First published: Winter 2017
For those unfamiliar with the quality of artwork made by what has become known in contemporary parlance as an “outsider”, once seen it is remembered. Viewers are confronted with the disquieting aspect of a raw urgency and unrelenting psychological imperative that seems to drive the creative process. What specifically defines an outsider artist remains the subject of heated debate and a daunting exercise concerning the politics of aesthetic convention and the social history of art. However, it is generally agreed the artwork of an outsider tends to be made without notable training. An individual spontaneously and obsessively begins to develop a significant body of work separate from fashionable mainstream trends. In the realm of outsider art, creations are made without apparent availability, desire, or access to cultural integration and the current language of art. (1)
Caption: The Giants, Palais Idéal, Hauterives, France, (Ferdinand Cheval), 1987
My focus of my interest in outsider art and how that relates to photography has been mainly upon exterior three-dimensional works of sculpture and architecture: visionary environments. Turning to the genre of art brut and outsider art as a photographic exploration became a direct response to what I realised was lacking in my formal art education, a response that was as much a re-evaluation of institutional convention as it was an addendum to my own understanding of what art making was, and could be – something intuitive, urgent and raw, operating outside of institutional frameworks or sanctioning.
At a time in the art world when fleeting trends, appropriation and derivative sourcing for inspiration too often had a strangle-hold on the creative process, paying homage to unbridled original ideas and new aesthetic content was more valuable than ever. My attraction to this form was to the scale of the projects and long-term dedication to them by self-taught builders; the ongoing commitment to their spontaneous organic creation, a piece of architecture or series of exterior sculptures – where structure and detail were voiced with a unique aesthetic sensibility and visual language. I was attracted, too, by the economy of means, routinely incorporating found materials, and how the process of gathering and assembling was often explained by the artist in autobiographical terms. Indeed, storytelling and philosophising were often key components to the experience of a visit.
Meeting these individuals while in their environment was always a highlight for me: getting a personal tour of Vollis Simpson’s workshop, where he crafted countless gigantic whirligigs; listening to W. C. Rice preaching hell and damnation of sexual obsession while standing in his Miracle Cross Garden; standing in awe of Billy Lemming as he explained the health benefits of electricity while in the throes of self-administered electroshock therapy; discussing the earthly manifestations of God and heaven with Howard Finster; or the philosophy of beauty in found objects with Bodan Litniansky while walking through his Jardin de Coquillage.