Lower East Side, New York
Last night, I walked a few blocks east from Artsicle’s Soho headquarters to attend the opening reception of Creative Growth at Rachel Uffner Gallery. The show, organized by Amie Scally of White Columns, New York’s oldest alternative art space, shares the name of a four decades old visual arts center located in Oakland, CA that serves adults with developmental, physical, and mental disabilities. The ten artists shown were David Albertsen, Maureen Clay, John Hiltunen, Dwight Mackintosh, Dan Miller, Donald Mitchell, Aurie Ramirez, Judith Scott, William Scott, and William Tyler; all are current and former members of the center who have been exhibited both nationally and internationally in venues as varied as New York’s MOMA, Paris’ ABCD Collection, and Lausanne’s Collection l’Art Brut.
All of these artists produce what is known colloquially as Outsider Art: art that is created outside the boundaries of official art culture. The term, coined in 1972 by art critic Roger Cardinal, reinforces the rejection of established art-world ways of life, such as needing an MFA or gallery representation to be successful. Those considered outsider artists often do not have access to these trappings of mainstream art culture and instead exist on the margins of or outside those communities.
Over email, Scally told me that White Columns became involved with Creative Growth nearly a decade ago, when Matthew Higgs, now White Columns’ director, initiated a relationship with the program while he was an Oakland resident. Since his appointment, White Columns has introduced the work of Creative Growth’s artists to new audiences at national and international venues such as Frieze New York Art Fair; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Giti Nourbatsch, Berlin; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Gladstone Gallery, New York; Jack Hanley Gallery, Los Angeles, and White Columns. These exhibitions have all raised awareness and support for the Center and its artists, as well as for “art produced outside of and beyond the traditional parameters of the contemporary art world.” This interest is shared by other curators such as “Massimilliano Gioni, Lynne Cook, and Daniel Baumann, amongst many others.”
Rachel Uffner, also over email, emphasized this interest. Though the gallery has not previously exhibited outsider art, “Amie and White Columns are very talented at contextualizing different types of artistic practices and exposing new audiences to them, and Creative Growth is a nurturing and active community. I have known Amie Scally for a long time as a friend and colleague. I have a lot of respect for what she does at White Columns and elsewhere; I asked her to organize a show with complete faith that she would do something great.” Uffner found the work chosen by Amie to be “unique and thrilling,” which is “part of what [she] looks for in contemporary art in general.”
According to Scally, the work of the ten artists exhibited at Rachel Uffner represents the “idiosyncratic nature of the art produced at Creative Growth.” Aurie Ramirez’s watercolors were a perfect example of this: though Ramirez does not communicate with others, her watercolors are rife with signifiers of a rich internal language. All of the women she creates have a unifying code of greenness and harlequin-like features while the men are exclusively red and have square faces. I loved the well-known wrap creations of Judith Scott, who was born deaf and with Down’s Syndrome. The varying expressions of the figures in Donald Mitchell’s Untitled also fascinated me. Only noticeable upon close examination of the piece, they lend further depth to an already intriguing work. William Tyler’s ink on paper Untitled and Dan Miller’s Untitled merited further looks as well: reading the nonsensical text that accompanied the realistic images in Tyler’s work and sprawling scrawls in Miller’s work provided the thrilling sensation of falling down the rabbit hole of another’s consciousness.
My favorite piece, though, was William Scott’s Untitled (Queen Latifah). It depicts a smiling, thinner version of the celebrity with the inscription “QUEEN LATIFAH IS WHOLESOME” beginning at her right eye and extending down to her cheekbone. The first time I saw the piece, I had a good chuckle but upon closer inspection my opinion of it changed. Her eyes look up and away from the viewer, and her mouth almost curls into an impish smile, leaving me to wonder if this Queen Latifah is perhaps not so and the joke was on me.
Scally told me that the artists themselves have varying degrees of awareness as to what happens to their work when it travels to a show. John Hiltunen, whose collages often pair an animal head with a human body, is very proud of the fact that his work has been brought to New York and Miami. Others have no conception at all, though Creative Growth was established as a venue for both creating and exhibiting art. Over the past 8 years, White Columns has worked with about 15 artists associated with Creative Growth, and their ongoing collaboration will continue with a show at San Francisco’s Paule Anglim Gallery. Those of you on the west coast, I would advise going: Scally told me that White Columns’ director Matthew Higgs walked into Creative Growth’s center completely by chance when he was an Oakland resident, and it changed his life forever.