Friday, March 13, 2009

ArtWorks Forces My Hand on Outsider Art

When I visited Cincinnati Art Museum’s Isn’t Great To Be An Artist? Insider/Outsider Art from the Robert A. Lewis Collection a few weeks ago, I was met yet again by my inherent discomfort with Outsider Art. I do love folk art, but this show exposes an underlying “primitivist” aesthetic that exploits along racial, cultural, and economic lines. Because I struggle to get beyond this (I left the museum in tears), I decided not to write about the show.

Last night however, I left ArtWorks Green Spaces: Everyday is Earth Day simply furious. The show featured work by artists from Visionaries & Voices, a non-profit art studio in Cincinnati for artists with disabilities. My anger over the show last night is a direct response to a clear lack of respect for these artists. The first thing I notice when entering the gallery was a failure to label any of the works of art. Instead, ArtWorks supplied a printed list of the artists’ names, the names of the works, and poor quality b&w reproductions of the art. I found myself and others walking around the gallery trying to match up the art with the information on the list. I’ve never seen such a poor art installation.

According their website, Visionaries & Voices has a “vision that artists with disabilities are valued members of the cultural community, and that they have opportunities for artistic success and creative growth in an atmosphere of mutual respect, inspiration, and joy.” ArtWorks’ disrespect for these artists is immediately clear in the poor presentation. Further, the marginalization of the artist of Visionaries & Voices became more painfully clear when I walked towards the back of the gallery and saw works by two artists not part of the show whose work were clearly labeled.

While the Cincinnati Art Museum asks the question with Isn't It Great To Be An Artist?, Artworks answers with, perhaps not always.


Anne said...

Sounds like they need 2 weeks of Everybody Counts!

VisuaLingual said...

Kathy, your points are valid. The Green Spaces exhibit presentation is certainly lacking in the polish one would expect. However, at a time when all organizations, especially non-profits, are doing more with less, it seems disingenuous to accuse ArtWorks of a lack of respect for the exhibiting artists. If that were the case, why would this exhibit even happen? It seems fairly obvious to me that this must simply be due to a lack of resources, coupled with the best of intentions.

So, the results are less than what you'd like to see. The alternative, I think, would be to provide fewer of these sorts of opportunities to everyone involved. Already, arts organizations are cutting back on their programming. Is that what you'd prefer?

Me said...

Labels is all they needed to include. This is fundamental to art installations If ArtWorks can't install a show, they shouldn't install one.

It's this, "let me pat myself on the back, at least I provided gallery space to these artists" that is problematic and the point of my harsh critique.

VisuaLingual said...

Pish posh... Labels are certainly more user-friendly than the list, but the list is common practice in galleries, so I think you're making an unnecessarily big deal out of this. Further, at least one of the labels in the back room had obvious placeholder copy so, if you want to accuse the staff of a lack of respect for artists, it was an egalitarian lack of respect, not directed at the V&V artists.

opensquares said...

I think it's interesting you failed to even comment on the artwork of either exhibition. Since you're an art critic you might want to consider it. That's why you went to these exhibitions and that's what your blog is suppose to be about.

I read reviews of most things art related and it kills me when a critic talks about the one thing that irritates them to help validate their authority of the topic.

Like the wall tags! I've been to countless exhibtions at small galleries that have pricelists. I've never once thought a gallery has less respect for an artist if they don't use wall tags. Rather, I pick it up and read about the works.

All the sides to the main course are important. But remember readers looking for substance
don't want to hear that the salad wasn't green enough.

Will you comment on the artwork?

Me said...

opensquares, I think perhaps there was only one exhibition currently showing. The other works to which I referred were simply hanging near the back of the gallery, not part of the show....but labeled.

I too have been to a number of shows providing price lists, but not usually at the exception of labels. This is especially true for a show like Green Spaces that claims a theme or promotes a discussion. VL unconvincingly suggests here cost or funding cuts may have attributed to this choice.

More importantly, I've never been to an exhibition at ArtWorks that did not have labels. Deciding here and now with this V&V show to eliminate labels points to my concern (expressed pretty clearly in this post) about the reception of Outsider Art.

Art criticism does not reside solely in the critique of an artwork. Besides, I find it disingenuous that you demand of me to engage in the specific artwork, but pardon ArtWorks for their lack of merely naming the work and the artists presented in their gallery.

Your wish to have the discussion focus on the art should be aimed at the presenter of the work, just as I have done here.

jafabrit said...

The galleries I have been in in MD, NJ and OH never did labels for my exhibits. It seems some do and some don't and I don't see it as a lack or respect. However since you said they normally label and chose not to for this one show I can see why you are questioning it.

Did you ask about this at the exhibit? I mean about the lack of labels and how distracting it was trying to match the sheet up with the number next to the painting.

Me said...

JBArt, as I do with all my blog posts, I contact the museum or gallery I cite here.

I've gotten no comments on this blog from the director.

The only place I've seen lists like those you mention are for profit galleries. ArtWorks, on the other hand is not only a non-profit, but a gallery that is viewed as a leader in community arts organizations in its work to promote the art of local artists. ArtWorks provides training to young artists, organizes arts partnerships throughout the community, and is overall seen as an advocate for the local artists.

This of course adds to my disappointment. There simply is no excuse for overlooking this detail.

Unknown said...


i believe i understand some of your discomforts with the social (and art critical) implications of these and similar art situations. For my few years of writing about art in Cincy, i've been reluctant to breach some of these exhibitions because of the quagmire of agenda, mixed messages, and projected contexts surrounding the work and constructed movements like "outsider art." i am not wholly against them, but i sometimes feel misled about the terms at which i am meant to accept the art, and also i lack trust whenever naivete is touted as proof of genius outside of canon. these are messy questions that i am not wise enough to attend to yet.

i believe that the issue of labels you raised is trace evidence that could feed into this discussion. i don't think it needed to be jumped on the way others have. recently in another gallery in the city, i watched a staff member talk to an artist with disabilities as if they were a child, when it was clearly unnecessary to do so. while that observation does't fit squarely into a discussion of what is going on within a painting, i think it is important to look at inconsistencies in practice, especially within one organization. i'm hesitant to draw conclusions too early, but i'm also resistant to overlooking issues or making allowances needlessly.

all of that being said, having exhibited at ArtWorks within the past year and visiting and writing about their shows often, I can say definitively that the method of dispensing information about each of their exhibitions has been specific to what is contained in them. Labelling methods vary pretty regularly there. Their default method is labels displayed in clear plastic placards on the wall, but i have seen them use lists that are numbered, clear mailing labels, and other solutions that they've decided befit the exhibition. Rather than looking at this labeling system as automatically demeaning to the artists involved, i am led to generate questions about why this system may have been chosen, what it does or doesn't lend to the exhibition.

also, since Elaine Lynch began teaching at Miami University and departed from ArtWorks, no one seems to officially fill the role of mounting the exhibitions within their normal job duties. As Maria Seda-Reeder has guest-curated in the past, I imagine she might have some involvement.

If i were to hazard an argument attached to the lists used in this exhibition, i think it is less a testimony to ArtWorks subliminally regulating V&V artists to being second-rate artists not deserving clearly defined context, and more

it shows an ongoing need for this and similar organizations to have smart, thoughtful curators solely devoted to the research and community efforts within the gallery and its exhibitions. i haven't heard any word that they are looking to fill Lynch's vacated position.

Anonymous said...

I know you were in tears and everything when you saw ISN'T IT GREAT TO BE AN ARTIST at the Cincinnati Art Museum, but there was also a V&V exhibit in the basement of the Art Museum -- WITH labels, a full-color catalog, and a video. The show is called "Matisse and Picasso: A Visionary Exploration." All the stuff you are getting at about "outsider art" is sort of spoken to in the video and catalog that accompany the V&V exhibit at the Art Museum. The video is on you tube:


Me said...

Anon, I was aware of the Matisse/Picasso show and was really impressed by it. Though I didn't know about the catalog and certainly had no idea about the video. Thanks so much for the link!

Mike, it is really great to see your post here. You bring some much needed insight to the problems with the show and the challenges ArtWorks faces. I especially appreciate your call for thoughtful curators devoted to research and community efforts not only at ArtWorks but at all of our local art organizations.

Thank you.

Unknown said...

ah, thanks, but my name is 'matt,' not 'mike.'

Me said...

ugh sorry Matt...I'm finding that sometimes two monitors allows many more simultaneous conversations that I can easily handle.

If it helps, I did in fact recognize your name immediately as I look for your reviews regularly.

Again, thanks for your input.