Professor's new book gets inside the world of outsider art

Ionel Talpazan, Father and Son in Space, 1992. Photograph by James Wojcik.
January 3, 2017 - 5:00am

UO English professor and folklorist Daniel Wojcik thumbs through his latest book, pointing to a series of vibrant images woven into the text: a drawing of the Virgin Mary illustrated by a patient in a psychiatric hospital, rainbows of yarn spiraling into sculptures by an autistic woman, colorful skulls painted by a Vietnam veteran.

The common thread that unites this eclectic group is the subject of Wojcik’s new book, a genre known as “outsider art.” Wojcik examines and challenges the field in “Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma” and inserts his unique academic perspective into a conversation that’s been dominated by the art collectors, critics and dealers who drive demand for these pieces. His research attempts to humanize a group of artists he says are frequently marginalized and disempowered.

The exact definition of outsider art remains somewhat sketchy. Wojcik explains that it encompasses a large and diverse sampling of individuals who exist outside of the mainstream art world, including psychiatric patients, visionaries, trauma victims and others who are isolated or cast out from society.

“The concept of outsider art thrives as a term of convenience, a catchall signifier and marketing label for art outside the mainstream,” Wojcik writes. “Despite attempts to identify some recurrent features of outsider art, there is little, if anything, that unifies its creators except for the ways that they are viewed by dealers and collectors as marginal, unusual or disconnected from mainstream society, creating art in an untutored way.”

Wojcik flips to a drawing of the Virgin Mary by Martín Ramírez, who is often cited as a quintessential outsider artist. After he was committed to a psychiatric hospital in the 1930s, Ramírez began drawing on any scrap of paper he could scavenge — candy wrappers, shopping bags, and paper cups — with any object he could jerry-rig into a utensil, like matchsticks dipped in fruit juices, shoe polish, and saliva.

He hid his pieces from hospital staff for years, but his artistic talent was eventually discovered by a professor of psychology and art, who excitedly equipped him with better supplies. Ramírez began producing more, and more impressive, drawings and collages, which are now among the more valued pieces of outsider art, with some selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wojcik also points to Ramírez’s work as evidence that corroborates one of the major findings from his research, that cultural elements are heavily embedded into outsider art.

The conventional definition of outsider art disagrees. It’s widely accepted that outsider art is largely devoid of cultural influence or meaning. Wojcik challenges this concept by using a folkloristic approach to examine the personal history, ethnic heritage and socio-cultural contexts of several artists to assess whether their work was influenced by culture.

“Many believe that outsider art is untouched by culture,” he said. “But when you look into these individuals and consider the context of the art they create, the cultural elements are so obvious.”

Take Ramírez. Wojcik explains that many outsider art enthusiasts believe this Mexican immigrant’s creativity stemmed from his schizophrenia and is void of cultural influence, but he argues that if they were to consider his life story and Mexican heritage, they would reach a different conclusion.

“Ramírez’s masterful drawings were not summoned out of the thin air of the psychic elsewhere,” Wojcik asserts, before rattling off a long list of images that can be directly linked to vernacular traditions and culture, including Mexican landscapes and churches, a violin-playing skeleton depicting a well-known folk tradition, and horsemen that are likely Mexican revolutionaries.

Wojcik found similar connections between art and culture with the majority of the artists he researched. His emphasis on individual motivations helps to humanize the artists and provides an alternative perspective to a common misconception about outsider art.

“Many outsider art enthusiasts are romanticizing marginality, deviance and human misery, often because it makes these pieces more desirable,” Wojcik said. “I aim to emphasize their life experiences and the context of their work to provide a more accurate and ethical understanding of these artists.” 

Wojcik’s interest in vernacular art stretches back to his youth, when his parents would take him to eccentric roadside attractions like dinosaur parks, bottle villages and underground gardens. Years later, he became aware of more self-taught artists, especially as musicians like David Byrne of the Talking Heads, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and David Bowie were embracing the art and even using select pieces on album covers.

“I became increasingly interested in the assumptions underlying the entire phenomenon,” he said. “The topic was largely outside the domain of folklore studies at the time, and I like to push the boundaries of the field.”

While outsider art has escalated in desirability and infiltrated pop culture, the majority of these artists do not create with the intention of landing their work in a museum or gallery — or on an album cover. In fact, Wojcik encountered many artists making art for deeply personal reasons, namely to cope with trauma, which is another major focus of his research.

While the combination of art and suffering is not a new concept, Wojcik covers an angle that’s received little discussion. He studies many individuals who have no formal artistic training but use creativity as a tool to address adversity.

One of these artists is veteran Gregory Van Maanen, who was “shot and left for dead” while serving in Vietnam and left too traumatized to talk about his horrific wartime experience. Van Maanen told Wojcik that when he started painting and sculpting, he found the practice would “release the scenes in my mind” and called his paintings a “suicide prevention program” and “medicine” for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like Van Maanen, Wojcik encountered many artists he believes “are motivated by concerns and emotions that may affect all people.” He hopes his research helps people realize that so-called outsider artists are not idiosyncratic, pathological or anti-cultural and certainly do not deserve to be placed into an exile of otherness.

Wojcik predicts and hopes the label “outsider art” is on its deathbed because it is inherently marginalizing and alienating.

“A more humane and productive approach recognizes that aesthetic expression is common to all people,” he said.

By Emily Halnon, University Communications