By James Lettiere, Art Critic
May 17, 2017: The current exhibition at the Hirschl & Adler Modern, Parallel Unknown, on show until May 26, comprises small samples of the works of eight Outsider artists. It is very engrossing; visual simplicity and graphic dexterity combine to create a modern image.
"Outsider Art" is defined on the art website www.artsy.com as: "A label applied to artworks that have little connection with the art world or are created by people with no formal art training. The term is also applied to artworks by people with psychiatric disabilities and others on the margins of society. However, as more and more examples have been exhibited and subsumed into the historical canon, some have argued that the 'outsider' label should be retired."
The artists in this exhibition are "outsiders," an eclectic mix of individuals with unusual attributes: Hawkins Bolden, a blind self-taught artist; Edward Deeds, a near lifelong ward of the state of Missouri and a mental patient; Royal Robertson, a self-proclaimed prophet; Mary T. Smith, a hearing-impaired domestic servant; Bill Traylor, a self-taught artist who was born a slave and became a sharecropper after Emancipation; Valton Tyler, a self-taught artist universally referred to as "visionary"; Frank Walter, a recluse who lived in a small cabin without running water or electricity; and David Zeldis, a sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
However, notwithstanding their diversity, their art displays common themes, as described on the Hirschl & Adler website:
Co-organized with Shrine (New York City), "Parallel Unknown" examines the unintentional points of connection and affinities shared by eight important Outsider artists. These artists, who at first glance appear to be unlikely matches, display an overlap in themes, materials or intention. By exhibiting them together, striking connections can be made despite each artist's lack of awareness of the others' output. Usually regarded in terms of singularity, the very term "Outsider Art" celebrates an artist’s unique experience or vision. "Parallel Unknown" shows that, while singular and visionary, the artists included here are nonetheless united by their shared artistic exploration of the human condition.
The pictures of Bill Traylor are some of my personal favorites and the examples in this exhibition are excellent representations of his work. The website says of Traylor:
A key figure in the tradition of twentieth-century African American folk art, Bill Traylor (1854-1949) is considered by many to be the truest embodiment of the "outsider" or "self-taught" artist. A visual story teller whose drawings have been likened to such evocative interpreters of the South as William Faulkner and Robert Johnson, Traylor's iconic images of people and animals reflect his powers of imagination as well as his close observation of the world around him. Critics have long speculated about the social, cultural, and political implications of his art, as well as its parallels with blues music. What is always agreed upon, however, is its universal appeal stemming from the artist's sincerity, humor, and remarkably sophisticated formalism.
Another standout for my taste is Mary T. Smith. She can express a heartfelt emotion with a minimalist technique. The website says of Smith:
Mary T. Smith (1904-1995) was born in southern Mississippi and worked as a domestic servant throughout most of her adult life. Smith was born with significant hearing loss, which became more severe with age and made her speech difficult to understand. As part of the Southern tradition of "yard shows" that black artists used to decorate their property and convey messages that could not be openly voiced, Smith created an outdoor environment of incredibly graphic oil enamel paintings on found wood and pieces of corrugated roofing metal that she would drag home from a local garbage dump.
For more information about the exhibition and its eight artists and for general information about the gallery, go to www.hirschlandadler.com.
Hirschl & Adler Modern
The Crown Building
730 Fifth Avenue, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10019
Note that because of building renovations, the entrance is around the corner on West 56th Street.
Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 am - 5:15 pm
Saturday, 9:30 am - 4:45 pm
Closed Sunday and Monday
Photo by James Lettiere