San Francisco

Fabricators: Blurring the Insider/ Outsider Boundary

Artwork by Creativity Explored Artist Natalie Spring

There have been many times when I have felt uneasy looking at group shows of “Outsider Art”. There can be some crowds, and lots of things for sale, and a lot of people buying them, but mostly what can cause apprehension as a viewer is the wild range in the work. Often there is no thematic or formal thread that could tie all of these art objects together. In fact, often the only reason these objects are in the same room is because they were all made by artists who happened to have a disability. Maybe they all work in the same studio or maybe they have chosen to engage in the “Outsider Art” category and its many variations in some way or another.  What groups their practices together regardless is their societal identity and diagnosis. Of course any art historical category, particularly identity-based ones, will have its baggage: issues, assumptions, or expectations that a viewer needs to navigate in the hopes of seeing the work with some kind of critical autonomy despite the sticky narratives and mythologies of its classification. This issue is amplified in the Outsider category because of its rapid growth, popularity, and mounting commercial pressures to expand. Complex, unresolved questions remain despite the fiscal success: Do the labels insider/outsider mean anything anymore? Is this field permanently tied up with simplified or even dangerous stereotypes of mental illness and genius? Does the work get serious consideration in this context? Can we ever untangle appreciation of the work from our knowledge of the artist’s biography?

Artists in the Creativity Explored Studios in San Francisco

All of these issues have clouded many of my interactions with Outsider Art, yet I have remained hopeful for a strategy that could work to clear away the residue of exploitation and homogenization of artists with disabilities, while also not endangering their careers and livelihoods. The show Fabricators, curated by Glen Helfand and currently on view at The Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco, is an example of how a thoughtful curatorial framework can actually help to untangle works of art from their categories’ fraught histories.  The show itself is the culmination of a semester long collaboration between teams of students from California College of the Arts and artists from the studio Creativity Explored, an organization committed to providing artists with disabilities space to make and exhibit their work.

Helfand charged the CCA students with fabricating work for a CE artist, a format taking some inspiration from the Jeff Koons‘ “executive artist” workshop model. This setup makes the disabled artist responsible for the conception of the final piece and the students responsible for the actual making. This alone is revolutionary for the category. Here the “outsider” is the thinker and planner and the educated art world “insider” is the laborer and manufacturer. This does much to dispel a lingering myth perpetuated by both Outsider Art and its predecessor Art Brut, that mentally disabled artists’ work has a non-conceptual, anti-intellectual, automative, and compulsive nature. Founders of both of these categories were known to discourage their artists from thinking of their work as art, so as not to anticipate an audience and contaminate their intuitive vision[1]. Fabricators refuses to let outdated and romanticized assumptions about “pure original artistic vision” cling to Creativity Explored artists, and instead endows them with the basic respect and agency of directorial control.

Image courtesy of Engage Program at California College of the Arts

Futhermore, this collaboration enabled each student/ artist team to discuss how to present the work in Jack Fisher gallery, and whether or not making the artist’s biographical information available to a gallery visitor seemed important. This individualized approach for each artist’s project within a gallery space is particularly groundbreaking. Some teams felt it important to discuss disability, as in the case of Than My Diep’s work, which is focused on demystifying her experience and perspective as someone with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair. Other teams felt it a distraction to discuss disability in the context of the show, for it had no bearing on the content of the artist’s work. Thus a space was created for dominating societal narratives of disability to dissipate.  Natalie Spring’s team, for example, smartly engaged Spring’s prolific practice and sales-focused nature by riffing on the idea of a pop-up shop in the gallery, producing t-shirts, bags, earrings, and other items with screen-printed copies of artist’s horse drawings.  Camille Holvoet’s team produced a hanging mobile of words, providing a 3-dimensionality to the artist’s linguistic improvisations. Words Holvoet coined like “youngry” and “invisamble”, hang suspended from the ceiling, inviting viewers to interact with the artist’s textual and conceptual web.

Image courtesy of Engage Program at California College of the Arts

The true cohesion in Fabricators, is its persistence in stirring up the insider/outsider dichotomy. It is evidence that creative curation and education can deconstruct some our deepest held beliefs about art making and authorship. If we are truly to embrace an individualized, progressive approach to examining art made by people with disabilities, then all categorical imperatives need to be questioned. When we embrace a blurring of the insider/ outsider boundary, it seems we can actually see the artwork more clearly.


[1] Metcalf, Eugene. “From Domination to Desire” The Artist Outsider. Smithsonian Institution Press. London. 1994. Pg 215.

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