The Outsiders: Art from the Edge

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The voice on the phone was serious, the message simple: “Get up here right away.” “Up here” was Antelope Valley, at the far northern end of Los Angeles County, an hour’s drive from Paige Wery’s art gallery in Chinatown. The director of the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, Andi Campognone, met her at the door of a nondescript ranch house on the blandest of suburban streets. After stepping inside, the two quickly got sucked into a labyrinth of creative genius—the home studio of Andrew Frieder—an artist who had struggled with schizophrenia and who had died that week. Wery was left breathless.

“As I walked down that first hallway, there were hundreds of scribbles and rubbings on small pieces of paper stuck to the walls. These amalgamations of Old Testament scripture and classical mythology were apparently the seeds for Frieder’s masterpieces,” said Wery. “His entire home was this extraordinary laboratory. He made everything on his own, from customized tools to rebuilt sewing machines to handmade knives.”

Frieder had turned each room in the house into a different studio. There was a drawing room, a sewing room, and an area he carved out for welding. He made all of his own clothing; even his shoes were homespun.

It was a far cry from most gallery owners’ studio visits but not really that odd for Wery. Since she opened the Good Luck Gallery on Chung King Road in LA in 2014, she’s found herself in psych wards, prisons, and homes for the developmentally disabled and, along the way, has become the preeminent dealer of outsider art in Southern California.

“Most of the people I work with—it’s against the odds that they are making this art. It’s just coming out of them,” said Wery. “It’s a very pure voice that is not looking for fame.”

One of the first artists Wery showed when she opened her gallery shortly after his death in 2014, Frieder was one of these obsessive forces of creativity.

The idea of the outsider artist as a genius immune to the influences of the world received attention when Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist and art historian, published Artistry of the Mentally III in 1922. Jean Dubuffet soon coined the term “Art Brut,” and a twisted branch of the fine-art family tree was born. The real thing, the stuff made by those truly cut off from the outside world, often remains hidden until after the artists’ deaths. That’s how Henry Darger, perhaps the best known of all artists who fall under this label, managed while working as a hospital custodian in Chicago to produce hundreds of works in isolation before his death in 1973—including a 15,145-page manuscript detailing a world in which the Vivian Girls (who happen to have penises) mount a daring rebellion to thwart enslavement by the Glandelinians.

Wery grew up in San Diego and went to UCLA on a golf scholarship. She wanted to study art, too, but found the athletics program made other work impossible. She left, played golf for money, and tried out art schools up and down the coast. She learned to hate it—the way art was taught and the way that artists of the future were being formed to see and think in such narrow ways.

“To put it bluntly, it’s a bunch of rich kids going to fancy art schools to learn to make the exact same art as each other,” said Wery. Art critic Jerry Saltz’s favorite insult, “Zombie Formalism,” comes to mind.

She began doing some curating—in coffee shops—and then fell into the job of publisher of Artillery, the only contemporary-art magazine in Southern California. She did it for six years, and it flourished under her. But it also taught her everything about the SoCal art scene, and when she decided to leave, she knew what it lacked.

“The fact that Los Angeles had no outsider-art gallery just didn’t make sense to me,” she said.

Wery opened the Good Luck Gallery in Chinatown in partnership with her boyfriend, documentary filmmaker Parris Patton. Chung King Road is part of a network of pedestrian plazas that was built in the 1930s—small-scale with the expected collage of pagodas and dragons. There’s a definite sweetness to its aging kitsch. Galleries have been opening there since the 1990s, and that made it a welcoming home for Wery.

As for the artists, Wery has found them selling at flea markets by being tipped off by people across the country and by developing relationships with art programs for the elderly and differently abled. She works closely with each artist’s support network to be sure they’re getting their share of sales and that the programs themselves benefit as well.

One inspiration for her is the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California—a workshop whose most celebrated artist, Judith Scott, received a posthumous retrospective organized by the Brooklyn Museum, which went on to tour the world. Wery calls director Tom di Maria “an incredible influence. He’s done amazing things for people all across the world.”

Di Maria appreciates her back: “Paige brings a breath of fresh air to the field of self-taught art and the LA scene by presenting modern and thoughtful exhibitions. We’ve been thrilled to have Creative Growth artists such as William Scott exhibited there.”

Although largely unimpressed by the white walls and Chardonnay of the art world, Wery’s self-taught artists have been exhibited in art fairs worldwide, and the prices of their works are rising. Wery counts many important collectors as her clientele but knows a young gallery like hers can’t go bragging about names. (429 has confirmed their stature).

“The artists she has introduced to our audiences have been eye-openers,” said Andrew Edlin, founder of Wide Open Arts, which runs both the New York City and Paris Outsider Art Fairs, and his own prestigious outsider-art gallery in Manhattan. “Many of their works have been snapped up by some of the most sophisticated collectors in both the outsider- and contemporary-art worlds.”

Wery takes the praise in stride but can’t help but laugh about one thing. “I’m the art-school dropout who wound up making good for self-taught artists,” she said.

Sylvia Fragoso drawings and ceramics opens at the Good Luck Gallery on January 7, 2017.

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HELEN RAE—Helen Rae is an outside artist in the purist sense. Although she was born deaf and communicates with very limited sign language, she clearly has a voice. A member of First Street Gallery & Art Center in Claremont, California, Rae, at age 50, was one of the first students in a new program for adults with disabilities. Wery gave Rae her first-ever solo show of her high-fashion-inspired drawings early on at the Good Luck Gallery. It sold out on opening night. In 2017, Rae will get a distinct honor: a solo show at legendary alternative gallery White Columns in New York City. It’s one of many signs that what Wery does matters.

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CATHY WARD—It all began with hair or a lack thereof for Ward. Her early life was spent in a London convent where the nuns weren’t allowed to have hair. Of course, she became obsessed with it. Her scratchboard pieces began as depictions of hair. Using clay, ink, and a scalpel, she goes into a trance, creating beautiful and otherworldly works of art. Ward has been in group shows in alternative spaces in the UK, and the magazine Raw Vision has featured her work, but the Good Luck Gallery held her first solo show in a commercial gallery.

 

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ART MAURA—When Art Maura isn’t at the library devouring Oceanic and African art, he is at his shrine-like home in Petaluma making his scavenged, fetish-like sculptures with his wild boar named Pig at his side. Maura channels everyday found materials, repurposed threads, feathers, human hair, wire, wood, string and anything else he digs up. Whimsical and scary at the same time, he creates three-dimensional voodoo-like dolls that possess a beautiful brutality on their own. He believes each one has a soul. Maura was recommended to Wery by an enthusiastic visitor the gallery.

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