Portraits of Elvis and dreamlike visions at the 31st Outsider Art Fair

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Portraits of Elvis and dreamlike visions at the 31st Outsider Art Fair
“Brace” (1973) by Valton Tyler, in the Valley House Gallery booth at the Outsider Art Fair, in the Metropolitan Pavilion, Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, March 3, 2023. The 31st annual event is New York’s largest clearinghouse of work by self-taught and marginalized artists. (Lila Barth/The New York Times)

by Will Heinrich

NEW YORK, NY.- The 31st annual Outsider Art Fair, which opened Thursday night at the Metropolitan Pavilion in the Chelsea neighborhood and runs through Sunday, is New York’s largest clearinghouse of work by self-taught and marginalized artists. In some respects, it’s fairly constant. Major dealers such as the Ricco/Maresca Gallery (Booth A11) of Manhattan and the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery (Booth A5) of Philadelphia tend to stick to the same large exhibition spaces, and you can always find work by mainstays of the “outsider” genre: Drawings by Bill Traylor, a formerly enslaved person who produced hundreds of unforgettable animal silhouettes in his 80s, and by Martín Ramírez, known for the tunnels and dreamlike cowboys he made in California mental institutions, are scattered all over the fair.

But the other constant, alongside these standards, is an overdose of blaring novelty. Gathering 64 exhibitors from eight countries, including a full dozen new to the fair, this year’s edition includes Inuit drawings, handmade playing cards, scads of grimacing little figurines and two special presentations — a themed booth called “We Are Birds” that benefits the National Audubon Society, and a series of black-and-white oil portraits that chart Elvis’ life and horoscope. Tickets are $44 ($22 for students), but if you keep your eyes open, some unexpected moment of beauty will stop you in your tracks. This is what stood out to me.

Kopač Committee/ArtRencontre Association (A2)

Slavko Kopač (1913-1995) wasn’t an outsider artist — he trained at the Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts. But after moving to Paris in 1948 and falling in with artists such as André Breton and Jean Dubuffet, he became curator of the influential Collection de l’Art Brut. In other words, he was one of the fathers of the visionary art genre. Now, two “scientific committees” — one Croatian, one from Paris — have joined forces to get the first American showing in decades for Kopač’s own scratchy and extremely strange but weirdly charming paintings. Look for a large, graphic turtle wryly turning its head like a stage actor and his 1949 “Homage to Christopher Columbus,” which includes what seems to be a reference to slave ships.

Magic Markings (A7)

Alexander Gorlizki of Magic Markings collects tantric, astrological, and other esoteric drawings and diagrams around Northern India. They’re not art, exactly, in the sense that they wouldn’t have been made with chiefly aesthetic ends in mind. But many of them are nonetheless bewitching, including a game of snakes and ladders organized around Jain spiritual progress, an unfinished portrait of Vishnu bisected by a big white square or a Hindu version of Argus covered in hundreds of eyes.

OAF Presents: “The Life and Death of Elvis Presley: A Suite, 1985-1995”

In a special commercial presentation by the fair itself, Paul Laffoley (1935-2015), a visionary artist, charts Elvis’ life in eight intricate, text-heavy, pastel-tinted paintings that combine his distinctively obsessive approach to arcane correspondences with his impossibly dry sense of humor. The first, centered on a detailed birth chart, also analyzes the singer’s signature and the letters of his name, from E for Eros to S for “Sol: The Sun”; the fourth is labeled “Frankenpelvis.” In the final portrait, Elvis looks like an animatronic robot about to short out in the rain. All eight paintings are framed in velvet curtains.

Feheley Fine Arts (B9)

Among the brash colored-pencil drawings by Inuit artists in this Canadian gallery’s presentation are a dapper pink mosquito by Saimaiyu Akesuk that vaguely recalls Keith Haring and “Composition (Bird Transformation)” by Kakulu Saggiaktok (1940-2020). Covering two sheets of black paper more than 7 feet long, Saggiaktok’s figure has fins, a beak, a flopping green tail and two enormous human hands — but mostly it’s made of rippling stripes of bright color that look like feathers, waves and a cosmic halo all at once.

Forest Grove Preserve (C9)

This Georgia nonprofit, returning for a second year, is still showing Owen Lee (1922-2002), a World War II and Korean War vet turned shrimp-boat laborer turned dropout who started to draw in a wide range of styles and mediums when he was 42. New this year, though, is a set of the bold ink drawings that Lyle Lansdell, proprietor of Forest Grove, calls “blasphemous erotica.” Crowded with crosses, fake writing and oversize genitalia, they channel Lee’s anger at his abusive mother and the Catholic Church into mesmerizing graphic images.

Nonprofessional Experiments (C14)

This new artist-run gallery in Callicoon, New York, in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, focuses on juxtaposing art and design objects of different genres, mediums and origins. The very solid selection here includes vernacular Southern pottery — dark stoneware jugs ornamented with grotesque faces — and a pair of snazzy textiles. One, a pieced quilt, has a thick yellow border with an extra, irregular floral border around that one, for good measure; the other, a scrap quilt consisting of two panels of stripes in varying thicknesses, could be the flag for some warmly dressed hypnagogic navy.

Valley House Gallery and Sculpture Garden (D5)

Valton Tyler (1944-2017) was discovered in Dallas by artist and Valley House founder Donald Vogel, who showed him and bought his work. He also introduced Tyler to the print shop at Southern Methodist University where, in 1970-71, he made a series of etchings of towers, machines, vegetable forms and floating balloons in neat but complicated rows that look like illustrations for an imaginary encyclopedia. Tyler’s eye-catching, sharply rendered paintings are inhabited by composite forms that aren’t quite animal, vegetable or mineral but look something like still lifes come to real life and learning to dance.

Steven S. Powers (D6)

Most of the fair’s booths show works by multiple artists, but Powers, a New York dealer, has an especially eclectic and winning mix. Start with James “Son Ford” Thomas (1926-1993), sharecropper, gravedigger, Delta bluesman and, since childhood, working ceramic sculptor with specialties in skulls and busts of George Washington. The Washington here, with dirty cotton hair and an expression of ominous blankness, is spattered with red — it makes him look Caucasian, bloody and syphilitic. On the booth’s outer wall, meanwhile, is a rare 19th-century “bed rug,” covered with hundreds of appliqued flowers, that Powers calls “the original weighted blanket.”

Joshua Lowenfels Works of Art (D17)

This longtime dealer from Manhattan’s Upper West Side is offering two more terrific “Son Ford” sculptures. One, of a baldheaded man giving a sideways look, is so expressive, despite its simplicity, that I almost said hello. (“Son Ford” also appears at Lindsay Gallery (C11), along with some dazzling Vodou-inspired beaded animal forms by Nancy Josephson.) You’ll also find 54 handmade playing cards, including two aces of spades (one spade is large, one small), several cards labeled “high,” and idiosyncratic arrangements of diamonds and clubs that give the whole group an animated, otherworldly, juke-joint feel, even behind glass.

Winter Works on Paper (D19)

One of the fair’s smallest booths by floor area, Winter Works on Paper, a Brooklyn gallery, may have the most discrete artworks, from a 1940s Weegee photo of a man in a giant Stalin mask to a hand-painted Ghanaian movie poster lettered “God I Thank You for Not Creating Me An Elephant.” And that’s just on the walls! Flip through the racks of photos on the table to discover images as shocking as a corpse in the gutter with his shirttails out or as delightful as a dapper little Frenchman with a monkey on his shoulder.

Outsider Art Fair

Through Sunday, Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 W. 18th St., 212-337-3338; outsiderartfair.com.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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