The conversation about Outsider Art often centers on larger exhibitions and fairs. The Outsider Art Fair was held last week in Paris and will come to New York in January, with these events the buzz about non-traditional art forms and which artists to collect has increased. As more people are becoming informed about the art form known as Outsider Art, local art centers that serve artists with disabilities have been increasingly entering the popular art scene.
In Los Angeles, just off of Pershing Square in Downtown are two surprisingly refreshing art spaces that offer a welcome break from the gritty bustle of the neighborhood. The Downtown Art Center (DAC) and adjacent Exceptional Children’s Foundation (ECF) are exploratory spaces that foster creativity and provide exposure to adult artists with developmental disabilities. The current exhibition at DAC, entitled “THEDOGGOINGBARKAYOU”, is an exchange between the ECF’s Art Centers and the Portland Art and Learning Studios. The title for the show came from a work by one of the artists featured, Harvey Allen Schwartz.
Above: Harvey Allen Schwartz and various artists. Previous: Harvey Allen Schwartz, “THEDOGGOINGBARKAYOU,” wall mural, 2019. Photographs courtesy of ECF and the artist.
THEDOGGOINGBARKAYOU” intrigued the exhibition’s curator, Christian Rogers, as he felt there was a certain ambiguity in the phrase. Whether the words are a warning or playful message is unclear, and the dog itself offers only a deadpan expression. Schwartz, a Los Angeles based artist, often pairs animals with text in his works to give the viewer insight into his thought process and, according to ECF, the artist’s past personal experiences. For this exhibition, Schwartz painted directly on the gallery walls. In one work, he drew a face, perhaps his own, and paired it with the words “OHSHIT.” In another, he has nixed any imagery and offered the phrase, “MAYBEYOUGOTHOUGHLIFEBEINGBYLOSEINGCONTROL.”
While Schwartz is a local artist represented by ECF, the majority of the artworks on view at DAC are by Portland-based artists. In developing the exhibition, Rogers selected works from ECF and Portland’s Art and Learning Studio and did an exchange for the duration of the show. The concurrent opening receptions were connected via live stream so the artists could see their works on display.
Rogers explained, “The artists love seeing their work up in a gallery. Like anyone, they are always excited to see themselves and their work represented. I don’t know how many of the artists understand when “the art world” notices them or their work, but they all understand what it means to be celebrated! The energy and passion in these communities is contagious. Spending time with these artists and their work has helped me connect with my own work in ways my formal education never did.”
Previous: Various artists. Above: Aaron Cunningham, “Noah’s Ark,” gum, candy, and cigarette wrappers on paper. Photographs courtesy of the Portland Art and Learning Studios and the artist.
My personal favorite was a robot made of gum, candy, and cigarettes foil wrappers by Portland-based Aaron Cunningham. Entitled “Noah’s Ark,” the work features a silver robot standing inside a magenta egg-shaped object. Daniel Rolnik, gallery director of the Portland Art and Learning Studios, explained that this piece relates to a larger body of work that Cunningham created as an homage to fallen staff members, celebrities, and public figures. Paired with fake obituaries, the works are a testament to Cunningham’s incredible creativity.
Through centers like ECF and DAC, outsider artists are gaining national and international attention. Marlon Mullen, an artist from the Nurturing Independence through Artistic Development (NAID) Art Center in Richmond, California, was recently selected for the 2019 Whitney Biennial. He is also represented by Adams and Ollman in Portland, Oregon, a gallery that has included a handful of outsider artists on their roster.
As Rolnik explained, connecting their artists with mainstream galleries and helping them get representation is the ultimate goal. While some larger centers are able to participate in art fairs and help gain wider exposure, most have limited resources and can only take their artists so far. The significance of an interstate exchange like “THEDOGGOINGBARKAYOU” is huge for the artists and the centers.
With exposure fostering Outsider artists’ careers and practices, exhibitions and online markets have provided the opportunity for artists to capitalize on their craft. Both ECF and the Portland center, for example, have extensive websites that introduce each artist and list their artworks for sale. While talking to Rolkin, he mentioned that discovering Outsider artists and their works is addictive, and I completely agree. The more I researched the centers, the more I learned about wildly talented artists who are pouring themselves into their works without any inhibition. These centers are treasure troves of under and unrepresented artists. Rogers shared that one of his favorite centers is Creative Growth in Oakland, California, “They support and represent artists that have even been exhibited in major museums all over the world. They’ve even had artists in the Venice Biennale! While a lot of the bigger name artists at these centers do cost a lot, the majority of the work is priced from $10-100!
They have interesting and often unfiltered perspectives…Centers like ECF constantly remind me that the best work (in my opinion) comes out of a studio practice that does not care about rules.
Christian Rogers, Outsider Art Curator
One thing that Rogers said resonated strongly throughout the show, that participation in non-traditional art forms connects the viewer to “the primal human experience of what it means to make art and to say ‘I exist.’” Centers like ECF and DAC are important, local reminders of the often forgotten artists who, like everyone else, are just trying to express themselves and connect with others. The personalities and stories behind each of the artworks at DAC were so evident. There was no common theme or overarching narrative connecting the works. Rather, the artists are uncensored and uninhibited by the gallery. As Rogers noted, “No one is telling them how or what to make. They have interesting and often unfiltered perspectives…Centers like ECF constantly remind me that the best work (in my opinion) comes out of a studio practice that does not care about rules. At ECF, the rewards of an artistic practice based on daily self-exploration are everywhere.”
“THEDOGGOINGBARKAYOU” is on view through the end of the month, but the practices and expressions of self-exploration and creativity are always on view at these centers. They are welcoming and eager to promote their artists and be a part of the art world conversations. I would encourage everyone to explore these centers and make Outsider Art a part of their art experience, whether it be through collecting or visiting exhibitions, to further the strives already being made to broaden the art world and redefine the vernacular.
“THEDOGGOINGBARKAYOU” is on view at Downtown Art Center (DAC) Gallery through November 2nd, 2019, 431 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013.
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Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer focusing on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, and Artillery Magazine among others. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.