In 1985, the renowned, self-taught artist Howard Finster created the cover art for the Talking Heads' album Little Creatures. The Baptist minister painted caricatures of band members in his folksy, childlike style, including one of David Byrne prancing about the countryside in his underwear.
A decade later, Congress declared the work of Finster and other untrained artists a "valuable treasure," and today, celebs like Leonardo DiCaprio collect it. What the art world calls "outsider art" is decisively "in" -- and buyers are gobbling it up.
Last June, Cleveland native Bill Schubert hopped on this trend by opening Headfooters, the first art gallery in Northeast Ohio devoted exclusively to the genre. The gallery's third show, Distinct Voices: Four Cleveland Artists, features 42 colorful paintings and sculptures by Michelangelo Lovelace, Reverend Albert Wagner, Erl Lumpkin, and Dale Goode, all African American men with distinctly different styles.
Lovelace creates frank and engaging yet gritty cityscapes of urban Cleveland. Wagner paints divinely inspired portraits of his family and Old Testament stories. Lumpkin's interior scenes of elegant parties, jazz bands, and dignified, faceless women revel in form and color. And Goode transforms junk into huge wall assemblages.
But what makes these disparate works "outsider art"? Does the genre have identifiable traits?
British art critic Roger Cardinal coined the term "outsider art" in 1972 as the English equivalent of French artist Jean Dubuffet's term art brut ("raw art"). Dubuffet used the phrase to refer to the art of kids, the mentally ill, and naive (or self-taught) artists.
Later, the American art world commandeered Cardinal's term, bloating the definition into a catchall that includes folk and ethnic art, art by religious visionaries, and the self-taught, as well as those by prisoners, hermits, and mental patients. That is to say, the "outsider" imprimatur, which can sometimes be pejorative, can be stamped on anything that's not created by academically trained whites. The art world dumps the handiwork of myriad non-mainstream populations into the rubric's already unwieldy parameters, resulting in a label that's inaccurate and often misleading. And that chaos is reflected in the Distinct Voices exhibit.
Lovelace paints with acrylics in a deceptively childlike style. But the former Cleveland Institute of Art student, whose work has been exhibited locally for almost 15 years, isn't an outsider artist. In "Color Line," Lovelace records his response to the controversial Ku Klux Klan rally held downtown in 1999. Here, as in many of his works, he uses a complicated bird's-eye perspective and signs or billboards to communicate his verbal ideas. The canvas is bisected by a street -- the color line that separates black and white protesters. The scene teems with figures, and while a few cross the line, guarded by police, most stand in segregated groups. On one side, three hooded Klansmen stand beside a burning cross, while other white protesters hold signs reading "Go Back To Africa" and "White Power." Other whites' messages include "End Racial Hatred" and "Not All White People Are Racist." Black protesters offer disparate opinions, too, like "You Hate Me, I Hate You" and "Build More Schools, Not Prisons."
While Lovelace's art focuses on the city's sociopolitical issues, Dale Goode's wall assemblages transform its detritus into sculpture. He begins with huge boards or fragments of picket fences, onto which he affixes scavenged cast-offs, including hats, pants, and mops. Next, he pours on gallons of paint, as if to trap the objects in a state of suspended animation. Finally, he tops them off with a coat of metallic paint, creating a sort of "last days of Pompeii" motif with a special twist: bronze (not lava) as the casting agent. But as with Lovelace, Goode's firm command of art history and theory (and his work toward a master's degree) exempt him from outsider artist status.
Lumpkin comes closer, as a self-taught artist. His art isn't concerned with weighty themes, but rather celebrates the use of color, shape, and line to create pleasing, decorative paintings. In "Lady in Red," he reverently reworks Matisse's famous "Red Room (Harmony in Red)," replacing the fully clad white woman with a faceless black beauty in a backless gown.
Albert Wagner is the exception: A former furniture mover who started making art when he found religion 30 years ago, the reverend is as close to a real outsider artist as this show provides. For him, art and religion are inseparable; he believes he's a prophet, and he uses his art to spread the Word.
His wall sculpture "Crucifixion," made from pieces of scrap wood, nails, and a metal chain, depicts Christ hanging upside down on an inverted cross, with head curled on chest, as the forces of gravity -- and humankind's fate -- rest on his shoulders. Another recurrent theme is the call for interracial harmony, symbolized by clasping hands, as depicted in "Jeremiah and Ethiopia" and "We Really, Really Need Each Other," a simple composition with a black man and a white woman facing each other on a bright blue background.
As engrossing as each of these artists may be, including Lovelace and Goode in a show with self-taught artists like Wagner and Lumpkin only exacerbates the confusion surrounding outsider art. Distinct Voices unwittingly makes a strong case for honing the definition of the genre. Nonetheless, we should admire Schubert for bringing the debate to Cleveland and for sharing four different but engaging visions.