Outsider Art Fair Offers Fresh Home for Art World Misfits

The global odyssey takes them to Ghana, Haiti, and New Zealand.

Kwame Akoto (aka Almighty God), The Most Valuable Player…Bill Gates (2012). Photo: Ernie Wolfe Gallery.

Exploring the Outsider Art Fair, which opened yesterday night at Center 548 in Chelsea last night, one trend stood out among the widely disparate works on display: just how far dealers had to travel to find their artists. Forget trekking out to Brooklyn—to discover outsider art, we’re talking about a global odyssey.

Of course, self-taught artists can be found working fairly close to home. Jay Gorney and Anne Doran’s curated space, “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” included sculpted wire assemblages from the Philadelphia Wire Man (his true identity remains unknown) that were discovered in the trash in a Philadelphia alley. Even in our cosmopolitan city, it would seem that outsider art persists, as seen at the Gallery at HAI in the work of Staten Island artist Rodney Thornblad. Nevertheless, many self-taught artists reside much further afield, making long journeys a necessity for those looking to sell their work.

Take Ernie Wolfe, of the Los Angeles gallery of the same name. His 34 years in the outsider art business have repeatedly taken Wolfe to Africa, where he discovered Ghana’s proud traditions of hand-painted movie posters and elaborately sculpted and painted coffins designed to reflect the deceased’s interests and identity.

Leonardo, shown by Ernie Wolfe, Los Angeles, at the Outsider Art Fair. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Leonardo, shown by Ernie Wolfe, Los Angeles, at the Outsider Art Fair. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Though the coffins, first popularized by Kane Kwei in Ghana in the 1960s, and dubbed FAVs, or “Fantasy Afterlife Vehicles” by Wolfe, didn’t make the trip to New York, the gallery’s selection movie posters made a bold impact. A graphic King Kong ad by an artist called Leonardo shows the massive ape having just ripped a leggy brunette in half. “There were no suits overlooking or editing this work,” Wolfe pointed out.

Susan Te Kahurangi King, shown by Chris Byrne at the Outsider Art Fair. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Susan Te Kahurangi King, shown by Chris Byrne at the Outsider Art Fair. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

For Wolfe, of course, just getting to New York from the West coast became a bit of a challenge, in the wake of Monday’s snowstorm. “It was nice when we finally got the show up,” he noted with a relieved smile. After years of being slightly out of context at fairs like LA Modernism and the Seattle Art Fair, Wolfe added, the Outsider Art Fair “is a very nice fit for us.”

On the third floor, Chris Byrne was good-naturedly complaining about 13-hour flights to New Zealand to visit his artist Susan Te Kahurangi King. The Dallas-based independent dealer and Dallas Art Fair co-founder discovered King through Facebook, where her sisters maintain a robust social media presence for the artist, and has previously shown her work to great acclaim at the fair and at New York’s Andrew Edlin Gallery.

Now 63 years old, King ceased speaking when she was only four, but became a prolific illustrator. Her family saved all of her work—thousands of drawings in all—even when she stopped drawing for two decades. In 2008, King once again picked up the pen, resuming her artistic activities. Though her family isn’t ready to sell her work, King recently did some travelling of her own, making her first journey to the US for the November opening at Andrew Edlin.

The booth for Shrine, Brooklyn, at the Outsider Art Fair.

The booth for Shrine, Brooklyn, at the Outsider Art Fair. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Gallerist Scott Ogden, of Brooklyn’s Shrine, has spent 20 years collecting outsider art, much of which he finds while traveling the American South. Odgen spent over 10 years creating the documentary film MAKE, which explores the lives of self-taught artists Judith Scott, Ike Morgan, Hawkins Bolden, and Prophet Royal Robertson, making numerous trips to their respective homes in Oakland, Austin, Memphis, and Baldwin, Louisiana. Several of Bolden’s rusty metal scare crow sculptures, created from found materials by the blind artist, were among the works available for sale at Shrine.

“I have a lot of flat works at home, but I wanted to build a more physical presence in the booth,” said Ogden of his decision to include only one painting in his booth, which focuses on works created for outdoor environments, many of which were discovered in people’s yards. While a first-time exhibitor under the Shrine moniker, Odgen has shown before at the Outsider Art Fair with his company Make Skateboards, which incorporates imagery from self-taught artists into deck graphics. “Skateboards confused people,” he admitted. But Shrine’s striking sculptural display fit right in among those of the other exhibitors.

The Outsider Art Fair runs through Sunday, February 1 at Center 548, 548 West 22nd Street, New York.

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