Outsider / folk art takes up a kind of renegade position in relation to other art and to the dominant culture. In its subject matter, singularity and even material construction, outsider / folk art reveals experiences that are often radically different, strange and idiosyncratic. It is to be found the world over in seemingly unlikely places, such as secure psychiatric hospitals, the parlours of spiritualism and the compounds of personal religions, remote and regional places, and sometimes even in the lonely, impersonal jungles of teeming cities. Although it is not defined by the specific life stories of its producers, the field has embraced work by self-taught artists, often with little formal education, springing from a range of identity groups and backgrounds.
From psychiatric hospitals there has emerged artworks from many now-classic outsider artists, such as the Austrian artist Johann Garber (b. 1947). He continues to produce work at Gugging, near Vienna, where he was first admitted at age 19. Garber’s pictorial obsessions with sex and sexuality were therefore allowed to develop into a sustained art practice. Naked men and women cavort throughout both his pastoral and city scenes. While we might expect this is in images of Paradise, it is rather more incongruous in the urban hubbub. As often as not, though, nakedness in the cities is an indoor affair – although the regular use of accessories like clerical regalia and liturgical implements adds a certain suggestive, irreverent spice.
Garber’s gives his erotic drawings the generic name, “Sexi-Blatt” (Sexy Sheet/Paper). The shallow, almost claustrophobic spaces of these densely worked images speak to the horror vacui (fear of empty space) that was long commonly regarded as symptomatic of certain types of mental illness by psychiatry.
Garber’s roommate at Gugging was Johann Korec (1937–2008), and erotica occur throughout his work, too. In the 1960s he began collecting photographs from newspapers and magazines. He soon began using the images to make his own compositions by tracing and combining them. He identified each figure, with women almost always being his own girlfriends, whether the relationship was real or imagined.
Haas Maria Korec is a version of the simple image of the desired other, whose availability to the viewer outside the picture is signaled by the rising sun and her awakening. First Gap Romana is a rather more crudely pornographic fantasy, depicting a couple at a party. The woman is naked and faces front, holding a glass between both hands, thereby rendering her passive, while the man is fully clothed and has his back to us, though he casually clutches her vulva with his left hand in full sight of the viewer.
Overt sexuality and eroticism are, perhaps surprisingly, unusual subjects in outsider / folk Art, but when they do appear they are emphatic and unconstrained. Eroticism is usually thought of as a prelude to the sexual act, but it can just as easily be part of a reorientation and transformation of sexuality, often driven by singular obsessions that blot out all considerations of conventional sensibilities. All of the art in “Known/Unknown” in different ways inhabits territories emphatically outside of ordinary experience. The everyday world has been dissolved, reformed and transformed into images and objects that bring to our eyes tantalising, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes even terrifying insight into other psychological terrains.
Also in Europe but roaming a city was Miroslav Tichy (1926-2011), a master of the stolen image. He worked compulsively and obsessively with handmade cameras fashioned from cardboard and recycled materials, which he used to take clandestine images of women and girls around his hometown of Kyjov in the Czech Republic. The camera was, for Tichy, a liberating device. He used an element of surprise to quickly and surreptitiously capture images that are characteristically natural and unposed. The technical imperfections of his prints only added to a sense of resistance to a rule-bound society. Tichy’s subject was the female form, and in all his work there is an element of erotic desire that merges with an intuitive feel for great composition. The artist’s further play with the images in the darkroom and afterwards, often including crudely made cardboard frames decorated with ballpoint pen, adds not only to the physicality of each print but also to their status as captured thing. The image seems to have lost its usefulness and agency for Tichy at this point and was discarded to join the thousands of others strewn in piles on the floor of his home. In 2009 Tichy announced that he had made no agreement with anyone to propagate his work. This leaves viewers with a complicated encounter, in which they are doubly cast as voyeur, first in relation to the stolen female image and second to the artist’s private objects.