British art critic Roger Cardinal didn't realize what a can of worms he was opening in 1972 when he coined the term "Outsider Art." He was looking for a suitable translation for the French term "Art Brut," which in turn had been coined in 1948 by the artist, collector and curator Jean Dubuffet. Cardinal hoped to update Dubuffet's phrase, which had originally applied to art made by asylum inmates, into an umbrella term to include work made by artists who had not gone to art school. But in succeeding years, there would be innumerable turf wars over just who was "outside" enough to be an Outsider, and Cardinal's term wound up being more divisive than inclusive. Despite the semantic acrimony, Outsider art continues to flourish on the sidelines of the contemporary art world, and a group show this month at Mark Woolley's two Portland galleries demonstrates how fresh and invigorating this genre can be.
The product of three years of organizational finesse by Seattle curator Anne Grgich, the show offers a wide stylistic cross-section. At the gallery's Pearl District location, Salt Lake City artist Lyle Carbajal contributes two large works on panel, both untitled, that highlight Outsider Art's rough-hewn appeal. The crudely rendered figures and gritty surfaces have a primitivist allure—echoed across the gallery in English artist Delaine LeBas' skull-laden works, with their embroidered, be-sequined finishes. Donald Green, who hails from Washington, takes off in an unexpectedly elegant, conceptual direction with Baptism, a photographic installation made up of 15 panels, each protruding at a different distance from the walls and collectively portraying a man clad in a blood-red loincloth. Grgich's own works are on display, most notably Sphera Ameris, with its glittery jewel tones and encaustic surface. Showing the Outsider's disdain for traditional media such as canvas and panel, Grgich prefers to paint on unexpected surfaces like surfboards and jigsaw puzzles. Portland's own Walt Curtis offers the spectacular Our Lady of the Pumpkins, a ravishingly garish riot of reds, oranges and chartreuse, packed with Curtis' playfully erotic imagery. Riding dogs as if they were horses, naked men with erections reach out for one another's hands, yearning for connection as an earth-mother figure floats to the side: Gaia overseeing her creation in all its perverse vitality.
Woolley's Northeast gallery expands the show, with the full space dedicated to other Outsiders such as Michigan-based multimedia artist Douglas Padilla. Padilla's Los Diablitos has a Mexican/American Southwest feel and an overabundance of pictorial elements (collage, text, brightly colored dogs, and, for good measure, uncooked elbow macaroni glued to the surface) that somehow congeal into pleasantly raw eye candy.
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Both shows close May 27.