ART AND ARTLESSNESS:
Chris Johanson's dialogue balloons are too small. His words always spill out of them. It's a persistent problem and one of Johanson's trademarks, indicative of an artistic method based on inspirational fits, of an artist rushing too urgently to center his letters or square his corners. Sloppiness is essential to Johanson's visionary persona and serves as a link to the numerous rural eccentrics, such as Harold Finster and Sister Gertrude Morgan, who work beyond the horizons of the art mainstream. Like these outsiders, Johanson approaches painting and drawing from a fervidly idiosyncratic perspective. His art is filled with leaps of imagination and logic. It's a world sketched in an aggressively internal language, a language developed over years with, if not an unawareness of, then at least a deliberate unconcern for established illusionistic techniques.
How does Johanson maintain this outsider's transcendent insight despite his increasing integration into contemporary art's inner sanctum? What apparatus bestows on a full-fledged professional -- an artist represented by major international galleries and exhibited in the world's museums -- the unaffected artlessness of an isolated hobbyist? It's tempting to draw a parallel to America's chief executive and his successful self-invention as a political outsider. Certainly both phenomena are the products of a growing mistrust of academicism in Anglo-American culture. But while the politics of the art world are simultaneously less cynical and more oblique than politics in Washington, here, as everywhere, performativity is destiny. And as contradictory as it may sound, the role of the heterodox quite often yields the most intimate and mutually beneficial relationship to the powers that be.
Unlike most na´ves, Johanson is not a social recluse. Indeed, his affiliations with fellow Bay Area artists like Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen and Alicia McCarthy are as important a part of his artistic practice as they are of his professional success. What makes this group unique are its creative allegiances, which reside less in academia than in the subcultures of graffiti and skateboarding. The art establishment's positioning of the Bay Area group's work has more in common with the scientific display of cultural artifacts than it does with standard exhibition conventions, and the artists' predilections for non-academic, grass-roots visual disciplines, including sign painting, hobo art and folk crafts, encourage this reception.
Johanson's idiosyncrasy explicitly parallels that of visionary na´ves like Finster, not just stylistically, with a disengagement from illusionistic rendering and art-historical references, but also in its subject matter. Johanson's clumsy paintings and elaborately funky three-dimensional environments pursue metaphysical questions with a prophet's zeal. While Finster and Sister Morgan's apocalyptic visions remain true to the framework of their evangelical Christianity, Johanson's instead reflects the secular new-age positivism that thrives in his native northern California. In the absence of familiar critical strategies, Johanson's sometimes archly metaphysical proclamations about humankind's place in the universe exude a sincere guilelessness that sharply contrasts with the skepticism that has come to dominate academic art. This rejection of normative critical practices is ultimately what clinches his position as a visionary heretic.
When the category of outsider art first gained widespread acceptance, in the 1960s and 1970s, it did so primarily in opposition to the elite modernism that dominated Western art at the time. Outsider art was billed as an antidote to high culture, a challenge to modernism's exclusive claim to an institutionalized narrative of progress. In the 1980's, as this modernist narrative came under widespread scrutiny within those same institutions, the category of outsider art also underwent a subsequent paradigm shift. Amid the erosion of concepts like authorship, uniqueness and the sublime, outsider art no longer billed itself as an alternative to modernism. Instead, it became a sanctuary for those threatened ideals.
Signaled by the debut of the New York Outsider Art Fair in 1992, the boom in the outsider art market came at a time when "insider" art was stuck in a dryly academic mode of criticism and theory. As art schools churned out record numbers of advanced degrees, na´ve art grew increasingly attractive to collectors in pursuit of mythic raw genius. Of course, the very notion of rawness, like that of art's outside and inside, has always been problematic. Apart from artists whose work was discovered only after their deaths or whose mental impairment precludes an awareness of an objective reality beyond themselves, outsider artists and their dealers walk a fine line between professionalism and amateurism, staking their claim in the precipitous territory between art and artlessness.
For most outsiders, geographic and social isolation effectively shield them from the corrupting influence of the art market. Their role as outcasts guarantees their supposed purity. But this same lack of professionalism also poses a problem for their careers and, crucially, for the careers of their dealers, promoters and collectors, all of whom rely on these artists' continued artistic output. Herein lies the value of a professional na´ve, someone who can channel the visionary transcendence of the social outcast while remaining integrated in the art community and, to a lesser extent, society at large.
The social misfit role is nowhere more effective than in the work of Scottish artist David Shrigley. Shrigley's clumsy lettering and awkward, simplistic drawing style suggest an obvious link to Johanson, but whereas Johanson's deviant status depends on his relationship to a subcultural group, Shrigley's is modeled on an even more extreme notion of the artist as solitary eccentric. The persona behind drawings like "Untitled (I Attempts to Write)" and "Untitled (Fancy Looking Crap)" perfectly fits the Romantic prototype: namely, the creative individual isolated in his idiosyncrasy, unable to blend with society.
The accuracy of this role with respect to Shrigley's personal life is debatable -- Shrigley did attend art school, unlike Johanson, and he is even rumored to have friends in his current home city of Glasgow. Shrigley's real-life persona, however, is purely incidental to the ongoing construction of the reject role that has distinguished his art since he first begain self-publishing zines of his drawings in the early 1990's. His artwork is a comedic routine, an endless string of failed attempts to join a larger dialogue, whether social or artistic. These failures, in turn, give shape to a character whose stunted emotional, intellectual and technical development serve the work's alternating comedy and whimsy. Tellingly, Shrigley's recent forays into photography and sculpture met with limited success. Their evident technical craft came across as a bid for a slightly more high-brow legitimacy, and Shrigley's subsequent return to slap-dash drawings illustrates just how proscribed the boundaries can be around the professionally na´ve.
As Shrigley's experiments illustrate, spontaneity is an essential part of the work of these eccentric visionaries. It is what enables them privileged access to supposedly universal truths. Such claims to truth, of course, pre-date outsider art's emergence as a distinct category. Modern art has a long history of ingesting the art practices of marginalized groups to support its own unconventionality. Dubuffet's asylum inmates, Picasso's African tribes, Klee's schoolchildren -- all of these outsiders transcended the rigid boundaries of Western culture, and they did so the same way many canonical artists had since the Romantic poets: via the divine mystery of their own inner worlds. The path to salvation led directly through them, as their art's subjectivity and irrationality posed a direct threat to Western civilization's status quo.
In the same way that Picasso, Dubuffet and the rest appropriated the methods and themes of these marginalized individuals to reinforce their own rebelliousness, art institutions continue to rely on lone artistic mavericks to raise their own anti-establishment currency. One of these pedigreed mavericks is Raymond Pettibon. His prodigious output over a twenty-five year career is remarkable, as is the consistency of his style. Even his recent drawings exhibit a casual woodenness as essential to his own anti-authoritarian voice as his surfers, serial killers, whores and drug addicts.
At the start of his career, Pettibon's punk abjection was read as a repudiation of high-brow themes like technology, vision, stylistic progression and systems of representation. As success draws him closer to the artistic elite, the abject and the sublime in his work are now read increasingly as outgrowths of the variety of Romanticism that dominated high modernism. His disinterest in imitation and his preoccupation with irrationality show a reverence for the experiments of the archetypically modern writers -- Faulkner, Flaubert, Joyce -- he quotes in his work. And his drawings, displayed in modern art museums across Europe and North America, have acquired the same aura of genius.
Genius, constructed via claims to originary inspiration and transcendant vision, remains as crucial to an artwork's aura as its uniqueness. Truly marginalized individuals, while often valued for their transcendence, are rarely afforded the same authorship as "insiders," as their path to genius is always obstructed by the dominance of their relationship to the marginalized group. Professional na´ves, no matter what their actual origins, thus enjoy a privileged institutional status. Their integration into the institutional sphere, combined with their positionality outside of the dialogues -- political, formal, technological -- that govern its course, give them a unique value as ballast; they counter-balance the art world's prevailing movements and thus provide a degree of cunning stability to an establishment founded on the principle of upheaval
by Craig Garrett
[originally published in Flash Art no. 230 (May/June 2003)]
at left (top): Chris
Johanson, Brownness, 2002. Acrylic on wooden board. 15 x 18 inches.
Image courtesy of Jack Hanley.