Outsider Art vs Insider Art / by Chris Hall

Appalachia Girl (assemblage) installed in front of Old World New World (painting), 2008.

There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.  Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

This weekend I was featured by Roger Krava Art at the famous Slotin Folk Fest here in Atlanta.  It was an honor to be shown.  This occasion, however, has got me to thinking about my place in the art world.

I've always been interested in Folk aka Outsider aka Naive Art.  I first came across the concept way back, probably in 1995, when someone told me my work looked Naive.  I was at first a bit insulted, until she clarified to me exactly what she meant.  As the word "naive" still connotes ignorance and "folk" as something a bit simple, plain, or rooted in tradition, I generally prefer to use the term Outsider Art, but it is pretty much the same thing and the words are interchangeable when used to describe a particular approach toward art making.  Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but all of it exhibits the artist's heart, their individual quirkiness and such.  To me this is a much better thing than the crisp, cold, overly intellectual investigations that much of contemporary art favors these days.  

When I was in grad school everyone knew that I came in heavily influenced by Outsider Art.  A professor warned me that after grad school, I could no longer call myself an Outsider artist.  During the last months before graduation I made a piece in secret which I planned to reveal as part of my thesis show.  It was not an overt act of rebellion, just what I thought might be a pleasant surprise.  Upon seeing it, another professor told me, "I thought we beat the Outsider artist out of you!"  It was the assemblage entitled Appalachia Girl (2008).

Readers of my blog may be aware of my stance on a lot of the cold and conceptual art investigations that dominate contemporary art, "sophisticated" art that champions the idea over process, sometimes sacrificing any sense of beauty or aesthetic sense.  I would prefer a balance, a balance of concept (mind), aesthetics and beauty (body), and spirit (heart, soul, personality).  I may not always create art that lives up to this standard, but I think it is a worthy aspiration.  Perhaps my critical stance on art then, makes me (despite my education) an Outsider Artist?  I don't know.  Maybe.  At the same time, however, it seems most Outsider Art is done from a joyful place, a place I do not visit too often.  I am too critical of things, rarely satisfied . . . 

I've tried here to consider what it is that distinguishes an Outsider artist from an "Insider" artist.  What I haven't considered is my MFA degree.  To some that would be the nail in the coffin that would keep me as being an Outsider artist.  Strange.  A piece of paper.  

But here I am . . .

Too critical for Outsider Art, yet too "outsider" for contemporary "Insider" Art . . . I wonder where I fit in exactly?  

Perhaps I am one of those rare Neo-Expressionists I keep hearing about:  dinosaurs, lumbering about in the contemporary art world, left over from the early 1980's.  I hear they may be going extinct.  I hope not.  But if that were the case, then at least I would be an interesting study.  Maybe people should write books about me.  

The Last Beast in the Sky.

Or not.  

Maybe the next book in my life should be called Phoenix Rising, or better yet:  Fire Chicken!

How appropriate then, that all the good things that are happening in my life of late are taking place in Atlanta, whose motto is Resurgens and whose symbol is the Phoenix.

This story should have a much happier ending.