Is Not the Academy
By David Brickman
and Reflections of American Self-Taught Artists
Mandeville Gallery, Union
College, through Aug. 11
It used to be called folk art, then it was naive art and it’s
now more often referred to as outsider art, but, by any name,
the work of self-taught artists is fresh, unpretentious and
charming. It is also a large and growing part of a very lucrative
market for art and collectibles fueled by the current millennial
at me, look at me: Ruby Williams’ Let Us Have Your
Attention Now, Baby.
it comes as no surprise that a show like Revelations and
Reflections of American Self-Taught Artists, now on view
at Union College’s Mandeville Gallery, is making the rounds
of the nation in a slickly produced package tour under the
auspices of a generously funded entity called Exhibits usa.
about 60 pieces by nearly as many artists, Revelations
and Reflections demonstrates just why this category of
art is so popular, with a freewheeling cross-section of media
by outstanding creators from around the country (the show
was organized by a gallery in Kansas). It also amply supports
my personal suspicion that an inordinate number of these artists
are complete religious nuts.
Take, for example, a few of the titles of the works on display:
These Three Kings: Satan, Death and Hell! All for One!
by Xmeah ShaElaRe’El; The Sea Beast of Revelation by
William Thomas Thompson; Devil With Angels Flying Around
His Teeth by Alyne Harris; Angels Holding Back the
Four Corners of Heaven by Annie Lucas; Hell It Is Heaven
by Ronald and Jesse Cooper; The Millennium (Rev. 22:15
1-5 & Isa. 11:69) by Georgina Orr; Lake of Hellfire
on Brimstone by Michael Finster; and so on.
While a couple of the works (and titles) are clearly tongue-in-cheek,
most of the biblically themed work in this show (and that
is the great majority) is as serious as a black-coated friar
and bears the same message as a Sunday sermon. The best of
these, from my point of view at least, retain an element of
the joy that presumably comes from religious feeling; many
of those also deliver the good news with a welcome sense of
Aside from the problem of being overbearingly Christian, some
of the art in Revelations and Reflections falls into
the rut of most nonacademic art (including that made by the
average person who isn’t an artist), in that the lack of training
makes for a style we can all recognize as “late kindergarten.”
Though a few of the artists show true originality and/or virtuosity,
many of the rest resemble each other a bit too much. In fact,
I bet it would be possible to select a half-dozen of these
pieces by as many artists, hang them together with signatures
obscured, and easily pass the group off as the work of a single
On the other hand, there’s work in this show that bears a
distinct whiff of too-great sophistication, in some cases
appearing to have been self-consciously created to meet collector
demand (it is notable that a significant number of the works
are on loan from galleries and dealers).
All that said, there’s plenty here to enjoy, by viewers both
educated and self-taught. Among the standouts are a number
of three-dimensional pieces (perhaps the greater technical
challenge of working with the third dimension is something
of a weeding-out factor for mediocrity), including a lavishly
painted globe by Anne Marie Grgich (titled Chimera Spirits);
allegorical toylike carvings by Kathy Ruth Neal; Frank Pickle’s
whimsically irresistible Tree of Horrow; and the life-size
Devil Dog by O.L. Samuels.
Painters in the show who transcend the childlike to create
styles all their own include Paul Gasoi, Jane “in Vain” Winkelman,
Brian Dowdale and Matt Sesow. These four in particular would
not be out of place in a gallery or museum collection of academically
trained contemporaries, though their work does connect with
the other work in this show through its visionary content
and, in Winkelman’s case, wordiness.
Of the more “traditional” outsiders, the show includes very
fine examples of work by James Harold Jennings (a naive-yet-mystical
wood construction), Ruby C. Williams (the delightfully deadpan
Let Us Have Your Attention Now, Baby), Howard Finster
(the best-known American artist in this category, thanks in
part to his Talking Heads album-cover work), Mose Tolliver
(a mesmerizingly odd self-portrait), Annie Tolliver (Mose’s
daughter) and Mary Proctor (whose Heavenly Choir in Gold
consists of about 75 figures constructed mostly of costume
jewelry mounted to a door, complete with knob).
Also fun are some of the works by artists who gleefully mix
media—Eddie Breen, whose Wooden Head Lamp may or may
not be an intentional play on words; Ronald Cooper, perhaps
the only person to create art from old gas heaters; and Roy
Minshew, whose Angel Dog is a museumworthy piece of
Americana, and a fine example of what is still referred to
as folk art.
If you’re tired of postmodernism, this may be just the show
you need to help you kick back into summer and leave all the
vices of the academy far behind.