Treasures of Truth

New York

Astrologer Alice Sparkly Kat and friend in the Outsider Art Fair’s Curated Space, featuring artist Saya Woolfalk’s homage to the late artist Eddie Owens Martin, aka St. EOM. (All photos: Billy Farrell Agency)

ALWAYS A HIGHLIGHT of the art world calendar, and just as often an epiphany, the Outsider Art Fair, now in its twenty-sixth edition at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea, is an evermore-vital reminder of all that art can be and all that can be art. I have been an attendee since it first started in the Puck Building, named for the satirical publication started in the nineteenth century that lambasted political corruption but is now home to the Trump-Kushner clan (their walls are adorned by work from artists mortified to witness that the art market is oblivious to meaning in the face of money). But the fair’s relevance today is a healthy reminder that our love of art has to do with its capacity for fun, weirdness, unpredictability, and upending hierarchies against all those cultural currents that work to limn the status quo. And it is fun, something like going to a bizarre family gathering and discovering what a peculiar and visionary clan we belong to. No doubt it has many of the same financial pressures that make this global onslaught of art fairs dreadful for dealers, but it’s the kind of event where you run into artists who, rather than being depressed by the moneyed spectacle, actually go to the fair for inspiration. Even with my relatively brief visit and slim social registry, I ran into many of the artists I care about precisely because of the way they care about art, including Maurizio Cattelan, John Drury, Marcus Jahmal, Kaws, Erik Parker, Marcia Resnick, Don Rock, and Andres Serrano, all without the usual embarrassment or bewilderment of being caught on the buying room floor.

Left: Artist Jamian Juliano-Villani, Alina Baikova, artist Brian Belott, and artist Maurizio Cattelan. Right: Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein.

This year I got to go to the fair really early, as “tastemakers” like myself were invited to a morning preview on January 18. (I’m not quite sure what a tastemaker is, but I guess it’s like an influencer, minus an Instagram account with a million followers.) We got to see everything without the crowds and tell the fair’s organizers what our favorite work in the show was. It’s odd to be in such wonderful company of exquisite eccentricity and consider the best in show, like you would at a kennel club. Someone suggested making a decision based on what work you’d really like to own, but that’s not healthy for people who write about art, as we’re the only ones who are not supposed to think about art that way. So I ended up choosing something I could never live with: an installation from this huge collection of toy guns—handmade relics of loving fathers carefully crafting fake guns for their children to play with—courtesy of East Hampton’s Wilsonville gallery. Some dating as far back as the Civil War era, all presumably from before the age of plastic, they constitute a folkloric shrine to the pathology of our nation’s grotesque infatuation with its Second Amendment right to shoot shit.

Left: Arabella Makari, philanthropist Agnes Gund, artist Jane Rosenblum, and curator Beau Rutland.

Thirty-something years ago, when I used to write reviews regularly for Artforum, I returned frequently to the otherworld of outsiders. Writing about these artists from time to time always felt like an unforgettable encounter with the uncanny and a needed relief from all those aspects of contemporary art that can slowly drive you crazy. It’s likely that so much of the art world that walks through the Outsider Art Fair these days finds a similar quotient of reprieve and reaffirmation. As long as the fair can keep its delightful measure of intimacy, something that may be imperiled by its fast-growing popularity, there remains a bond of discovery and wonder, a rare uncommon ground that holds such longtime veteran dealers (for instance, the UK’s Henry Boxer Gallery, New York’s Cavin-Morris and Ricco/Maresca, Carl Hammer in Chicago, and Fleisher/Ollman in Philadelphia) with new generations of aficionados (Dallas’s Chris Byrne, or SHRINE in New York) that appeal equally to collectors of curios and new generations of artists looking to tap into something that just can’t be taught in an MFA program. In the end, like most everything, it may come down to sales. Yet with every uneven step along the way it’s far more of a conversation, the narrative of other lives, the frisson between folkloric traditions and outré visions, the curious contemplation of what authenticity and originality might still mean in this age of instant redundancy, and the sharing of secrets as the treasures of truth.

Carlo McCormick

Left: Musician Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (aka Lichens), Amy Horst of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, artist Michael McFalls, Karen Patterson of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and artist Saya Woolfalk. Right: Musician Young Paris and Vajra Kingsley.

Shining Armory

New York

Artists Carrie Mae Weems and Jason Moran. (All photos: Da Ping Luo)

THE PARK AVENUE ARMORY has two consistent modes: The first is to overwhelm; the second is to inspire a quiet conviction that you’re missing something amazing in another part of the building.

Both struck full-force recently during The Shape of Things, a massive convening to mark the end of Carrie Mae Weems’s year-long residency. Weems invited dozens of participants “to join her in a critique of our tumultuous political and social climate,” filling the gilded, schizo-baroque rooms and halls with a dazzling mix of artists, thinkers, and impresarios. The word “critique” is perhaps misleading; every conversation and talk I heard was oriented toward productive alternatives rather than empty negation. More than “critique.” I saw exploration, variation, and organization, a conscious reflection on the urgent need for new strategies and pathways in response to a violent and demanding present.

Weems assembled friends, colleagues, and allies drawn from years of careful, intimate, often uncharted work. Many had worked together before, or at least inspired one another. During her performance, Anna Deavere Smith noted that, “You know what it’s like, everybody here is an artist.” After, Weems observed that the event itself was inspired by similar convenings Smith had organized decades prior. It was this collective respect that made the day a meshwork of distinctive but connected practices, rather than a laundry-list of egos. I felt lucky to be in attendance.

The Armory has hosted a number of my favorite art events and installations in the past few years, including Paul McCarthy’s odiferous W/S and Ryoji Ikeda’s Transfinite, not to mention a Y-3 runway show that ended with Yohji Yamamoto mock sumo-wrestling his models. But the building’s slightly broken opulence, combined with its rarified Upper East Side location and the sheer scale of its projects, can convey a sense that the art is merely a tribute to the financial and public success of the artist as a public brand. That was not the case with The Shape of Things.

Aja Monet in the main staircase.

The building’s sheer size made the event more spatial than temporal or thematic. Weems, Smith, Shirin Neshat, and many others performed or spoke on the largest stage in the Officers Room; the Colonel’s Room across the hall hosted moderated conversations; while the Tiffany-designed Veterans Room hosted perfectly brief individual presentations. Upstairs no less than fourteen different spaces were busy with dancing, a marathon reading of Leaves of Grass, delicate and touching puppetry from Basil Twist, and Weems’s film work. At one end of the hall the fascinatingly torn-up antique locker room was occupied only by a large nkondi sculpture and a little table with labels inviting visitors to write their “political desires.” Between the north and south wings was the Armory’s overpriced and understocked snack bar, to remind us where we were.

It surely took quite a budget, and quite a few people keeping track of spreadsheets, to make this extraordinary celebration of contemporary black creativity a reality. Unlike W/S or The Transfinite or Robert Wilson’s biography of Marina Abramović starring Marina Abramović as Marina Abramović, there was a clear sense that the event would extend its advantages beyond the artists whose names were on display and the public who could afford to attend. Weems’s generosity and insistence on sharing her success was a constant theme. If the overdriven excesses of contemporary capitalism have made “selling out” obsolete, perhaps that’s because communal survival strategies put less emphasis on where the money comes from than on where it ends up going. “The biggest illusion is that we live in scarcity,” said poet and activist Aja Monet in conversation with Nona Hendryx and Kimberly Drew. “That’s capitalism’s greatest lie. We live in abundance.”

What many of the participants share with Weems is a careful, sensitive practice that explores lived pain and historical trauma without victimizing or sensationalizing. In a day full of vivid images, rigorous historicism, and justified outrage, at no point did I feel like the art wanted to shock or settle for mere indignation. Everyone, as far as I could tell, was there to learn, to teach, or to hang out with friends, and artists shifted roles as they moved between the rooms. This convocation, this sharing and making, was a point of departure and not a self-satisfied conclusion. “There’s a lot of pain,” Weems said toward the end of the day. “But all of these extraordinary artists are showing us how to move.”

Fuck Theory