In the window of Dean Jensen Gallery is a small wooden sculpture that attracts a lot of surprised attention from passersby. A woman is giving birth — not in a metaphorical sense, and there are no curtains involved. A small head appears between her legs, and the attendant nurse and presumable physician, as well as the new mother, are uniformly stoic, as though they are listening to an academic lecture rather than experiencing the trauma and new spark of life.
This work is an example of what is alternately known as “self-taught,” “visionary,” “folk” or “outsider” art, loosely defined as work by artists who train and travel outside of the mainstream structures of art school and the established gallery system. They make art without regard for conventional trends, accepted styles and notions of contemporary art theory. The result usually reflects an authentic sincerity, and its subjects are often blunt depictions of daily living that might pass privately unnoticed.
Who exactly qualifies as an outsider artist? That’s an ongoing debate in the art world. But Dean Jensen’s latest survey of outsider and folk art, Naives, Seers, Lone Wolves and World Savers XXIV, doesn’t seek to parse these loaded descriptors, instead simply giving audiences a sense of these works.
Jensen started collecting this type of work when he was a journalist. He studied Renaissance art, but not having, as he puts it, “the pocketbook” for works by Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael, folk and outsider art appealed to him.
Today, self-taught art has made its way into galleries in its own right, represented in the places where contemporary artists well versed in the threads of aesthetic and personal issues tread. The thing is that these artists and works originate from places far afield from the mainstream art world — indeed, in some cases, from an actual field. The intentions of the artists tend to be very personal, which is the prime informer for work that reflects everyday life and experiences.
This is perhaps one of the underlying impetuses beneath the religious imagery of artists such as Reverend Howard Finster and paintings such as “Angel of the Rocks.” Finster’s work is often of conditions advising attentiveness to salvation and second comings. Jensen recounts meeting Finster, hanging out in his studio as he worked through the night. With a chuckle, Jensen speculates that sleep deprivation as well as devotion may influence these visions.
Other works in the exhibition are more akin to representations of everyday life, such as the “Crown of Thorns Church,” built out of tiny, delicate bits of wood and assembled so that pews and preacher are all visible inside its intricate, latticework skin.
The proliferation of genre scenes is not so complete, however, as many self-taught artists intuitively veer towards abstraction. Mose Tolliver is a southern American artist who depicts figures in forms that bend and angle, sometimes taking faces that resemble African masks. A note of autobiography may be detected in paintings like “Dry Bones Charley,” where a figure supported by crutches stands head-on to the viewer, feet turned in and fingers extended. Tolliver’s legs and feet were crushed in a factory accident when a slab of heavy marble fell on him, and these representations, in simplified form with their stylized and restrained figures, regard the viewer with strength despite limitations.
Other artists, like Mary T. Smith, gravitate toward more gestural paintings, as though unknowingly embracing the modes of neo-expressionism practiced in the 1980s. “Untitled (Two Figures)”, painted on corrugated steel, features a fierce man with bared teeth and a woman demurely standing in the background. The two are bold and unconstrained, with confident strokes of white that enliven the dark ambiguities suggested by their expression and appearance.
What this exhibition provides is a glimpse into recent forays outside of the art world. The study of art made outside of the mainstream environments of art academies and sanctioned exhibition spaces has taken place since the early 20th century.
In this abbreviated survey, it becomes clear that these works are indeed somehow different from their mainstream contemporaries. Yet, their visual power is a knock at the door of the conventional art world that has been thankfully answered.
Naives, Seers, Lone Wolves and World Savers XXIV: A Survey of Important Outsider and Folk Art continues through Dec. 4 at Dean Jensen Gallery, 759 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Visit deanjensengallery.com for more details.
NEW AND ON VIEW
I made this for you: Small gestures in clay
Portrait Society Gallery
207 E. Buffalo St., fifth floor
Opening reception Friday, Nov. 20, 6-9 p.m.
Dishes are intimate things that are used everyday. In this exhibition, Portrait Society shows its first exhibition dedicated to ceramics, with pieces that are created to be functional as well as commemorative objects. Artists include Adolph Rosenblatt, Colin Matthes, Harvey Opgenorth, Rudy Rotter, Gary John Gresl, and many more.
Exhibition of Paintings and Bronze Casts by Michelle Grabner of Wisconsin
1500 N. Farwell Ave.
Exhibition runs through Jan. 2, 2016
Michelle Grabner is perhaps best known for paintings and silverpoint works of abstract patterns, but Green Gallery is pulling her work in three dimensions into plain sight. In the traditional medium of bronze, her sculptures will be shown, as well as two-dimensional works in this upcoming exhibition.