Looking In 

Bold, unfettered works from outsider artists make for absorbing, even spiritual viewing experience

Bold, unfettered works from outsider artists make for absorbing, even spiritual viewing experience

European Outsiders

Through Feb. 24

The Attic Gallery

2302 12th Ave. S.

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

For information, call 298-2803

Art is at its best when it forgets its very name.

—Jean Dubuffet, French artist and printmaker

The concept of outsider art in the U.S. is still relatively young. The term outsider art, in fact, only came into use in this country in the early 1970s. In Europe, however, the idea of art created beyond the boundaries of the traditional art world dates back at least to the early part of the 20th century, when a Swiss psychiatrist documented thousands of small paintings produced by one of his institutionalized patients. A few years later, another European psychiatrist collected dozens of works by patients into a book called The Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Published in 1922, the book was influential among Surrealists and other formally trained artists of the time.

Jean Dubuffet, a trained French artist, was particularly affected by the works presented in the book and coined the term Art Brut, or "raw art." He amassed a huge collection of these works, and his holdings eventually became the core of the Collection de l'Art Brut, a museum devoted to the genre in Lausanne, Switzerland.

From those roots, a tree with a vast number of stylistic branches has grown. As a genre, Art Brut has become interchangeable with outsider art, while the latter has itself been broadened, in the U.S. at least, to include contemporary folk art. An array of outsider offshoots bearing labels like intuitive art, visionary art, na‘ve art, and marginal art further complicates the notion of what outsider art is and isn't. "Art Brut—or outsider art—consists of works produced by people who have not been culturally indoctrinated or socially conditioned and who work outside the fine art system of schools, galleries, and museums," writes Michel Thevoz, curator of the Collection de l'Art Brut. "They are artists who make up their own techniques, often with new means and materials, and they create their works for their own use, as a kind of private theatre."

The best way to understand what outsider art is—especially outsider art from the European tradition—is to look at some. That's the idea behind the latest show at The Attic Gallery, where works by seven European outsider artists are now on view. The works come to Nashville via British outsider-art dealer Harry Boxer, a longtime friend and colleague of Jerry Dale McFadden, owner of The Attic Gallery. McFadden attended the ninth-annual Outsider Art Fair last month in New York City and returned with several pieces that Boxer had displayed at the show. These, along with a few European outsider pieces McFadden has collected over the years, form the basis of this small but fascinating show.

Among the most striking pieces in the show are the watercolors of British artist Donald Pass. As with many outsider artists, both American and European, Pass claims divine inspiration for his art. For that reason, his work is often classified as visionary art. "I sense God when I do the drawings," Pass has said. "I have a tremendous sense of his compassion, and I have actually wept as I have been drawing, because I was so moved." That wasn't always the case, according to Pass, who prior to 1969 was simply another amateur painter. That year, he says, he had a mystical experience in an English country churchyard—an experience so profound that Pass put down his paintbrushes for 15 years. When he picked them up again, it was to create vivid depictions of his churchyard visions.

At first glance, these paintings seem very much in the tradition of William Blake (1757-1827), the trained British artist and poet who also claimed divine intervention in his creative process. Like many of Blake's majestic engravings and drawings, Pass' watercolors depict Old Testament-style angels with flowing beards reaching down from on high in a Judgment Day scenario. Pass' angels, though, are more expressionistic in style and often faceless, and are surrounded by the milling masses of humanity waiting to be lifted up or cast down in the final days. "There were thousands of presences above and around me; some had the lion face of the angel I had seen as a child," Pass recalls of his religious experience. His watercolors capture the sense of vast space filled with infinite beings, of light and darkness merging, and of sound and silence that he also says he experienced.

The delicate style and charming subject matter of Dora Holzhandler's watercolors contrast sharply with Pass' bold, mystical works. Born in 1928, Holzhandler presents simple and often idyllic scenes of life and love filled with blissful round-faced couples and children. Holzhandler's paintings also reflect her Jewish heritage and her exploration of Buddhism in symbols and designs used within her scenes of happy lovers and families. She is one of the best-known British na‘ve artists—a label that refers to untrained artists who depict largely realistic scenes, often in minute detail, with people, animals, and other aspects of the observed world, sometimes combined with fantasy images. Such artists, Grandma Moses and Henri Rousseau among them, often reach a level of sophistication that verges on professionalism. Holzhandler's work is likewise as skilled.

Other artists in the show include Ody Saban, a 47-year-old Turkish artist living in Paris whose richly patterned and vibrantly colored watercolors reflect her exotic heritage; Herbert Liesenberg, a mentally challenged German artist whose childlike crayon drawings are in the Art Brut collection in Lausanne; and Gerard Sendrey, a French artist whose line drawings of figures on photo paper have a Surrealist look to them. There is also a single work by renowned British outsider artist Madge Gill (1882-1961), whose tragic personal life inspired her haunting self-portraits, and two works by James Lancaster, a young British visionary artist who paints small nude angels, some without legs or arms, floating in a womb-like space.

The works of these European outsiders vary widely in style and media, but they all possess an individual, even idiosyncratic, spirituality—though not always one that is religious in nature. It is this, rather than the lack of formal training or contact with the arts establishment, that unites outsider artists. It is also this spiritual sensibility that gives these fascinating visuals the power to get inside the viewer's head and heart—the places where art really happens.

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