Inside Outsider 

"Authentic" on the table at FAC

Here's an idea for an exhibition: Gather up a truckload of art, good and bad, masterpieces and fakes, stuff from different centuries, different cultures, works in every medium ... and then just show them without labels or explanations, with signatures covered up. What would we do -- critics, viewers, art lovers -- without the familiar cocoons of origin, authorship, and context that museums and galleries so helpfully provide?

We'd have to fall back on Duke Ellington's familiar dictum: "If it sounds [substitute looks] good, it is good." And what if it looks bad?

On Feb. 1, the Fine Arts Center will present two exhibitions. One looks good while the other (and this is just one reviewer's opinion) does not.

Let's start with good. Flowering Mountain Earth: Continuity and Change Among the Highland Maya is an exhibition of early 20th-century Guatemalan textiles, most from the collection of the Taylor museum.

The FAC's collection, one of the best in the world, was assembled in the 1930s by Edith Bayles Ricketson, an American archeologist, and sold to the Taylor Museum in 1941. As Christine Conte's 1984 catalog of the collection states: "Guatemalan textiles ... mark ethnic or community affiliation, social status, religious belief, aesthetic value, occupation, age, sex, and individual identity." These textiles, whether meant for ceremonial use or for daily wear, are remarkably similar to garments worn and used before European contact. They're elaborately embroidered and beautifully woven, and deeply meaningful to their creators and users.

But above all, they're beautiful, masterful examples of the weaver's art. Skilled artisans, working within the confines of a rich artistic tradition, made wonderful art. The labels, the catalog and the museum-generated artspeak that accompany the show certainly enrich our understanding of these gorgeous textiles, but we don't need them -- the objects are strong enough to stand alone.

By contrast "Collected Visions: African-American Self-Taught Artists from the Southeastern U.S." is a label show; it couldn't exist without explanatory material. It's so-called "outsider" art -- unselfconscious, crude, visionary, created by artists who, free from conventional strictures, could create real art "...even without the consciousness that they were making what some would consider art ... what better source for purity of expression and freedom from the burden of artistic history?"

Well, that's what the blurb says, but what we've got is crude, muddy and hopelessly bad. To me, it also seems condescending and racist. After all, there's a long history of African-American folk art in the South, from utilitarian ceramics to furniture, and those untaught, mostly illiterate artists were masters of their craft. Look, for example, at the pottery created by slave potter David Drake in Edgefield, S.C. in the 1850s -- as simple, graceful, and perfect as a fine iron tsuba from 18th-century Japan.

But there's quite a market for "outsider" art these days, so much so that it's widely counterfeited. Back in the early '80s, a group of well-educated Caucasian layabouts posing as itinerant antique dealers (pickers, as they're known in the trade) created and sold literally hundreds of pieces to unsuspecting dealers and collectors. They attributed the "artworks" to reclusive and/or dead artists in the rural South. When the scam was finally revealed, most of the marks, comically enough, just refused to believe they'd been taken.

They were right: If art is defined only by its putative origin (untaught African-Americans), who cares whether it's good or bad? And if you admit that you were fooled by the cynical daubs of white slackers, then ... well, that way lies madness! Better to forget the slackers and tell yourself that you're looking at "the creative purity of the untaught artist ... beautifully spontaneous and energetic ..."

--John Hazlehurst


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