Return of the innocents

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The artist Jean Dubuffet, one of the first champions of Outsider Art, stated that “cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade”. Dubuffet would have been delighted last week when New York’s Outsider Art Fair coincided with the opening of a show by the Mexican artist Martín Ramírez at the Folk Art Museum.

Outsider Art is a problematic term, generally understood to mean the work of isolated visionaries who live outside the boundaries of official culture. It signifies a purity of expression and includes the work of mentally ill and self-taught artists.

Outsider works now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and with the increasing popularity of the genre, its definition has become a minefield. Is Van Gogh an outsider artist? “Art Brut”, a term coined by Dubuffet, perhaps best describes this art, “raw” instead of cooked to an art-school crisp.

Alongside the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli and the Chicago janitor Henry Darger, Ramírez counts among the Outsider greats. This show of 300 works, curated by Brooke Davis Anderson, is a breath of fresh air among the new year shows.

Ramírez left his Mexican home town in 1925 to seek his fortune in California but soon lost his mining job due to the Depression. He was found wandering by the roadside and was admitted to a mental institution, where he was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia.

Ramírez rarely spoke but started drawing in the mid-1930s and created hundreds of works during his years in the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California. Tarmo Pasto, a visiting professor of art and psychology, saw the brilliance of Ramírez’s work, supplied him with materials and introduced his work to the public. Outsider artists’ audience is due to someone noticing their talent and revealing it. The sad fact accompanying Henry Darger’s recognition is the separation (pages were torn from their spines) and sale of his 15,000-page illustrated manuscript.

Ramírez’s style is recognisable from his parallel arched lines, which resemble rows of croquet hoops. He stuck scraps of paper together with saliva and glue to make large canvases on to which he applied melted wax crayons with matchsticks. He used the odd paper bag too, the handle providing a hook from which to hang the drawing on the hospital door; he was clearly proud of his talent.

The drawings look rather like Saul Steinberg’s illustrations, while the wax crayons remind one of a child’s colouring book, but Ramírez’s work is not childlike. His gradual shading shows a careful consideration of colour and a manipulation of pictorial space that is far from naive; a receding stage frames his signature image of a gun-toting cowboy on horseback.

He obsessively drew more than 80 of these cowboys on stages, in all different colours. Another recurring theme is migration. Ramírez was born soon after a new railway connected Mexico with its northern neighbour and the drawings are full of trains careering in and out of dark tunnels. A combination of Mexican and American symbols and motifs appear throughout his work: Madonnas, skeletons, snakes and Volkswagen vans. At the same time, his pop cowboy imagery and forays into abstraction address some of the concerns of 20th-century art, making him a poster boy for a potential shift in how we understand the Outsider genre and make a strong argument for his inclusion “inside” the cosy art world fold.

While Dubuffet championed Outsiders he also put them in a box, and in a very literal sense: his “Collection de L’Art Brut” in Lausanne does not lend any of its contents, under strict instructions from its founder. Dubuffet’s possessive love for Outsider Art denied it access to a wider audience, keeping it firmly in a compartment.

Now, however, Outsiders are all the rage. The growing acceptance of the genre might have something to do with contemporary art’s love affair with the naive. As a reaction against the slick, market-aware art to which we have become accustomed, there is a trend towards a new purity. In this search for something more human and heartfelt, Darger in particular has become a hero, his naive style representing a return to something more innocent.

Art school-educated artists whose style verges on the naive (such as Chris Johansen, Laylah Ali and Laura Owens) are much sought after. Darger’s aesthetic, as well as influencing the work of artists such as Marcel Dzama, has filtered through into the mainstream – it is now used to help sell cars.

As the barrier between Outsider and “insider” art dissolves, it is only a matter of time before artists such as Ramírez come to be appreciated on equal terms with their mainstream counterparts.

‘Martín Ramírez’ is at the American Folk Art Museum, New York, until April 29. Tel +1 212 265 1040

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