Contemporary art has always had a home at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, but the gallery's reputation for bringing self-taught artists to art-world attention was clearly the deciding factor behind "Outsiderism," the group exhibition inaugurating the gallery's new quarters on Arch Street in a building next to the Fabric Workshop and Museum. (The show was also unapologetically timed to run concurrently with the Philadephia Museum of Art's "Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.")
That said, "Outsiderism" is as different from any previous Fleisher/Ollman show of self-taught art as can be imagined. No Castles, no Consalvoses, no Ramirezes, no Philadelphia Wiremans in this show. It's a perfect fresh start, while cleverly paying homage to the gallery's esteemed position in the self-taught arena.
Organized by Fleisher/Ollman's director, Alex Baker, a former curator of contemporary art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and more recently a senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, the show's works by living - and in many cases, developmentally or behaviorably challenged - self-taught artists, might initially pass for those of trained contemporary artists.
A look around reveals an unusually obsessive, quirky quality to this work: Images are frequently repeated and underscored, and highly stylized. Even so, the viewer is quickly reminded of genuine Outsider Art's increasingly fragile originality in an art world that now accepts it unconditionally as part of the canon.
Gregory Blackstock, in particular, is an artist whose style is a hairsbreadth away from contemporary art, though his urge to classify things that form groups is the result of autism, not a desire to be edgy. A former pot washer at the Washington Athletic Club in Seattle, which featured his drawings in its monthly newsletter, Blackstock's illustrational, chartlike "collections" of flags, state birds, safety signs, and World War II bombers arranged in grids are perfectly rendered in bright colored pencil and marker hues. For Blackstock, they're probably cheerful hedges against chaos. I see a New Yorker cover in the offing at the very least.
The known quantity in this show - and an artist I'd hesitate to describe as an Outsider, as he is a registered architect with a classics degree from Brown University - is Paul Laffoley, but his diagrammatic paintings to do with the occult, early Christianity, art history, and engineering, are as intensely personal and uncategorizable as any work by any visionary artist. But you can't look at Laffoley and not think that Outsider/Visionary art gave him license to break out.
Baker found several of his 13 artists through Arts Project Australia, a Melbourne-based studio and gallery that nurtures intellectually disabled artists. One of these is Alan Constable, who is legally blind but has pinhole vision. He's represented here by the work for which he is best known, ceramic sculptures of various types of cameras, the contours of which are largely determined by his sense of touch. His cartoony version of an accordion-style concertina camera could have stepped out of a late Philip Guston painting.
Lisa Reid draws outlines of images from family photographs, record covers, movies, and magazines onto paper and then fills them in, paint-by-numbers-style, with paint, giving them a curiously fractured, stilted quality. The room and the actors in a scene from The Wild One (Marlon Brando included) look like a cut-paper assemblage or a quilt.
A visit by Baker to Wilmington's Creative Vision Factory, an art center that was founded to provide opportunities for self-expression to individuals with behavioral disorders, introduced him to the graphic novels of Knicoma Frederick, which depict extraordinarily vivid images of the evil he sees in the world and his cures for it (usually through bizarre but satisfying sexual encounters). In his Untitled (Lactating Woman with Stone Man) (2008), a buxom nude African American woman squeezes one of her breasts, from which a waterfall of milk flows onto the back of a tiny man crouched between her legs. You might assume that Frederick has seen the work of Frida Kahlo, or Leonora Carrington, or some other likeminded female surrealist. But if he has, his appropriation is as unique as they come.