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Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught and Outsider Artists.

Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught

and Outsider Artists

Charles Russell

London, Munich, New York: Prestel, 2011. 256 pages,

180 color ills. $60.00.

Each season brings new contributions to the growing and increasingly sophisticated literature on the genre of art uncomfortably saddled with a cumbersome lot of descriptive modifiers including self-taught, outsider, vernacular, grassroots, and visionary, among others. Recent studies have explored the works of individual artists as well as the breadth and substance of private and institutional collections, yet the articulation of the genre itself remains vague and unfixed. Charles Russell's contribution to this bookshelf offers an important corrective to the "term warfare" that has surrounded conversations and muddied thinking around this art for at least the past fifty years. Groundwaters shifts attention away from categorization and onto the provocative questions that this loose accretion of art on the margins of the "mainstream" raises. Instead of fretting over what is or is not self-taught and outsider art, Russell seeks to reflect "on the nature, variety, and uses of creativity and to recognize its many sources" (9). He positions the art he discusses in tension with the "mainstream," triggering a question that introduces and concludes Groundwaters: how would contemporary art world conversations change if they admitted the critically marginalized work of the outsider and self-taught artist on equal footing, without recourse to strategies of containment based on privileging "otherness"? Russell's answer is thoughtful, nuanced, insightful, and plural. Throughout Groundwaters, Russell performs an exceptional job of distilling the complex debates swirling around art, authenticity, and modernity that inform the exhibitions, documentary films, writings, and art fairs that celebrate the art of the outsider and self-taught.

Russell comes to Groundwaters with considerable knowledge and expertise. A professor of English at Rutgers Newark where he also worked in the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and Modern Experience, Russell possesses a deep and richly informed knowledge of his field. His two edited collections, Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Art (2001) and Sacred and Profane: Voice and Vision in Southern Self-Taught Art (2007) with Carol Crown are oft-cited texts. He has written and lectured widely on varying aspects of Art brut and its seemingly infinite subsidiaries. Some of that earlier work, for example his study of Thornton Dial, is greatly expanded and transformed in the present volume.

In his wide-ranging investigation of creativity and critical reception, Russell addresses the work of twelve artists in chapters that follow a set formula. As the author describes his work,

Each chapter begins with an analysis of the individual artist's work and the immediate contexts of his or her creativity, followed by a discussion of the aesthetic and cultural issues within the mainstream art world and the relevant society. Finally, other artists responding to similar issues are introduced for comparison (9).

In fact, the structure that organizes Russell's twelve presentations is a bit more complicated. Each chapter begins with an evocation of the artist's work that leads into a general analysis of the art around conventions of line, composition, palette, and content. The opening evocation shapes the reader's perspective on the formal analysis that follows on its heels. Thus, "The art and writing of Henry Darger (1892-1973) present a vision of rampant sentimentality and vividly pictured horror, awestruck religiosity and prurient brutality, sanctimonious moral condemnation and perverse delight" (101), sets the stage for Russell's ensuing summary of the attributes and processes that mark Darger's work. With a sense of the artist's creative oeuvre established, Russell turns his attention to the artist's biography, working toward an overview of the critical space occupied by the artist's work. Russell concludes these discussions with a clear articulation of his own understanding of the questions raised by previous interpretations and theoretical tropes. Each chapter concludes with a brief comparative commentary on two or three additional artists. The twelve chapters are tightly written, easily stand on their own, and can be read as individual essays. Their greater strength, however, resides in the ways that Russell connects them in a larger argument.

At the outset, Russell explains his use of the terms "self-taught" and "outsider" as designations that describe two historically grounded approaches to the art represented by the twelve artists on whom he focuses. On one hand, he establishes the use of "outsider" in contexts of Art brut, a European movement "generally applied to artists on the psychological and social margins of the culture, often those deemed mentally ill or isolates at odds with cultural norms" (11). Russell traces the critical construction of the concept of the outsider to the early twentieth-century work of clinical psychiatrists treating institutionalized patients. The second intellectual trace defines self-taught "as a term generally designating untrained artists whose highly individualistic work nonetheless resonates within broadly defined cultural contexts or freely adopts established cultural imagery" (11). Thus, with impressive precision, Russell not only crystalizes a fundamental distinction between outsider and self-taught art but also begins to expose critical fault lines that trouble the larger field of study. In Russell's account, outsider art furnishes the object with a connoisseurship of dysfunction, while the self-taught artist encapsulates the art world's anxieties of authenticity. The "outsider" is a comparatively recent designation-formulated for the title of Roger Cardinal's 1972 Outsider Art--that carried forward the notion of Art brut advanced in the 1950s and '60s by Jean Dubuffet that drew on earlier interests in the art of the insane. In it is earliest iterations, outsider art was celebrated in terms of pure and unmediated creativity (a grail for modernism) as well as vilified in the language of degeneracy most notoriously linked to phenomena like the Nazi entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937. On the other hand, Russell traces the self-taught artist through the early twentieth-century construction of American folk art and its multiple political transformations, almost all centered on contested assertions of authenticity and national character.

Russell's twelve artists represent something of a canon in the self-taught and outsider arts. The journal Raw Vision, for example, valorized Martin Ramirez and Henry Darger in a recurring column "Classics of Outsider Art." Similarly, Ramirez and Darger along with Adolf Wolfli, Bill Traylor, Thornton Dial, Howard Finster, and others have been the subjects of major exhibitions and surveys. Importantly, though, Russell includes other artists in his twelve, well known perhaps, but not carrying the kind of name recognition associated with Ramirez or Dial. August Walla, Madge Gill, and Aloise Corbaz are names familiar to those who study and collect this art, but they are far less known in larger contemporary art world. Russell's choices reveal a deeper strategy. The art and artist at the center of each chapter function as an armature around which Russell twines a particular issue. Although the chapters bear the artists' names as their titles, they could have as easily been titled The Abject, Spirituality, Agency, or Blurred Categories. The chapters on Madge Gill, August Walla, and Michel Nedjar are especially strong in this regard. Russell subtly enlists all the artists he discusses in an attempt to more expansively reframe thinking about modern and contemporary art--and he does this with genuine critical generosity, succinctly defining his terms, clearly presenting his ideas, and always connecting the objects to the arguments.

In the case of Bill Traylor, for example, he starts with a discussion of Traylor's style and technique revealed through a close reading of multiple works. With a sense of the hallmarks of Traylor's style in place, Russell turns to the artist's biography and the peculiar narratives of patronage that determine the critical fortunes of outsider and untaught artists--the discovery and promotion of artist by his mainstream advocates and patrons. Traylor, the story goes, was born into slavery in the 1850s, worked his entire life, and ultimately found himself in the last years of his very long life on the streets of Montgomery where he apparently began to produce works on paper and was "discovered" by Charles Shannon, a young Southern artist who devoted himself to the critical advancement of Traylor's drawings. Russell then describes the critical contexts for the reception and interpretation of Traylor's art, with an emphasis on how his work enters an interpretive sphere defined by a polemical tension between two competing characterizations of the artist: "one of the radical outsider artist whose works contested cultural values and practices of the dominant society; the other of the artist deeply embedded in African-American traditions with roots in African cultural retentions that helped sustain blacks under centuries of oppression" (80). Russell's observation here is one of many in his book that speak to the underlying ideologies that simultaneously sustain and fragment an uncertain field of study. In the case of Traylor, Russell reveals the political rhetoric surrounding the critical exposition of the work, assuming the interlocutor's role--neatly summarizing key views and their proponents--before offering his own nuanced positions. By way of conclusion, Russell introduces, through cameo exposition, the work of other artists related to the issues explored through the chapter. In the instance of Traylor these are William Edmondson, Horace Pippin, and Clementine Hunter. Even as he demonstrates how the other artists and their art resonate with the arguments constructed around Traylor, Russell inadvertently does them something of a disservice by placing their work in an undeniably subordinate position.

Groundwaters occupies a welcome place on the outsider bookshelf. In terms of critical sophistication, topical coverage, and its invitation to deeper reading and reflection, Russell's book stands confidently next to Julia Ardery's The Temptation (1998), William and Paul Arnett's monumental two-volume Souls Grown Deep (2000, 2001), and Colin Rhodes's Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (2000). Russell does both the field and the reader great service through his direct writing and distillation of often theoretically opaque concepts into accessible language. Beautifully designed by the publisher Prestel, elegantly written, and richly illustrated, Groundwaters serves a broad audience. Both readers beginning their explorations of self-taught and outsider art and specialists who have long engaged this art and its problematics will find Russell's text a lucid introduction to the history, debates, and art of the field.

Bernard L. Herman

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Author:Herman, Bernard L.
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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