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Review of "Self-Taught and Outsider Art"

By Anthony Petullo
University of Illinois Press, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 28th 2004
Self-Taught and Outsider Art

Self-Taught and Outsider Art contains work from the collection of Anthony Petullo, art-lover and businessman.  With 224 pages in large format most of which are devoted to the art, it is a handsome book.  As the book title makes clear, the work is mostly by artists who have not gone through the standard training and have not aimed to be a success in the art-world.  It is not clear why the book title makes a distinction between self-taught art and outsider art, since outsider art is already a broad category including self-taught art.  As Jane Kallir says in her introduction, Petullo favors artists who are true naives, true outsiders, or marginal outsiders.  Some of the artists have been diagnosed with mental illness, while others have not.  Most worked in the twentieth century although some date back to the nineteenth.  They are from both North America and Western Europe.  Some of the artists went to art school.  Some are relatively well known and all have had their work exhibited in both solo and group shows.  Some of the artists were able to make a living from their work, while others never sold any of their artworks.  Apart from being outsider art liked by Petullo, there is very little thematic unity to these pictures.  Some are highly polished and precise in their execution, while others are much cruder and involve less technical skill. 

Some of the big names of art brut are included: Adolf Wolfli, Henry Darger, Scottie Wilson, and Carlo Zinelli, for example.  But others artists here will be far less familiar to most readers.  Even if the artists are familiar, the works included in the book may be less familiar.  It's striking that most of the artists here are not featured in some prominent outsider art collections such as Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis that collects many works from the famous Prinzhorn collection. 

There are some wonderful pictures included in Self-Taught and Outsider Art and for each artist, there is a short paragraph mentioning some of the most relevant biographical facts.  To mention a few of the artists: Consuelo Amezcua created amazingly detailed drawings with ballpoint pen and pencil, with themes of myth and legend.  Minnie Evans draws bizarre geometric images with colored pencil, featuring animals and human faces.  Joann Fischer draws simple pictures of people, some of which are childlike in their execution, but which are very elegant.  Madge Gill worked on paper and rolled calico, and some of her drawings reached lengths of thirty-five feet.  Like many outsider artists, she felt a strong need to cover the surface.  Some of her images feature women against highly geometrical backgrounds.  Rosemarie Koczy was an infant when she and her family were imprisoned in a Nazi concentrations camp during the Second World War, and her pictures show haunting images of blank faces in despair in a variety of media. James Lloyd creates some of the most striking and precisely drafted images with gouache on paper.  The colors are often vivid and the faces of the people asymmetrical and faintly disturbing.  Albert Louden's pastels on paper are very different but just as strong, with human figures with heavy black outlines and simple faces, in contorted positions.  Joseph Yoakum worked in pen, pastels, colored pencils and ink to create harmonious fantastic scenes from nature. 

While the book does not give any substantial discussion of outsider art or advocate any particular thesis about the place of this art within the rest of the art world, it does contain many powerful and beautiful pictures that deserve attention.  That's enough for it to gain a strong recommendation.



© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.