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Art Review : 'Outsiders': Spare-time Fever Burning Bright

May 22, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

The line between outsider and insider art has become so fuzzy that we might not know what's up at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum were it not for the title of the show.

Products by the unschooled and eccentric artists featured in "Outsiders" are just barely housebroken, but so are many of the Neo-Expressionist works of graduates of our finest art departments.

There are differences, however, of a more fundamental nature than formal training. For one thing, outsider art is usually made of throwaway materials, with an inspired lack of refinement. For another, the artists have a compulsion not only to make art but to fill every worm's width of space in it. Howard Finster, for instance, often spews out his moral entreaties and Christian sermons on the backs as well as the fronts of his paintings and sculptures.

The outsider art at Santa Barbara (through June 8) has enormous stylistic range, but it shares conviction. No limp aesthetes, these artists suggest spitting valves under pressure. Impassioned writing on Finster's painted wood sculpture of "The Devil and His Wife" preaches the virtues of monogamy and premarital virginity on the nude, pink bodies of a couple who "plan to take over the world with the key of sex."

Bessie Harvey, whose tar-covered-root figures are among the scariest things I've ever seen in a gallery, has actually burned 40 of her sculptural people because they were too strongly possessed by evil spirits. Two survivors are here--all lumpy, ghoulishly grinning, and sure to get you if you aren't careful.

Nearby, Ted Gordon's drawings of monster faces press out of their spaces in swirling increments--rather like wild-eyed Gargantuan creatures that have grown bigger than the jails that confine them.

Jon Serl's decidedly painterly--and often spooky--paintings usually feature dreamlike visions of elongated, boneless figures.

It's probably the flavor of authenticity that most strongly distinguishes this art from school-bred varieties. That quality, plus the apparent directness of the artists' communication, remove the usual barriers between art and its audience.

Since outsider art doesn't come from a knowledge of art history, it requires no such background to interpret it and thus seems immediately accessible. But the decipherable message is often a fierce emotional tone or the impact of strong shapes and obsessive patterns--and not content.

There's no telling what has happened to the fluid, cartoonish figures that ooze their way through Albert Louden's pastel drawings like so much melted candy. Mose Tolliver's people, in house paint on irregular wood panels, simply confront us head-on--either presenting their sexuality or an inscrutable presence with sophisticated authority.

The expansive scale and apparent simplicity of these two artists' works belie the psychological intricacies behind them.

Because outsiders make art for themselves, they sometimes develop a personal language of symbols that defies translation. None is more private than J. F. Murry, an illiterate man from Georgia who has devised a script he says can be read through a jar of water. In some works on view he alternates horizontal lines of writing with soft bars of watercolor.

The flip side of Murry is E. B. Jordan, who is anything but illiterate. A physicist who taught at American universities in the '30s and '40s, he refused to work on the atom bomb and has been a reclusive artist for the past 40 years, turning out primitive-looking fantasies in sparkling little paintings. At Santa Barbara, he shows a spotted rhinoceros, a playful airplane and a "Mosquito With Sunglasses." Equally joyous are David Butler's painted tin sculptures of a "Man Angel" and a "Flying Elephant," suspended from the ceiling.

You have to wonder just how far outside this art really is, once it's lodged in a respectable gallery.

And when you learn that most of the works were borrowed from collectors and other galleries, it seems that outsider art is being assimilated as one more commodity. A more serious issue is whether the art will be diluted in the process. That wouldn't do, not only because an expressive genre would disappear but because a long romance with the "mad artist" would be threatened.

The infatuation is all a matter of degree, of course. Laymen like to think all artists are crazy, while modern masters as widely acclaimed as Jean Dubuffet have long championed the art of the insane and the eccentric.

There's a hint that Finster, for one, has already been corrupted by acceptance. In a painting called "I Like to Rest Upon Names of Good People," he includes two art dealers among the favored. But another look at his art and that around it suggests that these artists are too possessed by their muses and too independent of the Establishment to give much thought to such a foreign system.

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