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Extraordinary Epic: Reclusive, self-taught artist Henry Darger's 'Spangled Blengins,' a watercolor with cutouts from ads and comics, is appraised at $35,000 to $40,000.

"Outsider art" has entered the mainstream--and it's become something of a mini-industry

By Christa Palmer

The scribbled pen-and-ink drawings of an institutionalized schizophrenic or the ephemeral tree sculptures in a hermit's back yard may be deemed worthy of serious attention in today's art world. Yes, it's possible. When so-called "outsider art" exploded in popularity during the late 1980s and early '90s, not everyone agreed such work should be on a museum's curatorial list.

But art historians and traditionalists soon overcame their distaste when it became clear that outsider art attracts big audiences and serious collectors. Showing the works of people who are on the cutting edge of the outsider art scene, such as Mose Tolliver, Howard Finster and Bill Traylor, has become something of a mini-industry. The current Center for the Arts show, The Unreality of Being, by outsider artist Henry Darger (1892-1973), is just one indication of outsider art's increased respectability.

The term "outsider art" is often used as a racy alternative to "folk art" or "self-taught art," and more narrowly refers to untrained artists who possess no access to the art world as a system. They create unique and original work that shows an artistic brilliance and a strange thinking that is sometimes obscure, obsessive or disturbing. In contrast, "contemporary folk artist" or "self-taught artist" covers just about anyone who makes art without an M.F.A. degree and who is usually well-accepted in the genre of folk art. And as the realm of fine art becomes more rarefied, the work of self-taught artists is more immediately accessible to the uninstructed. The inside jokes and references in a contemporary painting are often meaningless to the ordinary person, but the Freudian doodlings of a Robert Crumb are instantly accessible to even the most untutored viewer.

And although "outsider art" is essentially used as a marketing peg, it sometimes hits the mark. It does in the case of Peter "Charlie" Bochero, a recluse who lived on a Pennsylvania farm, where his 70 paintings were found after his death. Or Annie Hooper, who lived on a remote island off the coast of North Carolina and filled her house with 5,000 sculptures she made from driftwood and cement.

Yet, underneath the seeming naiveté of the artistic mainstream, many outsider artists show a surprising canniness when it comes to marketing and promoting their work. Take, for example, Howard Finster, a Baptist minister who channels his religious visions into colorful painted constructions covered with biblical quotations. Finster, probably the biggest star on the outsider art and visionary art scene today, turned his primitive, obsessively annotated canvases into a lucrative business.

His work has become so "in" that he managed to produce a poster for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and album covers for R.E.M. and the Talking Heads. Also in bookstores is his 220-page illustrated autobiography, Howard Finster: Stranger From Another World, Man of Visions Now on This Earth. And for a mere $3 admission people can walk through his three-acre installation, "Paradise Garden," in Summerville, Ga. Of course, there's also a gift shop that sells T-shirts, mugs and lithographs. He accepts MasterCard and Visa and takes mail orders at 1-800-FINSTER.

In fact, outsider art is such an expanding enterprise that Finster isn't the only one cashing in. There are books and events devoted just to outsider art, like the glossy coffee-table book Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond by John Maizels ($65) and 20th Century American Folk, Self-Taught and Outsider Art: A Resource Guide by Betty-Carol Sellen with Cynthia J. Johanson ($45). Each winter in New York City there's the Outsider Art Fair, dedicated to work from leading galleries across Europe and America. And there are museums that house collections of visionary, self-taught or outsider art, such as New York's Museum of American Folk Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum.

The latest marketable star in the anti-art-star system is the reclusive Henry Darger, whose twisted collage cutouts and weird drawings of young girls wearing party dresses, knee-socks and Mary Janes sell for $3,000 to $60,000 and up. The exhibit at the Center for the Arts, Henry Darger: The Unreality of Being, presents a collection of Darger's amateurish 12-foot-long scrolls done in watercolor and collage.

Several hundred of Darger's paintings depicting the chaos and darkness of a savage and bloody war were found by his landlord in the room where Darger lived for more than 30 years on Chicago's north side. They were accompanied by a 15,000-page novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion a dense and intricate typewritten history documenting a war between an army of soldiers and a community of prepubescent girls.

Granted, Darger's bizarre obsession and hermit lifestyle are fascinating, but because the art market has run out of new movements, America has managed to scrounge up a fresh one in anonymous or naive artists like Darger. Over the past few years, Darger's private life and psychological character have been explicitly revealed in various publications, including Time, The Nation and the San Francisco Chronicle. Acclaimed as an underground figure, Darger had some attention from the world of rock music as well; San Francisco's own late-lamented Phil "Snakefinger" Lithman once recorded a song about him, "The Vivian Girls." Also, the book The Realms of the Unreal: Insane Writings edited by John G.H. Oakes, $20, takes its title from Darger's book and is a hodgepodge of writings "by famous, unknown and anonymous inmates of the psychiatric industry," including Darger.

And according to John MacGregor, a recognized authority on psychiatric art who claims that, psychologically, Darger was a serial killer, "Darger's writings may become more famous than his paintings, just because no one has seen his collection of writings yet." MacGregor also predicts that eventually Darger's 15,000-page book will be available to read. And if that doesn't happen, no worries, because MacGregor is completing a book-length study of Darger himself and is currently looking for a publisher.

So, it's no secret that outsider art is in vogue. Perhaps the mainstream interest relates to the current serial-killer chic, reflected in movies like Natural Born Killers and fanzines like Answer Me! Or maybe it's a result of the naive belief that the crazed and the simple, like Forrest Gump, have an innocence and purity that's been lost to the rest of us.

Whatever the reason, the interest in Darger and other outsider artists isn't always motivated by profit. "We can't overlook what it took for someone to create this fantastic endeavor as Darger did," says MacGregor. "Society overlooks the people who live in the margins, the disheveled man or woman on the street, unknown and almost invisible. Darger's book is probably the longest prose novel ever written. It's difficult to conceive the mental space and creative process it took to make this fantasy take shape. We can learn from someone like Henry Darger about what happens to a genius when his family and environment are emotionally depraved."

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From the November 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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