In the early 1990s the art world, mired in recession and hung over from '80s excess, became infatuated with outsider art. The term covers work made by amateur artists sidelined for various reasons: lack of formal training, mental illness, unconventional materials. It was the perfect time for artist Jim Shaw, who had been collecting weird paintings from thrift stores since the 1970s, to mount a show. Shaw hung his discoveries at the public library in Glendale, and critics flocked. A year later, the show moved on to New York's SoHo.
Well, it's déjà vu all over again. Here we are, mired in a recession after an art boom, and galleries are bristling with outsider art. The difference is that this outsider art is made by insiders — artists working in amateur modes by "collaborating with amateurs, documenting amateur practices, or acting like amateurs by doing things they didn't know how to do," as curator Ralph Rugoff, former director of the California College of the Arts Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (he recently moved on to London's Hayward Gallery), puts it. Rugoff took note of the trend four or five years ago, and began working toward an exhibition on the theme. The result, "Amateurs," is up at CCA's Logan Galleries through August 9, and it's a fascinating survey. It's also often uncomfortable, raising questions about what belongs in a gallery, whether working with amateurs or found objects celebrates or exploits them, and whether concept trumps technique.
But the discomfort comes later. First, there is familiarity. When you walk into "Amateurs," you see a tea cozy cross-stitched to resemble an English cottage. The object, bereft of the teapot it's supposed to cover, looks flat, dingy, and humble — and yet it's sequestered under glass with some painted rocks and a set of decorated fake nails. These are part of "Selections from Folk Archive, 2000-present," in which British artists Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane elevate extraordinarily ordinary objects to the status of art simply by bringing them into a gallery.
I know, I know: Duchamp much? But the collection sets a context for the work in the rest of the show, Rugoff explains: "By bringing this material into the gallery, [the artists are] interested in expanding the boundaries of contemporary art. This results in a paradoxical position of 'professional amateurism.' It straddles our conventional categories and forces us to rethink our own attitudes." The Folk Archive isn't just found art; these are objects that were labored over by someone. Why are some techniques, like cross-stitch, excluded from the category of "fine art"?
Then you hear the voices of children, singing "I live in a magical world." Johanna Billing's six-minute video installation documents children in Zagreb, Croatia, rehearsing the song "Magical World," written by Sidney Barnes of the 1960s psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection. As the sweet, off-key voices fill the gallery, they are interrupted by rumblings of Yoshua Okon's three-channel video New Decor (2001). Okon persuaded passersby to act out soap opera dramas in what appears to be a thrift store. The "actors" swear, accuse one another of cheating, and fondle or throttle objects. The melodrama, which seems to bleed into a kind of scream therapy, is simultaneously difficult and riveting to watch.
Just as revealing is "Drawings and Statements by U.S. Senators" (1978) by Jeffrey Vallance. As a 23-year-old art student, Vallance wrote to various senators asking them to contribute to his "school project" (most seemed to assume he was in elementary school, or perhaps he misled them into thinking this) about art and government by drawing a picture. The letters are mostly refusals — some shuffled the drawing duty onto staff members — and what drawings there are are hilariously pedestrian. There's a predictable cactus by Barry Goldwater and a flagpole by Strom Thurmond; the exception is William Proxmire's abstract sketch, a cubist still-life drawn with marker. The collection, framed and archived, serves as a kind of conceptual pie chart of how much attention politicians give to art. The slice is atom-thin.
Jennifer Bornstein's 16mm film Celestial Spectacular (2002) offers a more hopeful view of art's place in the universe. In a gawky style that combines B-movie effects with silent film drama, Bornstein presents animated dioramas of a meteor shower (wads of aluminum foil wafting through a window), sunset at the North Pole (what appears to be a flashlight behind a cotton-covered foreground), and a shaky UFO.
Cameron Jamie's untitled portrait series mixes genres and artists. In a version of the game Exquisite Corpse, Jamie had different amateur artists paint the same portrait in different mediums. A photocopy of a bald man transforms into a sentimental pastel, which becomes a traditional oil on canvas painting and finally a charcoal caricature that reduces the image to a cartoon.
Shaw's thrift-store collection also makes an appearance. While he might not neatly fit into the trend of insiders making outsider art, he certainly does fit within the show's amateur theme. The group of his paintings climbs high on one wall and includes a giant pimento set in a lurid landscape, Jesus endowed with outsize butterfly wings, and the requisite terrifying clown, all rendered in painfully awkward brush strokes.
But is pain part of the appeal? "Amateurs" is full of work that admits, geekily, to the pure joy of making something, technique be damned. "Part of the charm is that the amateur often gets it 'wrong' by professional standards, so that we see not only the craft but also the mangling of visual codes and genres," Rugoff says. "In many ways, that mangling seems to open up the possibility of interesting departures from the status quo."
Maybe that's the real secret behind this zeitgeist. It's good to be reminded that making a mistake isn't the end of things, but just the beginning of new possibilities. As some wit said, we're all amateurs; some of us are just more professional about it than others.