Character Assassination: Colorful Apocalypse Review

Colorful Apocalypse coverThe Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, by Greg Bottoms, University of Chicago Press, 200 pages, 2007. ISBN 978-0-226-06685-1

As an outsider to outsider art, Greg Bottoms is in a great position to ask uncomfortable questions that might otherwise run afoul of the field’s shibboleths and loyalties. Unfortunately, the questions he asks in this book are often as uninformed as they are discomfiting,

Bottoms clearly wants to engage with artists as people, not performers or freaks. Yet he ends up reducing them to some of the very clichés that he seems to want to debunk. Early on, for example, he associates Howard Finster with the myth of outsider-art craziness. He writes of outsider art (and in the context, Finster): “It is more often fuelled by passion, troubled psychology, extreme ideology, faith, despair and the desperate need to be heard and seen that comes with cultural marginalization and mental unease.” Continue reading

Of Context and Privilege: Southern Self-Taught Art

Sacred and Profane: Voice and Vision in Southern Self-Taught Art, Edited by Carol Crown and Charles Russell, University Press of Mississippi, 308 pages, 2007. ISBN 1-57806-916-5 (hardcover)Sacred and Profane: Southern Self-Taught Art cover

This book is definitely not bound for the coffee table, with its undersized images and serious, occasionally turgid, prose. But that’s not the point of this art book, whose admirable goal instead is to achieve a sober art-historical understanding of the self-taught art of the South “in the context of the makers’ experience.”

If it displays more rigor than most books on the subject, however, its authors are not immune to the wishful thinking and biographical bias that mar so much of the popular writing they aim to transcend.

The book gains momentum in fits and starts. Some essays will be more comfortable to scholars than to a general audience. Editor Carol Crown’s own heavily footnoted effort, mercifully unclogged with in-line citations, makes nuanced, useful distinctions across the theologies of artists like Howard Finster and Myrtice West. Despite their shared visionary evangelicalism, they speak in different theological languages if you understand what they are saying. Continue reading

Spamtastic Sculpture

I had to share these two examples of stainless steel sculpture that came to me via some spam mail (“I just browsed your website and find some items are similar to our products.”) I wish I had these kinds of items on my site. Thank you Alisa Chen at Wanfeng (Xiamen) Stone Industry & Trade Co., Ltd. (

Stainless Steel Mao
Stainless steel blob

County Fairs

Squire's Dog Haus at the Lake County FairAlthough the glory days of fairground art passed with the last of the true sideshows, county fairs and carnivals still offer bits of visual interest even if most of the imagery is blandly commercial. These are from the Lake and Kane County Fairs in Illinois, the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee and the Rosholt Fair in Wisconsin. Plus, a bonus image from the gloriously named Temple of Food in Amstersdam.

Spontaneous Creation

Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts, by Vladimir Arkhipov, Fuel Publishing, 304 pages, 180 color pictures, 2006. ISBN 0-9550061-3-9

Folk Archive: Contemporary Popular Art from the UK, by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, Book Works, 158 pages, 2005. ISBN 1 870699-81-5

Folk Archive book coverHome-Made book coverTwo recent books from abroad attempt to document the spontaneous art making of ordinary people, one broadly and one eccentrically.

Folk Archives, from Britain, covers a wide range of vernacular expression, from protest posters to shop signs. Home Made, also published in Britain, takes a certain kind of ingenuity as its subject, specifically creative responses to the acute scarcity of consumer goods in the Soviet Union and its aftermath.

Folk Archives collects the more obviously artistic material, including a number of conventional (if sometimes clearly self-taught) paintings and sculpture, where the artifacts of Home-Made are far more prosaic – flashlights, screwdrivers and floor lamps, among other things.

While the bodies of work in some instances feel familiar (hand-painted shop signs from Britain, a cloth toy animal from the Soviet Union), in others they seem rather alien. The British protest art doesn’t track to any living tradition in the U.S., nor do the makeshift knives and forks from Russia. As hand-crafted utilitarian objects, though, the Russian pieces resonate with traditional folk craft, and like those objects they occasionally attain aesthetic distinction. Home Made makes a strong case that even the most mundane of these objects convey a message about the society and the people who made them.

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Getting Religion on Its Own Terms

Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South, edited by Carol Crown, with essays by Paul Harvey, Erika Doss, Hal Fulmer, Babatunde Lawal, Charles Reagan Wilson and N.J. Girardot, Art Museum of the University of Memphis with the University of Mississippi Press, 215 pages, 122 color plates, other color and b&w illustrations, 2004. ISBN 1-57806-659-X

Coming Home book coverStereotypes have two inherent flaws: They often state the obvious and, when too generally applied, they become false. But they also are inescapable because, in the proper context, they are true.

Carol Crown’s exhibition and catalog, Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South, can’t help but draw on Bible Belt stereotypes because they reflect a big slice of Southern reality. There is a lot more substance here than in many folk art theme shows, since the Bible really is the force behind a great deal of self-taught art.

But at the same time, the point that self-taught art of the South is full of biblical references is, because inherently obvious, not inherently interesting. It is often the job of scholars to state the obvious for the record, though, and the essays in this catalog are all scholarly in nature. That’s a virtue, since it grounds the book in actual research. A casual reader may not want to plow through every essay, but Crown’s text gives a good summary of evangelical eschatology (that’s study of the end times) and Southern Protestantism. Charles Reagan Wilson explores the religious underpinnings of the art while setting it in a broader context of Southern creativity in general. And N.J. Girardot gives special attention to the most dramatic of religiously oriented artists, the builders of monumental environments.

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