The Outsiders

Would you label this outsider art? Why or why not?

Why Outsider?

Here’s that troublesome question again: How and why is some art labeled “outsider?”

What is this art and its creators outside of?

If an artist has no formal art training does that automatically make his/her art outsider art?

The phrase, outsider art,  is every bit as troublesome as the term, “the other” that is often bandied about in scholarly works. As one reads Kate Withstandley’s, The Outsider Renaissance (click on the link to access the article), certain questions arise: Who determines these labels? Are these art works outsider, intuitive, not fine art? Why not simply call them art?

There is nothing “outsider” about the last three pieces below nor is there anything “insider” about the two above. The only difference between the two sets of paintings is that the first is by prominent Bay Area artist, Nathan Olivera, while the second is by what the art world labels outsider artists. None is better or worse than the other so why differentiate? I might very well have posted some of Picasso’s paintings, sculptures and potteries and asked the same question with an added twist, “If you didn’t know who the artist was, would/wouldn’t you call this outsider art?”

Outsider Inside, Insider Outside

New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was at one time considered an outsider, that is, until he became a part of  Warhol’s world. Basquiat, genius that he was, knew that he needed exposure and so, he actively tried to get inside Warhol’s world. Would he have become an insider artist if Warhol had excluded him? Would the art establishment, the critics, museums and galleries have taken him as seriously as they did if he had not been a part of Warhol’s crowd? Left on his own, would the art world have realized that Basquiat deserved to be noticed the way an artist like Picasso deserved to be noticed?

Warhol Polaroid of Basquiat making a monkey face

Mekking Monkey Face

What price did Jean-Michel Basquiat pay to move from being an outsider to an insider artist? Was this Warhol monkey face portrait, for example, part of  the price he paid to become famous? In Jamaica, “mekking monkey face” is simply clowning around and making silly faces. It is the pastime of children. The name of the game notwithstanding, I have yet to see a Jamaican child mek monkey face so that (s)he actually looks like a monkey. Their clowning around has more to do with mouth and eye gestures and distortions. What’s more, I haven’t seen any child use props to mek monkey face like Basquiat and Warhol did in this photograph. Add the out-sized ears to the distorted eyes, nose and mouth and you get a transformation from human to animal.

Whose idea was it that Basquiat strike this pose? Was it his? Was it Warhol’s? Were photographer and subject in collusion? Is one being coerced by the other to make/take the photograph? For what reason did sitter and photographer create this image? Certainly this cannot be an attempt by Basquiat to be taken seriously by the art world. Noticed, maybe, but taken seriously? I doubt it. Yet another question to consider is this: Did Warhol photograph anyone else in this particular pose? If not, why? Why Jean-Michel Basquiat and not Mick Jagger, Edie Sedgwick or any of his other sitters?

This photograph is the only one I’ve seen where Warhol’s sitter strikes this pose. Why this sitter and why this pose? Is Basquiat, maybe Warhol as well, making a statement, confronting the status quo? Are they deliberately drawing attention to Basquiat’s status as an outsider times two in the art world? Whatever the case, the portrait does not sit well. (See my previous post, “Mammy and Myths: Oh Andy!” for more on Warhol and Basquiat and the making of myths.)

Note: The large Olivera painting is the property of Stanford University. You can view it in their contemporary art gallery at the Cantor Museum.

Shota Katsube - Untitled, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection
Shota Katsube – Untitled, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection
Norimitsu Kokubo – The Economically Booming City of Tianjin
Image from Wellcome Collection
Ryoko Koda – Untitled, 90-00
Image from Wellcome Collection

5 thoughts on “The Outsiders

Add yours

    1. I don’t know how my brain works but it seems to take me to the most unusual places and has me wondering about how things got to be the way they are and why we accept that they are the way they are.

  1. What makes “outside” art outside? I am a little puzzled by this. Basquiat’s monkey face is disturbing and one wishes one really understood why, or who instigated it. Very strange. I love the first painting especially. Can you tell me about it? (By the way do you have Jamaican roots? I have lived on the island for 25 years, my husband is Jamaican and our son grew up here…)

    1. Yes, that Basquiat Polaroid is quite disturbing. Wish I knew the circumstances under which the thing was done.
      The first and second paintings are both by Nathan Oliveira, an artist I discovered when I moved to the Bay Area. Whenever I visit Stanford University’s Cantor Museum, where the first painting is housed, I always go and visit it. Those eyes draw me in the same way the eyes/slits for eyes in African masks do.
      I have never paid attention to the label on the wall that describes the painting though I do know it is done in oil on canvas with layers upon layers of paint. It is quite something, what he has managed to do: The figure draws you in as you gaze at the painting. I’ve been visiting East Coast museums for over 30 years now, and had never heard of the artist until I came to live in the Bay Area. That is yet another part of the question, “Whose work gets included or excluded in the elite art world and museums?” “Why is Oliveira simply confined to “Bay Area Artist?” Makes him sound so colloquial and insignificant. He may be a “prominent Bay Area artist” but in some ways, he is still relegated to being “the other,” as quite a bit of emphasis is placed on his Portuguese roots. That can be good and it can be bad. Here is a link to an article about Oliveira:

      Yes, I have more than Jamaican roots. I am Jamaican. Born and raised there. Left in my teens and returned as an adult for ten years (1990s). Worked at UWI that entire period. We may even have crossed paths, you and I. Who knows?

      1. It’s all about labels, isn’t it. I love the paintings by Oliveira – even online they are compelling and hypnotic – drawing you in, as you say. And is having Portuguese roots a drawback? I wouldn’t think so! Maybe we DID know each other in the 90s in Jamaica! I was working in Public Affairs at the US Embassy for part of that time and prior to that in the book business…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: