The field of outsider art has too many problems to count, but the major issue is this: It’s based on a romanticized biography of the artist. Some dealers exploit personal stories in order to make money, and often self-taught artists are labeled merely according to their race and class. Of course, this happens in most markets, and the art world has been hyping the myth of the mad genius for hundreds of years. But the real issue in the world of outsider art, which nobody seems to want to talk about, is that using personal biography as the most important criterion promotes some pretty shoddy work. It prizes adjectives like “crazy” over “talented,” and the majority of enthusiasts are learning to rely on the wild narrative — stories of mental illness or terrible tragedy — rather than really looking at the art. Snapshots of weird-looking unkempt artists are posted next to the art as if to validate it. Poor? You may be an outsider artist. Depressed? Start painting, it could be worth something. If this is the case, many of us are artists at heart.
Like it or not, there is now such a thing as an outsider and the folks at Zeitgeist Gallery tell us they are exhibiting two of them, Kentucky artist Bill Santen and Californian Mikael Lovich, in Outside/Outstate: Outsider Artists Beyond Michigan Borders. With this show, two questions come to mind: Is Santen really an outsider? Even if Lovich is an outsider, is his work any good?
Bill Santen’s art is actually faux-outsider, a style of intentionally naive drawing that has its own charm. Many artists have successfully imitated others, including Picasso and Jean Dubuffet. And Santen’s twitchy cast of characters calls to mind 20th century Swiss expressionist Paul Klee, who, incidentally, was yet another artist mimicking unschooled artists — he took up the work of children. A critic once said Klee really knows how to take a line for a walk, and similarly, there is a linear and graphic economy to Santen’s work. His peg-legged, puppet-handed figures are childlike, equal parts angel and devil, occasionally tearing it up at a piano, strangling a duck or just about to do some damage with a chainsaw.
While Bill Santen’s work is lighthearted, each canvas offering a different anecdote, Mikael Lovich’s drawings are the repeated result of an artistic obsession, a creative purging of his emotional state. Zeitgeist’s press release positions Mikael Lovich as an outsider because of his troubling childhood: “… at age four [he] was accidentally responsible for his older brother’s death. His parents, unable to forgive him for the tragic event, inflicted emotional and physical abuse on their younger child. Mikael turned to drawing to cope …”
Lovich, who’s in his 60s, worked for a while in Detroit with the great local purveyor of outsider art Jacques Karamanoukian. His small drawings exhibit the prerequisite style and symbols in most European Art Brut, “raw” or “uncooked” art that is one type of outsider art, a field also including American folk art and religiously motivated or visionary art. Lovich’s drawings are obsessive. He employs pencil and ballpoint pen to create chaotic drawings that cover every inch of the paper; it’s horror vacui, the fear of empty spaces that most notably found its way into the drawings and paintings of such so-called schizophrenic artists as Adolph Wolfli. Lovich’s pieces each feature a solitary mask-like face, with dozens of symbols and small creatures floating in a colorfully scribbled sea. Indecipherable hieroglyphics share space with small mammals, and the occasional caterpillar. For someone who is working through his own demons, Lovich’s personal language is not necessarily unfriendly.
Lovich’s drawings also include dozens of eyes with floating pupils all over the paper; it’s iconography that often appears in Art Brut. Freud described the obsession with the eyes as indicative of a castration complex, a fear of the loss of a major organ and subsequent death. Whatever the reason for its representation, it has an uncanny effect, evoking an eerie sense of dread.
The best of Lovich’s work is hanging in the back corner of the gallery, on the right side of the bar room entrance. The drawing, whose title could not be found, has the focus that the other artworks lack, and the colors are vibrant, rather than mixed. Lovich’s great creature, one that Zeitgeist director James Puntigam describes as a devil bird, is hidden in that rendering. “Being the Devil’s Helper” is another strong piece by Lovich. Ironically, it is one of the only drawings that actually offers some white space.
Mikael Lovich’s work wouldn’t hold up in many outsider galleries because little sets it apart. You know you’re looking at good outsider art when you respond to it viscerally, when it’s so outsider, you’re in. Lovich’s art is indeed sincere, we can give him that much, but we need to expect more formally. If we don’t, the strong stuff will never break free of labels, out of its confining shell.
Note: It’s good news that Zeitgeist has announced plans to bring back theater performances in about a year.
Outside/Outstate opens 7 p.m.-midnight, Saturday, March 26. The show runs through May 1. Zeitgeist Gallery/Performance Venue, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-9192. Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]