Inside Looking Out

Tamara Hendershot seeks out those who work their artistic magic in obscurity. The visionary art she finds is hot, but for her, buying and selling it is a labor of love.

Award-winning artist Milton Schwartz charts the course of Western civilization on a growing sheaf of manila file folders that he keeps in a desk drawer. Each of the folders is covered inside and out with a crowded collage of words and pictures. Schwartz's meticulously arranged constructions reveal a sublime world perspective that fuses religious fervor with a potpourri of pop culture images. Photos and drawings clipped from newspapers, tourist brochures, and advertisements illustrate Schwartz's hand-printed pronouncements --the StarKist mermaid and Abraham Lincoln, the Hooters girls and the Virgin Mary appear side by side. The text is written in the didactic style of biblical teachings, but with the zip of advertising copy. One series, The Life of Jesus Christ From One to Ten, offers Schwartz's interpretation of everyday activity in the Nazarene community. In addition to Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, his characters include physicians Dr. Luv Ever Ready and Dr. Hym Watchal, nurse Miti Fine, fisherman Commodore Catchall, and animal trainer Jake Master Wise. The rambling primer, replete with found slogans and original proverbs, promotes a do-unto-others philosophy and outlines the regimens for healthy eating and exercise that, according to Schwartz, were adhered to by the characters in the Scriptures.

"This is a way for me to get my outlet," Schwartz says of his current work. "When I write, it's not for 1996. I believe that the babies of the future will be interested in this."

Despite his statement of purpose, Schwartz's work has recently garnered some attention. One of his collages took first prize among the more than 700 entries to the eighth annual "National Art Exhibition by the Mentally Ill," which is on display through the end of this month at the University of Miami's New Gallery, one stop on its countrywide tour. The show was organized by a Miami-based volunteer group, with the goal of reducing the stigma associated with mental disorders by exposing the work to the public. It also gives institutionalized artists a chance to make some money, as the works are for sale.

A former New York City fabric merchant who now resides in a private Miami Beach adult living facility, Schwartz is self-taught, compulsive, prolific, and visionary, all characteristics of those commonly known as outsider artists: prisoners, the homeless, the rural poor, the insane, closet eccentrics, country clerics, and garden-variety obsessives with no formal training and a lot of time on their hands. By definition, outsider art seems to combust from the soul, born of a spiritual necessity.

This kind of marginalized expression has long fascinated trained artists in search of a primitive, pure aesthetic. Art by the insane was championed early in this century by the surrealists. American painters in the Twenties looked for a national identity in the self-taught folk art of rural dwellers. In the Fifties, the painter Jean Dubuffet dubbed the work of psychiatric patients art brut, or "raw art." Roger Cardinal, a British historian, is widely credited with coining the term "outsider art," which he used in a 1972 book by that name.

Over the past decade, outsider art has gained popularity among a broader audience. The emotional appeal of these artists' ostensibly simple, flat perspective paintings and rough cast-off constructions presents an obvious antidote to the jaded, over-conceptualized statements of the mainstream art world. The art also has a politically correct cachet, as it is usually generated within sectors of the population that have traditionally been ignored. Major museum shows displaying outsider art have toured the country (one, "Passionate Visions of the American South," came to the Bass last fall). And two self-taught art shows are on exhibit in Atlanta, as part of the Olympic Arts Festival. The genre has even been consecrated by Congress: The American Visionary Art Museum, which opened in Baltimore last November, has been designated the official U.S. repository for self-taught art.

Some outsider art has also increased dramatically in market value. In March the fourth annual Outsider Art Fair was held in New York City. Writing about the event, a New York Times critic called the fair a "frenzy." The number of galleries dealing in outsider art is still relatively small -- 35 dealers had booths at the fair -- but the works of outsider "masters" now sell for six figures. Overtown painter Purvis Young is one of the outsider market's contemporary stars. His visceral depictions of boat people, black saints, and pregnant women sell for up to $10,000 apiece.

"It's part of the art world, it's part of the hype, it's part of the media," says Joy Moos, who carries work by Young and other popular outsider artists in her three-thousand-square-foot gallery in Little Haiti. "All of a sudden it was out there. These artists are suddenly coming to the forefront."

With the art's newfound popularity have rightfully come concerns that the artists will be exploited by ambitious dealers, as well as the rather patronizing assumption that the art will be "spoiled" if the artists are exposed to new influences -- dealers have even been known to drop artists whose work has become too "sophisticated." Certainly, the fickle attentions of both the art market and the media, which may court an artist one minute, ignore him the next, can upset the delicate psychological balance of someone who is not mentally prepared to deal with life outside an institution. But the elitist idea that all low-income, self-taught artists are unwitting idiot savants with no notion of the world around them is simply naive.

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