Reframing the Outsider: Dear, Stephanie
Through April 15th, 2014. Open House on March 20th.
By Samantha Dylan Mitchell
“Dear, Stephanie JOB her
is WERE IN STAFF
Down’s EYES. YEAR
hers, FEET she right
Stephanie BACK Asher
Comes First her FROM
OUTCOMES WERE JOB HE
Cost: see Thanksgiving dinner.
O clock blouse right
The term “outsider art” has long served as an effective catch-all for artwork created by anyone operating outside the traditional realm of classical artistic education, from individuals working in complete obscurity and isolation to those who market themselves as such. Artists and art collectors have long been fascinated with the art of those who are separated—either by circumstance or by choice—from the art world at large and maintain a practice of creation that is divorced from the art historical narrative. However, work by outsider artists has typically entered the contemporary art arena through “insider” conduits, from reclusive Henry Darger’s trove of illustrated stories, discovered and posthumously promoted by his artist landlord, to the inclusion of Forrest Bess’s paintings in the 2012 Whitney biennial. Hand in hand with the fascination of the “outsider” is the question of ownership and presentation, and how curators can facilitate the exhibition of work that comes from individuals set apart from the mainstream while maintaining the artist’s autonomy.
One of the factions most difficult to establish within the nebulous field of “outsider art” is work by physically and/or developmentally disabled artists who become a part of community devoted to art making, facilitated by traditionally trained artists. It is undeniable that the work created in these environments maintains a singular, self-motivated vision, but it seems relevant to acknowledge the impact of the shared creative space, experienced by staff and participant alike. Many of these individuals would not have the resources to create without access to these centers. In a sense the art could be considered a collaboration of sorts, something coming from two places at once: the creative drive of an individual and an interest in facilitating this drive from support staff. One such program, at The Center for Creative Works in Lower Merion, is currently the scene of an intense and original exhibit, which actively engages the conundrum concerning the “outsider” art of its participants and the “insider” inclinations of its local artist teachers.
Dear, Stephanie, an installation created by Jordan Graw, features the work of Kurt Webber, Cindy Gosselin, Deb Clark, and Kelly Brown. The installation is organized on two adjacent walls in the Center’s gallery space and features text written by Webber painted directly onto the walls’ surfaces, surrounded by the brightly colored sculptures from the latter three artists. Webber’s poems, all written as letters to Stephanie Petro-McClellan (a longtime member of CCW’s arts and administrative staff), are rife with intense, imagistic emotion, conveyed in a unique, free-associative style.
Graw, who has worked at the center for over three years as an art instructor and administrator, frequently takes on the role of curator in assembling various group exhibitions of the participant’s work. This installation seems to mark a distinct shift into the role of collaborator. Describing the motivation for the installation’s creation as a fascination with Webber’s letters and a desire to see them on a larger scale, Graw scanned and projected them on the wall, at times enlisting Webber’s help in tracing them in paint. Rather than displaying the letters themselves (which are already unique works of art, each penned on found pieces of paper of different shapes and sizes), Graw related his own instincts as a painter to take the text to a new place. The installation of the sculptures serves as a window into an alternate reality, creating archways that amplify the obsessive intensity of the words with their own similar qualities. All three sculptors—Clark, Gosselin, and Brown—are blind, and all are drawn to the sculptural process through the tactile experience. Each sculpture is created from a combination of wrapping, weaving, knotting, and winding, resulting in a variety of materials bound together by manual manipulation.
Webber has been a participant at CCW since its days as a center focused on teaching vocational skills. In his daily routine he keeps operations in good order, organizing recycling and shredding documents from various companies that outsource this work. Rarely engaging with the visual art-making element, Webber has maintained a writing practice in private. In recent years he has begun to share letters to Stephanie with staff members. In the context of the installation, Webber’s letters become a public declaration of complicated feelings that reach far beyond the intended recipient. Overwhelmingly tender, each piece of writing is a free-associative poem that revolves around the central idea of Stephanie as a figure of caring attention. His writings move without pause or delineation from reflections on daily encounters into places of deep longing and sadness. They are, for the most part, imagistic responses to the world around him—streams of thought that move back and forth between feelings and people:
“beautiful day. feeling. pretty pain/meeting lay Her blue eyes star eyes her blue./eyes is wounded later wonderful. picture/ pretty girls pink red skirt tears photo later/ see red face light soft have heart/music. look eyes face miss her place/feel later, first side”
The anchor of these poems is imagery relating to Stephanie, and from there they devolve in a variety of directions. The writing resembles the raw matter of thought, unanalyzed and honest, that stems from our immediate reaction to stimuli, or automatic writing without self-awareness or fear of repetition. Webber’s words tumble forth in these letters with an immediacy and necessity that fills them with power. Combined with the thought-provoking, unexpected use of punctuation and capitalization (“lunch staff Home/job? good+pretty beautiful shop/ up office WORKS”) as well as unexpected rhyme-schemes, the letters leave you with an insatiable desire to decode the messages and find hidden meanings within them.
The counterpoint to the written words is the formation of sculptures, grouped together without individual distinction and seamlessly bound by their vibrant neon color schemes and density. The hand of each artist is clear to those who have seen them work. Kelly Brown tends more toward weaving and threading, creating pieces inspired by specific objects or places. One is a garden, created from wire and false flowers; another is based on a squirrel’s nest, incorporating pinecones some winding outward and inward on tendrils of pipe cleaners. Her work has a ponderous, thoughtful quality, which Deb Clark’s sculptures also possess. The masses she creates maintain their own gravity in their central, knotted density. With a variety of ribbons and ropes, she works inward rather than outward, leaving the color and texture of fabric ends dangling from the core. These slowly formed sculptures are distinct from Cindy Gosselin’s work. The most prolific and frenetic of the group, Gosselin’s pieces are entirely concerned with the act of wrapping and obsessive layering of rope, yarn, and tape. These tight, compact little bodies of dense material, wrapped from a variety of angles as she rapidly rotates them in her hands, appear in a variety of shapes and states of uniformity. The entanglement of solid, three-dimensional objects within these sculptures is visible from time to time: here and there a magnet, a paper maché giraffe head, painted nails, a spool of thread or a piece of wood juts out from the vortex. The thought of what lives within these cocoons becomes a fascinating consideration. Others maintain a gentle consistency of thread in a range of texture and color, drawing you in by the multi-directional tension within.
Each sculpture maintains its own identity and character and, when accumulated and carefully arranged, comes to represent a bizarre collection of identities, like stuffed animals in the bedroom of a Martian. The strange, brightly colored remnants of recognizable objects, scraps, and detritus come to form objects that are at once eerily familiar and wholly alien. In the intimate and obsessive nature of the letters, with their qualities of a confessional diary, and the sculptures presented as altars or doorways, we are granted a view into a precious, private space, which beyond its grunge and messiness is indeed sacred. This secret feeling is simultaneously countered by the vibrant colors of the lettering and the overall scale.
The installation creates an environment of simultaneous invitation and repulsion, attachment and retreat, attraction and terror. This effect is a perfect analogy for the public’s understanding of the population represented here, and its response to outsider art. Audiences are fascinated by aesthetic objects created by these marginalized individuals: the obsessiveness, the strangeness, the unexpected way of seeing that opens wide a new reality. But simultaneously our awareness of what it means to live with a serious disability is limited. Our society is structured in such a way that most people rarely interact with these individuals.
There is plenty of discussion among curators of outsider art on how best to present this work to the public. How should one frame and contextualize this art to allow it to be understood on its own terms? What is the best way to make the work accessible without degrading its value, and to keep the artist involved in the process of installation? There is less discussion of what it means for a collaboration to exist between “insider” and “outsider,” and little dialogue addressing the effect that these two incredibly generalized categories of art can (and do) have on each other. Perhaps this is due to a preoccupation with categorical purity, of maintaining the otherness of outsider art and the division between contemporary and untrained definite. In looking at the history of outsider art exhibitions, one notices the often-anthropological tone of the supporting wall text and essays, emphasizing exotic frames of reference and unique biographies of the artists, often focusing on disability. It is frequently other artists who engage on a specifically creative level with the work, choosing to notice unique approaches to material, visual space, and tradition. Psychedelphia, a recent show at Pageant : Soloveev, featured art from CCW participants and local artists without distinction, and with absolutely no reference to the artists as disabled or “outsider.”
It is this kind of engagement that is clear in Dear, Stephanie, from its content-inspired approach to layout, avoiding the typical tropes of exhibitions, to its unselfconscious embrace of sentiment and intensity. Perhaps this is because the gallery space at CCW is designed for its participants, not the general public. Regardless of the complex moral and sociological terrain in working with art created by the developmentally disabled, Graw maintains a hope that the future of artistic endeavors at CCW and like-minded places reduce the societal marginalization of those living with disabilities. Compassion for the lives of others, as mediated through sharing in artistic expression, is something that can be attained here, rather than simply appreciated from a distance. In creating a conversation between the artwork of five unique individuals, joined to form an environment that engages a broad range of human emotional experience, this installation reaches beyond a simple display of aesthetic ingenuity. It behaves as a unifying force for distinct approaches, bringing something new to each piece and letting the works function together. The motivation here is to engage rather than classify, a much-needed alternative to what has become the standardized, strangely predictable frame for outsider art.
Samantha Dylan Mitchell is an artist, writer, and teacher living in Philadelphia.