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
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Mammy and Myths, Oh Andy!

mammy -andy warhol

The Spectre that is Mammy

I had a friend in college. She loved big hooped earrings, watermelons and fried chicken. But for the four years I knew her, she insisted she hated them all. Her public persona when at school would not allow her to “let Whites see her as a mammy or an aunt Jemima.” Years after leaving college, I went to a barbecue at her house. There she was in the backyard eating watermelon and fried chicken. In her ears she sported a pair of over-sized gypsy hoops. What do you think of that?

Finally Meeting Mammy

I met my friend’s mammy in a Greenwich Village art gallery. There she sat in all her glory, staring at me from her perch. All done up in silkscreen and diamond dust, she and nine other “myth prints” sat next to their respective Polaroids. She wore a head scarf that was knotted into a bow atop her forehead, large hoop earrings, and had large, full lips. She sported a jet black face. Here was my friend’s bugaboo, minus the watermelons and fried chicken.

Until the Mammy print, I hadn’t paid much attention to the artist. He seemed to me an excellent print maker whose real goal was fame. In other words, he didn’t seem to be making art for the sake of making art. Instead, his creations were tied up in being famous in a kind of “Look at me! Look at what I can do!” type of art. How seriously could an under-twenty year old searching for meaning in life and in art, take such an artist? Was it even the artist’s business to seriously engage with me or anyone else? And then it happened: I started to hear little whispers, small talk about “Aunt Jemima” from the gallery crowd. Whatever his reason for including her in his repertoire of ten myths, he had begun a conversation, one that my friend was unwilling to have with me, a Caribbean immigrant. I was an outsider, times two.

Some 30 Years Later, Mammy at Stanford

mammy3
Polaroid print of the real life model for the 1981 mammy print screen

Last weekend I went in search of the Warhol exhibition at Stanford’s Cantor Museum. It has been running since mid-February and closes at month’s end (on June 30th). Held as it is within the Freidenrich Family Gallery – where Stanford’s larger contemporary art holdings are showcased – it is easy to miss. The pieces that usually draw me to this gallery are the Isamu Noguchi sculpture, “Victim“, and paintings by Bay Area artists like Nathan Olivera. For this visit I went specifically to see the Warhols but of course, stopped to look at the Noguchi and Olivera as well.

The Warhol exhibition is entitled, “More Than Fifteen Minutes: Andy Warhol and Celebrity”. Had the curators been more creative in titling the show (instead of following the same old trajectory about Warhol), and had they mentioned the presence of the Mammy piece, I would have gone to see this show sooner. As it is, I almost missed it and that would have been a shame. Mammy thirty years ago and mammy today is still relevant. I had a lovely conversation with an elderly black guard who wanted to know, “Who is this Andy guy?” and “Doesn’t this mammy thing get your hackles up?”

Why hadn’t Stanford written a more stimulating advertisement than the one below?

As a Pop artist trained in advertising, Andy Warhol was obsessed with fame and the media. This exhibition features prints, drawings, and Polaroid photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Mao Tse Tung, Mick Jagger, and other contemporary icons, exploring ideas about fame, ephemerality, and the legacy of Andy Warhol. Approximately 24 works on display.

Does Stanford not believe in some of its own contemporary art shows? It does a better job advertising its Rodins and the feature exhibitions that it puts on in the Pigott Family Gallery on the main floor. This mammy print could have attracted a wider cross-section of viewers and maybe opened up a different kind of conversation about perceptions in America in the year two-thousand-and-thirteen. But the curators failed to mention the print in their announcements, choosing instead to focus on Monroe, Tse Tung and Jagger. Therein lies a huge part of the trouble with museums, art magazines and art critics: They don’t understand or try hard enough to attract a wide range of viewers and readers. Too often, they fail to engage in meaningful ways with the public and so, art remains a rarefied entity accessible only to certain types of people. It oughtn’t to be that way.

Although no mention was made of Mammy in any of the write-ups, she is the one that I spent most of my time with and she is the reason the guard and I had that conversation. Sure I was attracted to the Tse Tung and Jagger pieces, but it was she who held my attention. That guard recognized as did I, that in mammy, there is a bit of talk about us. That, for me, is the beauty of Warhol’s mammy. She exists.

A nice touch and a nod to the Cantor, is the covering up of the Polaroid that couldn’t withstand exposure to the light. If I wasn’t so taken up with the Mammy print, I would’ve remembered what was under the cloth. If I get back to the campus before the show closes, I’ll look again and let you know.

More Myth-Making: Andy and Jean-Michel, Provocateurs?

The following photographs are ©Andy Warhol Foundation. Make what you will of the last two. I see more historical baggage, perhaps meant to startle or simply to continue a conversation long begun in a Greenwich Village art studio. Long before there was ever a Black President named Barack Obama, there was this image of Africa and Africans and monkeys all tied together into one single entity. Here stands Jean-Michel Basquiat in a Warhol Polaroid, posing as a caricature, as a monkey. Over thirty years later comes a Black/African American president and both he and his wife are referred to as monkeys. Time marches on not at all.

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