"I’ve always been interested in strange art," John Maizels, now editor of Raw Vision, explained to The Huffington Post. "I traveled and collected things. I didn’t really know there was a name to it until I discovered Jean Dubuffet."
The story sounds vaguely familiar. For the month of January, leading up to the Outsider Art Fair, I've been listening to the stories of some of the burgeoning field's most influential players. Given the fact that "Outsider Art" was not a widely used term until 1972, in the time before, there was nothing connecting an assemblage sculpture made in rural Alabama with a meticulous drawing created in a Swiss mental hospital. Except a certain magnetic pull.
"Nobody knew about it, it was almost a secret art form," Maizels added.
In the 1940s, artist and theorist Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut in reference to work made by so-called primitive artists -- mainly children and people suffering from mental illness -- whose work was untainted by culture. Dubuffet's definition was far from perfect, idealizing a naivety that often doesn't exist. But the language began to illuminate a value in art that wasn't hung on museum walls, but rather scribbled on a napkin, tucked in the attic. Meanwhile, in the mainstream art world of the '80s, there was what Maizels called "a deadly scene."
"It was dominated totally by conceptualism," he said. "You could walk into a gallery in those days and there would be framed texts on the wall -- not even pictures. People were just thinking of clever ideas and having other people execute them."
This stream of cold cleverness stood in stark contrast to the vibrant, personal, pulsing works being produced on the outside. "Suddenly, outside of the art world was the art. These were people who actually got their hands dirty, with paint. This rarely happened anymore!"
Maizels, enthralled with the works emerging from the margins without training or context, decided to create a publication to organize the many disparate parts of outsider art. Since most outsider artists work only for themselves, rarely with aims of exhibiting or selling their work, much of their work remained unseen, unstudied and unsold. In 1989, Maizels launched the first edition of Raw Vision, a publication devoted to the art of the outside. Their first issue, he recalled, consisted of only 1,000 copies.
"It was quite evangelical," he said. "We were trying to spread the word in a big way."
A crucial aspect of Maizels' vision for the journal was accessibility. Just as mainstream art institutions had the tendency to come off as unwelcoming and elitist, so did the magazines that circulated around them. "In those days I could buy an art magazine and -- first of all there aren’t any pictures in it -- and you can hardly read any of it. We wanted to be just the opposite. Lots of images and text that you can actually read."
When Dubuffet coined Art Brut, he defined it as work "produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part (contrary to the activities of intellectuals). These artists derive everything ... from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art." In 1972, Roger Cardinal described an outsider artist as one "possessed of an expressive impulse" who "then externalize[s] that impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization." The definition had loosened up a bit since Dubuffet's day, realizing artists did not have to experience mental illness in order to feel an inescapable compulsion to create.
"Over the years it’s become broader and broader," Maizels said. "Now it means anything a bit unusual. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but anything a little outside the mainstream can be outsider art." Personally, Maizels isn't overly concerned with the terminology designating who is outside, who is inside. "Every single human being is an artist at some point," he concluded.
What does concern Maizels regarding the future outsider art is the possibility of outsider artists, often vulnerable individuals who steer clear of the art market and its rudimentary mechanics, will be taken advantage of by the mainstream players. In Maizels' words: "The big danger is that outsider art could be consumed by contemporary art."
Already, outsider art is gaining value in the marketplace, making its way into museums and inspiring the work of trained artists. "Artists can’t help but be influenced by it," Maizels said. "I just hope they actually acknowledge the influence."
As outsider art inches closer and closer into the mainstream, Maizels hopes to provide a handy roadmap. He's bringing his Outsider Art Sourcebook to the Outsider Art Fair this week, featuring a timeline of the quickly evolving field. Along with the book, Maizels is presenting the work of outsider miniaturists, namely Pradeep Kumar and Ben Wilson.
Kumar, whose day job is working as a clerk at the Punjab National Bank in India, sculpts vibrant characters onto toothpicks, reminiscent of Guatemalan worry dolls. In an earlier interview with HuffPost Kumar explained: "Being deaf and partially mute, I always sat in the last row of the class and could not make out what the teacher taught. So just to while away my time in the class, I started making this art."
Wilson, on the other hand, adorns wads of gum on the street with Keith Haring-esque colorful abstractions. "He used to go around London and paint flowers on billboards," Maizels explained, "and he kept on getting arrested for painting on people’s property. So he started painting on the gum on the sidewalk. Then when he's arrested he explains he's not actually destroying the property, it’s just old gum. So there are areas in London where you look at the sidewalk and it’s covered with little pictures on gum."
It's projects like these, wildly imaginative, impassioned, inexpensive, readily available to both artist and viewer, that embody the spirit of outsider art. Despite its current status on the fringes of the art world, outsider art is in a sense the most mainstream art genre of all. It requires no prior knowledge of art theory, art history, or anything else.
In Maizels' words, everyone is an artist at some point or another. The ability to hold on to that impulse, however, is scarce, like gold dust. At the core of outsider art, this tension between the universal and the spectacular continues to build, grumbling and humming all the way. "All children are artists. It’s something so important and natural for everyone to do. Some people they don’t outgrow it like most of us do."
Purchase a copy of The Outsider Art Source Book at the Raw Vision booth at the Outsider Art Fair, from Jan. 21-24, 2016, at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City. See a preview below.