We asked nine experts in the field to talk about their favorite self-taught artists.
Vice President, Specialist, Folk and Outsider Art at Christie’s
George Widener is a savant whose images reflect how he sees the world, which is in terms of numbers and patterns. His work can be experienced on multiple levels. The visual appeal of his calendars, magic squares, and renderings of cities and ships is undeniable. But other projects—such as games for artificial intelligences of the future to enjoy— serve a purpose may be harder for us to understand but is just as important to him, if not more so.
Michael Pellew is an artist who makes work that’s very different from Widener’s, but which I think is quite wonderful; he attends the studio at Land Gallery in Brooklyn, a day habilitation program for adult artists with developmental disabilities. His drawings and paintings, which focus on celebrity culture, are both humorous and visually compelling.
PHILLIP MARCH JONES
Founder and Curator-at-Large, Institute 193, Lexington, Kentucky
Although some people don’t believe in speaking about the life circumstances of outsider artists, you can’t really talk about Jessie Dunahoo without biographical context. The fact that he was blind and deaf cannot be divorced from his work.
Dunahoo made astonishing quiltlike panels pieced together from plastic bags and fabric samples. The origins of these works lay in Dunahoo’s past: growing up in St. Helen’s, Kentucky, he would hang intersecting ropes and wires around the family property, creating a 3D map he used to navigate outdoor space. Some of these maps would lead to an area in the woods covered with sewn awnings and referred to by his family as “Jessie’s place.”
After moving to a group home in Lexington, Dunahoo began working with Lexington’s Latitude Artist Community. It was here that he started making the quilts, each the exact size of his four-by-eight-foot worktable at Latitude, and stringing them up around his house and yard.
Though Dunahoo called his works “shelters,” he also understood that they had the potential to be pleasing or beautiful to others. When I showed his constructions at Institute 193, he would sometimes put his finger under his eye, point at one of the pieces, and then put his finger back under his eye, asking me if I liked it. I would write in his hand that I did, at which point he’d pat me on the back and walk off.
Senior Curator & Curator of Self-Taught Art and Art Brut, The American Folk Art Museum, New York
An artist who caught my attention when I saw his work in Europe last year is Marcel Bascoulard, a French artist who photographed himself dressed in women’s clothing from the 1940s until he was murdered in 1978. His pictures will be in our upcoming survey of self-taught photography, in the company of other artists who performed for the camera like Lee Godie.
Two great artists who are very well known in Europe but not in the US are Auguste Forestier, whose work was the original inspiration for Jean Dubuffet’s collection of Art Brut, and Séraphine de Senlis, although a painting of hers his now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, part of the museum’s reinstallation of its permanent collection.
I am also thinking about the Japanese artist Yuichiro Ukaï, whose work has been on view at the last few Outsider Art Fairs and whose drawings, chains of characters from ukiyo-e prints and manga comics, are close in feeling to those of Susan Te Kahurangi King.
An American artist whose work I love and consider very underrated is Steve Ashby. Ashby was a farm hand and gardener who spent his whole life in Delaplane, Virginia. He made wood figures embellished with fabric, hair, and jewelry, sometimes using photographs for their faces.
Another artist on my mind at the moment is Dunya Hirschter, a Croatian artist whose work I saw recently at the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. The cofounder of a theater company in Zagreb, she converted to Islam and moved first to Spain and then to Morocco, where she died in 2008. All her work—mainly embroidered and sewn outfits—has been retrieved by a single collector, who is now donating it to museums.