storefront space. Daniel Swanigan Snow is not only a master of menacingly kinetic assemblages, he is also highly quotable:
“A piece or a person is born or manufactured to perform a certain function, if they do that successfully, then they have a professional period of being a widget or being a doctor or whatever. When they cease to be productive widget, or a productive doctor or widget, a smart person will find another function, if they’re lucky….”
“There’s no such thing as artist’s block, if you’re a real artist.”
Swanigan Snow’s Dragon sculpture is accompanied by a cake tray with a smiley face in the neighboring window with a fluttering fly made with a metal valve. His gallerist, David Dixon of Cathouse Proper, first met Swanigan Snow as an actor and they worked together on Dixon’s mockumentary David Dixon is dead. In the film, Swanigan Snow plays dual roles of Malevolent Messiah / Slave Trader, a crazed philosophizing toad-licker who keeps fresh bloodied craniums in his beer esky. After working for years as a charismatic character actor, Swanigan Snow became an artist at the age of 54 (it’s never too late to make a start, folks!). He has no problem admitting the cathartic elements of making work. Refreshing. Apparently his live/work space is in Dyker Heights, and if you’re lucky enough, you may get a private tour of the courtyard.
2. Do you remember that scene in Beetlejuice where the model town was so verimisitudinal it had a hole in it from where Adam and Barbara crashed through the wall to their deaths? Enter Dennis Gordon, a retired fireman who turned his living room into a studio to recreate abandoned buildings with their broken windows in miniature. Having lived in the Lower “Wild West” East Side in 1980, Gordon was drawn to dereliction and danger, living in a neighborhood worse than where he worked. He recreates this geography from memory, though it could easily be any post-industrious area across the US today. The attention is in the intricate details: the accuracy of weather-beaten browns and greys, the overgrowth of weeds around the overpass leading into the freight garage, the speckles of light coming through each partially shattered window, the eroded billboard sign above. No formal art training here, either. He claims that he does it for his sanity. Nothing short of WOW.
3. Every collection needs at least a dozen inherently creepy artworks at home to disturb child visitors and/or co-habitants. A bust is best to meet this end. Enter Moses Ogden who created an environment of “natural curiosities” in the early 1900’s at his home in Angelica, NY. His grinch-like sculptures carved from trees ooze creepy in Twisted Head—though this one isn’t even his creepiest. One self-portrait is a cross between a zombie and a yep-yep monster with its mouth agape. Ogden’s Creature is a contorted form that will cast some very Pan’s Labyrinthian shadows at night. And this one, it appears, is available for sale for a breezy 11K.
4. A sculpture made from a pedestal fan wrapped in quintessentially 90’s sun, moon, and stars fabric and a dashboard gauge as a stand-in for owl eyes is an immediate banger in my book! The head of the piece, with a draping gauze overlay, has a steampunk quality to it. Curtis Cuffie was born in Hartsville, South Carolina, and came to Brooklyn at the age of 15. Literally and metaphorically a traffic stopper, Cuffie would put cones out on bustling Second Avenue and play frisbee amidst the bottlenecked cars. He made assemblages from discarded relics in and around the Bowery and Cooper Square. His sculptures were often destroyed or removed by garbage collectors within days of construction, but that didn’t stop him in the pursuit of his next best creation. By the early 90’s, his work began to attract the attention of artists like Rachel Harrison and dealers like Kenny Schachter. Fortunately, he got to live through some of his success with gallery shows and grants, but died of a heart attack in 2002 at 47. A stylist through and through, his outfits mirrored the eclecticism of his sculptures, often decked out in secondhand designer items like Armani, Gucci, and Dolce, Dolce, Dolce!
5. Having seen them at several Outsider fairs prior, my eyes have a tendency to glaze over the glazed earthenware pieces by Alan Constable. Too shiny, too easy. Alas, my gaze paused upon a blink-and-you-could-miss-it gem hiding behind their glossy facade, by none other than Reverend Howard Finster! An old Kodak camera decorated with smiley faces and peepers drawn on the flash–nice touch. The base of the camera bears a somewhat baffling inscription: THE CAMERYS GET OUT OF MY WORK… um, right on, Finster! There’s another of his sculptures, featuring the devil in a tender embrace with his wife in their underwear. Not exactly a Nas X style straddle with Satan, but it did remind me to start planning a trip to Summerville Georgia, home to Finster’s Paradise Garden. In a book called Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey, writer Jonathan Williams writes:
“Howard, I don’t know the name of the planet you came from. But, when you go back, I sure hope it offers Classic Coke, red-eye Gravy, and okra fried just right by the Duck Woman of Orpliss. You deserve the best!”
6. The exquisite irregularities of Yumiko Kawai‘s woven circles have galactic, spiraling qualities that look like three-dimensional manifestations of photons interacting with atoms. I love her sensibility around the combinations of colors and the stitching in layers of circles that accumulate to form cone-shapes. Born in 1979, living in Shiga Prefecture, Japan, she has been participating in “Atelier Yamanami” since 1997, and oh my, does she really know how to make the most of solitude!
7. The recent hubbub of the Pentagon releasing an unclassified report this month of obscure flying objects would likely have been exciting to Ionel Talpazan, who fled his country of birth in Romania by swimming across the Danube, then gained political refugee status to resettle in New York. Whether he managed to captivate NASA with his ideas about alien aircraft propulsion systems or not, five of his flying saucers are in the mix, almost prototypes for amusement park rides, that at such a scale could perhaps attract the attention of otherworldly phenomena. Talpazan Land awaits us!
8. Speaking of amusement parks, there’s something truly delightful about Tom Duncan’s homage to Coney Island, and, with the occasional nudge from the artist himself, it works like a charm! This body of work has clearly been a labor of love for Duncan, taking around 18 years to complete. Combining real and imagined attractions, including a Wonder Wheel, a figurine dangling from a swaying air balloon, a Loop-O-Plane, a flying superhero, dodgem cars, a beached whale, a fortune telling booth, a moving train, and my personal favorite, a Burning Bra Ride. Previously on loan to Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, Duncan’s elaborate nostalgia conjures his youth after having moved with his family from Scotland to New York City after World War II when he was, if my memory serves me, around eight years old.
(Side note: I couldn’t help but relate this to an installation I viewed only a couple of days earlier by artist Ayanna Dozier at The Shed titled Cities of the Dead (2021), which re-enacts Harlem realtor Solomon Riley’s Negro Coney Island on Hart Island in 1924.)
Back to Duncan, where it’s not all fun and interactive games. There is also a diorama depicting the grim story of Edward Donald Slovik (February 18, 1920 – January 31, 1945), a US Army soldier during World War II and the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War. Private Slovik’s death sentence was the only one out of thousands of sentences for desertion that was carried out.
While not completely historically accurate (they strapped the Private with belts, not rope, and not all bullets fired directly into his heart), the scene is remarkable–not just for the twelve soldiers and eleven bullets firing as red and white live wires right into his heart, the black hood, or the winged devil and guardian angel hovering beside the doomed Private, but for the scene beyond the masonry walls, where we can see soldiers guarding the security checkpoint and appear to be directing an armored vehicle. Who but the mind of Duncan would think to do such inner and outer details of simultaneity? The scene is rendered all the more powerful and wrenching for its cartoonish qualities, where reality and childlike imagination coalesce. Slovik said to the soldiers prior to the place of execution:
“They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army, thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”
Ooph. Not that we needed another reminder of our sad and fucked-up history, but here it is.
On an upper note, Duncan informed me that he is working on a comic book for his grandkids and he’s always receptive to studio visits. A super genial artist who, while having art training, has clearly always made work primarily for himself, without a careerist strategy. During our conversation he also professed his love for churches. His favorite in NYC, I asked? The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as the Little Church Around the Corner, an Episcopal parish church located at 1 East 29th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues.
9. Speaking of religiosity, while I could seldom find much biographical information on Sylvia Katuszewski, from what I could surmise, she is a French Postwar & Contemporary artist born in 1946 and based in Paris. Her raku-fired terra-cotta figures in oxide washes look like melting Madonna statuettes, unsettling yet elegant. It would be nice to have an at-home chapel to add one of these votives, too.
10. You may recall Brooklyn-born Jerry Torre, dubbed by Edith Bouvier Beale, a.k.a “Little Edie” as “Jerry the Marble Faun,” in the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. We could only hope to lead lives half as interesting as his. Jerry began hand-carving stone in 1987, and several of his weathered limestone pieces are on view. My favorite is August, not just for the piglike snout and chiseled ripples across its ramlike head, but the expression suggests this mythical creature is howling their way through the hottest summer month in New York. And if June’s humidity is anything to go by, we know we’ll be as woefully parched as this guy come then!
11. I have to end this somewhere, especially when there’s so much more I haven’t covered, from Yasuhiro Hirata’s Corns on the Cob made with paper tubes, markers, and canvas tacks to Ryuji Nomoto’s glistening sauerkraut on a green wooden platform, made with hot glue (relax, it’s SOLD anyway!). In the words of Little Edie: “I’m not gonna spend another ten years with this… We better go check on mother with the cats….”
While Murakami hasn’t yet recognized my own mother’s genius, her obsessive daily pictures of her weepy Persian nose-diving into a flower vase and resting behind assorted stuffed animals have Everydays NFT potential, only I *much prefer* her aesthetic choices to that of Beeple’s prepubescent mash-ups completely devoid of charm–the epitome of the quantity over quality principle. Whatddya think guys? Don’t you love how chronically unimpressed she looks about everything?