In recent years, folk art has become as much of an imitable style as it is a designation for art made on the fringe of culture, far removed from the elitist trappings of the art world. A woman I know in Louisiana—San Francisco born and raised, art educated, and far from mad—makes assemblages from bottle caps and discarded detritus, and has a sustainable career as a "folk" artist. Locally, Justin "Scrappers" Morrison has gained a sizable following around town for aping a primitive folk style of painting, with faux-naïve renderings of Charles Bukowski and Bill Murray. Folk is the style in which he likes to paint, reveling in cartoonish shapes, loud colors, and subjects, but he's as much of a folk artist as I am a professional rapper. That is, more faux-k than folk.
A new exhibition, Internal Guidance Systems (IGS), at Mark Woolley's two gallery spaces is a traveling show of visionary art ("folk," "outsider," and "visionary" all being synonymous)—the largest ever in Portland. As a longtime folk art enthusiast, I approached the exhibition excitedly, but walked away disappointed by the quality of work, and contemplating the role of the artist's biography in appreciating folk art.
IGS eschews the artists' life stories altogether, which is not a bad thing in itself. There's no wall text near each work to explain what makes each artist "visionary"; the labels don't say, "Kevin Sampson: deaf schizophrenic" or "Paul Gasoi: hasn't left his apartment in 32 years." With the best examples of folk art, these biographical sketches are completely unnecessary. But with work as flatfooted as this, the art could use any help it could get.
Part of the inherent interest of outsider art is that we're able to romanticize the artists, or to feel as if, by looking at obsessive paintings of nightmares by a poor black man from rural Mississippi, for instance, we have found something approaching artistic purity. There's nothing attractive to most people about careerist, networking, trust-fund babies making obtuse geometric paintings full of self-importance. So when we hear about an Appalachian nun who creates intricate beaded portraits of the Virgin Mary, for instance, we project the idea that her act of creation is more innocent and less agenda- and fame-driven than the hotshot New York artist du jour.
Therefore, when an art world insider—someone of sound mind and with the same general capacities of most other artists—assumes (or even suggests) the identity of a visionary outsider, our James Frey-detecting, perpetrator-hating spidey senses go off the chart.
There is no hard evidence to suggest that the artists in IGS are folk phonies (with the glaring exception of co-curator and self-taught painter Anne Marie Grgich, who is apparently both a folk artist and someone savvy enough to organize a traveling exhibition of international works. I can't imagine whose idea of an outsider this is, but we certainly don't imagine Howard Finster, Henry Darger, or James Castle having the wherewithal to do so.)
But since IGS provides no readily available information about the artists, we must take the art on its own merit, and this is where things get ugly.
Flatly stated, the works in IGS are bland, uninspired examples of what folk art can be. The barometric question that I asked myself was, "If I saw his work on Alberta on last Thursday, would I be impressed?" The answer was almost unequivocally "no." There are a few examples that would pull me in for a second look, to be sure. Cynthia Lund Torroll's prints and graphite drawings are almost impossibly well-rendered; their virtuosity is unquestionable. The drawings themselves, though, of innocent children, swirling vines, and bad human/nature metaphors, are embarrassingly kitschy.
Lyle Carbajal's paintings are directly reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat's work (perhaps fittingly, as Basquiat also wrestled with his audience's perception of his "authenticity"), except that they are not nearly, remotely, as well done.
One artist, however, contributed the most interesting, most classically folk, and most bothersome paintings of all. At the Pearl District location, there is a large cluster of 53 paintings, all executed in a "high folk" style. Quintessential folk subjects like Abraham Lincoln, gambling motifs, the American flag, and antiquated, quasi-religious phrases are painted in bright colors with child-like crudeness on blocks of scrap wood. They are classically prototypical examples of Southern, African American folk art, short on virtuosity but long on soul and authenticity. If I were to say "impoverished Alabama folk paintings," you would imagine something nearly identical to these. So who created these gems of pure, marginalized cottonbelt Americana? A Swede named Marcus Mårtenson. How's that for authenticity?