First published: Fall 2001
Purvis Young’s predicament is that he is always categorized as an outsider, yet he exhibits none of the more discernible traits usually associated with this kind of artist. He is no naif or individual working in extreme isolation, dissociated from contemporary urban life; he makes no claims to visionary status nor does he attempt to pass off his work as religious or spiritual meditation; his process of production is not obsessive or even meticulous. Contrary to what the term ‘outsider’ often conjures up, Young casually refers to Van Gogh, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Cézanne, to National Geographic magazine and public television documentaries, when speaking of his paintings. He has spent countless hours in libraries perusing art history books and catalogues, acquiring a serendipitous education that is not lost in his work. Numerous commentators have drawn connections between his paintings and the collage and assemblage aesthetic of the Dadaists and Surrealists, as well as the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and early Jasper Johns. To this we can add a distant kinship with Italian arte povera. The naiveté is ours if we pretend that Young is simply an uncouth, primitive painter, completely unaware of the history of the medium and some of its major practitioners.
On the other hand, we would be hard-pressed to pass off Young as a contemporary artist, attuned to the current discourses and trends that inform the mainstream art world; he is clearly unaffected by them. More appropriate for the work Young produces is a third category – a way of working that concerns itself with local truths and everyday realities, that speaks to and of the artist’s immediate environment but remains somehow a part of a larger narrative.
I’m not sure what to call this group of artists but I know it includes the work of people like Horace Pippin, Elijah Pierce, Nellie Mae Rowe, Lonnie Holley, and even of certain artists entrenched in the contemporary art world such as Leandro Drew, Gary Moore and Faith Ringgold. All these artists, although different in many ways, produce work that speaks directly and in particular (although not exclusively) to an African-American audience. Their projects are informed by the experiences and plights that this audience has lived through and continues to live through.