Outsider art is controversial. Some theorists claim that "pure" outsider art can only be made when the artist hasn't been exposed to art history or contemporary culture. But that belief assumes that somewhere there exists some Eden-like state, chaste and unmolested, and forgets that even things like art history and contemporary culture are arbitrary. Some might call Aboriginal art outsider art without considering the fact that Aboriginal artists have history and culture; it just doesn't look like ours.
According to VICTOR STRUNK, director of VISIONARIES AND VOICES (V&V), the question of outsider art has been the only big criticism about their current exhibition, POP LIFE: OUTSIDER ARTISTS AND THE POP IDEA, now on view at the University of Cincinnati's Galleries on Sycamore, Downtown.
"Because all these artists work under the umbrella of V&V, some people don't think it's really 'outsider' art," Strunk tells me as we walk through the exhibition.
"To me, I think, take the art part out of it. These people are the most outsider you can get."
The people to whom Strunk refers are a group of about 75 artists between the ages of 18 and 65 who live with disabilities. Keith Banner and Bill Ross founded V&V in 1999 as, to quote Banner's mission statement, "a grass-roots effort among social workers and artists who were astounded by the art created by people with disabilities in their homes."
In 2003, V&V grew enough to open a studio in Walnut Hills, where artists worked and took classes led by volunteers. Last March, V&V ballooned even more, and they opened a second studio in Tri-County. That second studio drew "a flood of people," says Strunk.
The show at UC's Sycamore galleries is V&V's first "honest attempt" at conjuring an exhibition.
"We want criticism," Strunk says. "You can only be patted on the head and told how great you are for so long. It gets boring until someone tells you how to do it better."
I wish I could do more to make this interesting for him, but from the first time I saw the exhibition I was stunned. The gallery is neatly divided into categories: "Art About Andy's Life" shows paintings and drawings about Warhol and his friends. A large portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat by Robert Macke is not only technically good but also very Pop-like.
Diana Mairose's painting "Warhol in Drag" would have tickled Warhol's fancy, I think, more than any solemn homage to him.
In "Collaborations," artists work together, much as they did in Warhol's Factory, all helping to create that one large painting or silkscreen print. "911 -- Superfriends," a collaborative effort by Andrew VanSickle, Courtney Cooper, Tony Dotson and Kevin White, is a mixed-media piece, that might belie the artists' understanding of contemporary culture (the World Trade Center, Uncle Sam) but does not detract from the power of the work itself.
"Art About Andy's Art" takes references from Pop art -- James Henrie's computer-generated Campbell's soup can and portrait of Marilyn Monroe are perhaps the most accurate mimics in the exhibition. Other works are just as referential -- Jennifer Klein's "Dollar Signs," for example, and Brian Sigafoose's "Marilyn."
"Why Warhol?" I ask Strunk.
He gestures empathically and points to a wall label.
"That's why," Strunk says.
On the label, a quote from Warhol himself puts the exhibition into context: "Anyone can do anything" it reads.
The exhibition clearly agrees with this notion. The artists studied the history of Pop art. They read Warhol's diaries and watched his screen tests. They studied and learned and created from that knowledge. Next year Strunk says the seven employees of V&V have already agreed on a new lesson: Dada and Surrealism.
And though I would still argue that Pop art wasn't a movement of outsider art in the slightest -- everything about Pop is about being in touch with culture, fads, the "it" thing -- I agree that Warhol wasn't saying no to anything. Anyone can be an artist. Anything is subject to art. Everyone is a superstar.
POP LIFE continues through Aug. 31 at the University Galleries on Sycamore.