Outsiders at the Outsider Art Fair

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04/13/2004

300 lafayette st ny

Neighborhood: SoHo

At the Outsider Art Fair – held in the Puck Building from January 23rd-25th – there were as many men with ponytails as there were terms to describe the art they had come to buy: grassroots, vernacular, folk, visionary, Nueve Invention. Yet there was little question as to who were the most important artists in the show. Marquee outsiders include Henry Darger, a Chicago recluse who depicted an imaginary nation of little girl warriors; Bill Traylor, who was born as a slave and began painting at age 83; and Adolf Wolfli, a Swiss psychiatric patient who obsessively created dense geometric designs. None of these men, when they were alive, would have made it through the heavy doors of the galleries who now champion their art.

Their blue-chip status could be apprehended by observing where they were displayed: the dealers with Dargers had the largest and most centrally located booths. The less powerful galleries – from Tennessee, Iowa City, St. Louis, and other outposts of outsider art – drew smaller, far-flung stations.

Then there was Galerie Atelier Herenplaats, a Rotterdam studio and gallery for artists with brain disabilities — primarily Down’s syndrome and autism. The studio’s co-directors Richard Benaars and Frits Gronert hung their artists’ work in booth number 12a, which occupied a recess of the floor adjacent to the drawn curtains of the “show office.”

Gronert and Benaars – both artists in their early 40’s – were recruited to head up Herenplaats by a Dutch foundation in 1991. Gonert spends four days per week in the studio, while Benaars is present three days. Benaars calls his students “a group of 22 highly motivated artists.” Prospective members of the studio apprentice for three to six months before gaining admission. “We see if a talent pops out,” Benaars said. The artists receive wages from the government, which also funds Gronert’s and Benaars’ salaries. “They work in the studio from 9am to 5pm every day. They are artists,” said Gronert. “In my own studio I work two or maybe three days in the week. And evenings, sometimes evenings too.” Gronert has written a book in English, Folly Drawings, which considers Herenplaats artists in the context of outsider art history.

The artwork on the walls and in the bins at 12a reflected diverse sensibilities. Ben Augustus draws what Benaars terms “naked lady pictures.” In Augustus’ drawings, dozens of female figures, drawn in black pen, share the same page. The women all look similar, but only one of them lies on a platform labeled “Velveeta.” Augustus refers to mud wrestling photos as he sketches. Johanneke van Nus draws “nothing but Bible stories.” The artist portrays Christ as a woman wearing a hat and the Disciples as blue blobs. Jeroen Pomp, a 19 year old, paints from right to left, filling the right section of a canvass with trees (“apple, orange, lemon, cherry,” Benaars said), drawing a highway full of cars in the middle and a crowd of animals in the left third.

Some mornings Laan Irodjojo wanders around Rotterdam, making sketches. He always paints in the afternoon. A series of 3 x 1 foot panels based on sketches were displayed side by side in the center of the Herenplaats booth. One depicted a high-rise apartment building; another a crane; yet another a ferry station. “They are perfect,” said Benaars, standing back to look at all five. “Every window in the building is actually there.”

One painting from this series was missing. “The government has it,” Benaars said.

“They are making a copy… you know the pictures you have out on Houston Street?”

“Billboards?” I said.

“Yes billboards. They are making it a billboard.”

“Advertising what?”

“Nothing, just Laan.”

“Public art…”

“Yes, public art. That’s it.”

Benaars and Gronert could overhear a gentleman from the “show office” dispatching his grandson to retrieve a bottle of brandy for him from the cafe and then saying no, he was not upset, but “I asked you to do something” when the boy returned empty-handed. When a bearded man “popped out” from behind the curtains, the Dutch men summoned small grins — ready position for gracious smiles. Their lunchtime came and went as curious fairgoers eyed their displays and flipped through the unframed paintings standing upright on bins. A friend working at another booth delivered banana power bars sometime after 2pm.

“How negotiable is the price on this?” a woman asked, referring to a whimsical painting of a pair of chickens.

“It is negotiable, I think,” said Benaars.

“Can you do five for it?” she said.

Benaars turned to Gronert and the two men consulted briefly in Dutch. “We can do five,” he told her.

She talked for a moment with her friend, then announced: “I think I’m going to do it.”

She said to Benaars, “Can you just hold it for fifteen minutes?”

Benaars grabbed the painting and looked at the woman. “Ok,” he said, “You want -“

“Oh, no – English, right!” she said.

“I was thinking…”

“No, no, just for a second. So nobody buys it. I’ll be right back.” She said to her friend, “It’s a keeper for sure.”

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