I’ve had my brushes (pun intended) with outsider art. My aunt created fantastic murals in her home of nature scenes (although her work was more properly naïve art) and a friend painted pictures with the dye from skittles during a stretch in jail. Still, I wouldn’t call myself an expert. To me, overwhelmingly, when I hear the term “folk art”, I see faux naïf lettering on a slate shingle reading “A Spoiled Weiner Dog Lives Here.” Luckily, you’re not going to find anything like that when the new Graffiti Gallery in Oil City opens its first show, “Outsider Art in Oil City”.
Butch Quinn’s work is the lynchpin of the show. Quinn was a native of Oil City who achieved national recognition. “His paternal ancestors owned a large farm on both sides of East Bissell Avenue on Oil City's north side where Mr. Quinn was raised and which figured in his artwork. The First Presbyterian Church later purchased part of the farm for its new church building and Presbyterian Home.
He spent several years as a delivery truck driver and laborer, but worked independently in recent decades as an "outsider" artist. Self-taught, except for a high school course in mechanical drawing, he made extensive use of found materials such as house paint, old wooden ironing boards and plastic and metal objects, like fan blades. The subject matter, often humorous and fanciful in content, included animals and wildlife, Biblical and daily life themes and the folklore of small town American holidays.
Quinn is represented in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, the Smithsonian Institution Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., the Clarion University of Pennsylvania Museum and other institutions and private collections.
The Clarion collection includes a signature work-a large refrigerator that he painted and repainted with scenes of rural Pennsylvania life. A collection of his letters describing his life and art were deposited in the Smithsonian art archives.”
But, for me, The Bill Brady Jr works are the most intriguing and reminiscent of Calder’s work. Brady’s metal sculptures are plain and coldly polished where Calder was whimsical and colorful. Brady’s work has an industrial ethos, especially in the kinetics of the some of the work. It’s also irresistible that the man lives in a school bus and is building a glider to fly.
"Pivot” by Bill Brady Jr.
The gallery also includes a number of artist whose work is featured in an exhibit running concurrently in the same space, “Works in the Outsider Spirit”. Which brings up an interesting question. Is it possible for a professional artist to create something “like” an outsider? Although the work itself is compelling at time – I was fond of Margaret Brostrom and especially Heidi Heck’s work – I wasn’t clear how they were “outsider”. Their creators are firmly planted in the contemporary artistic culture. In the end, I decided to view their work as an homage, a sort of visual Festschrift, and a home for work that might not fit into these polished artists overall oeuvre. Like Outsider Art itself, it’s probably better to judge these works on their own merits rather than comparing them to Quinn or Brady’s work.
When watching American Pickers last week, I could help but notice the “outsider” artist the host visited seemed a little too slick and media ready. Turns out that he was Butch Anthony. Anthony’s not an outsider artist to me, he’s really post-outsider – no fool he – college educated with a carefully constructed persona. He’s been featured in the New York Times and his art fair is well known.
That slickness is a far cry from what the Graffiti Gallery is presenting with its first show, and I think that’s for the best.
“Outsider Art in Oil City” open tonight, September 10, 2010. The reception runs from 6-9pm at 209 Seneca Street in Oil City. The Gallery itself will be open on Fridays from 2-7pm and Saturday from 11am-7pm. The show runs until October 21st.