Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Oh Henry!

Henry Taylor is one of those artists that seems to occupy a space between art world insider and art world outsider.  He has attended art school but prefers his work to look like he hadn't.  The only problem with this, in his case, is that he tries too hard to make his work look "naive" and instead it just looks bad.  In order for the audience to enter into a work of art it has to be believable.  Henry Taylor obviously has a lot to say about being black in America, but his work isn't believable.  I don't care to listen to what he has to say because he's boring to listen to.

I went to see his solo exhibition before it ended at MoMA PS1 in Queens.  A few months ago I read a review from somewhere that had explained that although many people consider Henry to be an untrained artist they shouldn't be fooled because he did in fact attend art school at California Institute of the Arts, albeit later in life.  This brings us to an interesting topic... the outsider artist and their supposed purity/uncorrupted raw vision.  Craig Garrett wrote an excellent article on the professional outsider, which might be the correct label for Henry Taylor, titled "Art and Artlessness: The Rise of the Professional Naive" (  In it he says...
"When the category of outsider art first gained widespread acceptance in the 1960's and 70's, it did so primarily as an opposition to the elite modernism that dominated Western art at the time. Outsider art was billed as an antidote to high culture, a challenge to modernism's exclusive claim to an institutionalized narrative of progress. In the 1980's, as this narrative came under widespread scrutiny within those same institutions, the category of outsider art also underwent a subsequent paradigm shift. Amid the erosion of concepts like authorship, uniqueness and the sublime, outsider art no longer billed itself as an alternative to modernism. Instead, it became a sanctuary for those threatened ideals.  [...]  Apart from artists whose work was discovered only after their deaths or whose mental impairment precludes an awareness of an objective reality beyond themselves, outsider artists and their dealers walk a fine line between professionalism and amateurism, staking their claim in the precipitous territory between art and artlessness." 
It seems that Henry Taylor walks the line between art and artlessness... being in opposition to the elite while being part of their inner sanctum.  But unlike artists like Chris Johanson, which Garrett's article focuses on, Henry is a fiction.  It seems to me that dealers and collectors choose Henry to fit the bill of the working-class urban artist who's "raw vision" can give us a glimpse into urban America.  Am I being cynical... sure.  But Henry's story and background are more interesting than his art.

To give Henry some credit there were a few pieces in the exhibition that really turned me on.  His sculpture excited me.  I loved his "Rock It" piece made of rocking chair parts, Cobra beer boxes and a mannequin head.  The reason why this sculpture is one of the only few successful pieces in the show is its not a painting.  Almost every painting in the show is either too obvious in its message leaving little for the audience to use his or her imagination, or is too concerned with an unfinished look consisting of drips, blank white canvas, and half finished forms.  It Henry would forget about trying to be raw and just paint the way that comes instinctively to him his work would be less trendy looking and more authentic feeling.  His sculpture is free of all those hinderances and has a freshness to them that invites the viewer into the piece.

I think Henry's success comes back to the marketability of a so-called "mythic raw genius".  Like Garrett says in his article... there's been a lot of money to be made off outsider artists in the art market since the 1960's and 70's.  But this market trend has made many of us mistake the artist's image for his or her art.  In some cases we've become duped into believing what we want to believe, that another "mythic raw genius" has been discovered.  As consequence we become blinded to the not so interesting truth about their work.

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