The question of whether artistic proficiency (apart from technique) can be taught is an old one — and never was the question more relevant than now, with MFA programs popping up faster than you can say “20-year payment plan.” It isn’t surprising then that “outsider” artists — who didn’t go to art school or who remain outside the art school culture — offer an increasingly potent allure for those seeking respite from the self-referential, homogenized or theory-drenched work that can be annoyingly commonplace in academia.
“To me, that’s the most exciting thing [about the genre], that it hasn’t been homogenized,” says Zeitgeist’s James Puntigam, who curated the gallery’s show of French outsider artist Gerard Sendrey that opened Friday. “Outsider artists have their own vision, their own way of seeing things.”
Sendrey, 75, a retired French civil servant, began painting in 1967 and turned to drawing 10 years later. In 1979 his work was exhibited in the Galerie du Fleuve and a year later a number of his drawings were acquired for the annex collection of the Collection de Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1989, he founded an outsider art museum in Begles, France, called the Musée de la Création Franche, to emphasize the work of self-taught and “singular” French artists.
The notion of outsider art can be traced to French artist Jean Dubuffet, who coined the phrase Art Brut or “raw art” — that is, artistic expression that remains pure and undiluted by the dominant contemporary art culture. The genre encompasses a wide range of artists, from the self-taught and eccentric to the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. Often, because the work is generated outside traditional artistic reference points, it utilizes unconventional themes and materials and conveys an emotional energy that many find rewardingly immediate and visceral.
To that end, Friday’s opening celebration at the Zeitgeist gallery felt more like a party than your usual artsy evening of wine-sipping and polite banter. From 7 p.m. until midnight, visitors milled about the gallery or convened in the bar area beneath the imposing presence of a mounted moose head (whose eyes seemed to follow you about the room). Box wine and beer flowed freely and conversation grew steadily more animated as the night wore on. On hand to keep things swinging were jazz artists the Visitors, featuring Kenneth Green and legendary saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey.
The 42 pieces by Sendrey gracing the gallery’s walls include lush acrylic paintings, intricately crosshatched drawings, vibrant colored-pencil works on black paper and whimsical brush and ink portraits (Sendrey is known for his artistic flexibility). The artist’s vision blends a childlike exuberance with warm sensuality. He favors bright, flat blocks of primary color as well as near-continuous lines that connect the elements of each composition and create an inherent sense of intimacy and harmony.
Sendrey’s figures radiate a sense of optimism and energy. One painting, a lovely wash of brilliant blue, depicts a face that gazes at the viewer with an open, unguarded expression. Another features a group of interconnected figures painted in rich shades of gold and bronze. The figures give the impression of gleeful revelry and are joined to one another in an almost mazelike fashion, so that the viewer is encouraged to travel in and around the piece ad infinitum.
Refreshing humor abounds in the work. For example, one piece features a nude man and woman, who stand facing the viewer in a charming, matter-of-fact manner with a cat sitting between them. All three figures are wearing hats.
Also striking are the detailed, meticulously rendered black ink drawings on paper. These pieces, at first glance, appear to be simple doodling. But upon closer inspection, they reveal themselves to be composed of the most intricate network of lines and geometric shapes. The overall effect is mesmerizing, as the eye is drawn into the heart of the composition and then back out again to view the piece as a whole.
“I just keep looking at it and it draws me in,” observes Puntigam. “If you look at his line work, it’s so confident.”
The Zeitgeist show is in part a tribute to the late Jacques Karamanovkian, an Ann Arbor-based artist, gallery owner and teacher who passed away nearly two years ago. Karamanovkian, an enthusiastic advocate of outsider artwork, was a longtime friend and supporter of Sendrey, and the two maintained a lively artistic discourse throughout their lives.
“I remember being at Jacques’ house and Sendrey would call and they would discuss art,” says Puntigam. “Jacques had a great eye and he didn’t compromise his vision.”
Sendrey is currently working on a book about Karamanovkian’s life, due out within the year.
Sendrey’s work will remain on display until March 13th. The Zeitgeist art gallery, theatre and performance venue is located at 2661 Michigan Ave. in Detroit. Gallery hours are Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment. Call 313-965-9192 for more information.Christina Kallery is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]