ALWAYS A HIGHLIGHT of the art-world calendar, and just as often an epiphany, the Outsider Art Fair, now in its twenty-sixth edition at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea, is an ever-vital reminder of all that art can be and all that can be art. I have been an attendee since it first launched in the Puck Building, named for the satirical late nineteenth-century publication that lambasted political corruption and is now home to the Trump-Kushner clan (their walls are adorned by work from artists mortified to witness that the art market is oblivious to meaning in the face of money). But the fair’s relevance today is a healthy reminder that our love of art has to do with its capacity for fun, weirdness, unpredictability, and upending hierarchies against all those cultural currents that work to limn the status quo. And it is fun, like going to a bizarre family gathering and discovering what a peculiar and visionary group we belong to. No doubt it has many of the same financial pressures that make this global onslaught of art fairs dreadful for dealers, but it’s the kind of event where you run into artists who, rather than being depressed by the moneyed spectacle, actually go to the fair for inspiration. Even with my relatively brief visit and slim social registry, I ran into many of the artists I care about precisely because of the way they care about art, including Maurizio Cattelan, John Drury, Marcus Jahmal, KAWS, Erik Parker, Marcia Resnick, Don Rock, and Andres Serrano, all without the usual embarrassment or bewilderment of being caught on the buying-room floor.
This year I got to go to the fair really early, as “tastemakers” like myself were invited to a morning preview on January 18. (I’m not quite sure what a “tastemaker” is, but I guess it’s like an influencer, minus an Instagram account with a million followers.) We got to see everything without the crowds and tell the fair’s organizers what our favorite works in the show were. It’s odd to be in such wonderful company of exquisite eccentricity and consider the best in show, like you would at a kennel club. Someone suggested making the decision based on which work you’d like to own, but that’s not healthy for people who write about art, as we’re among the only ones who are not supposed to think about art that way. So I ended up choosing something I could never live with: an installation from a huge collection of toy gunshandmade relics of loving fathers who carefully crafted fake guns for their children to play withcourtesy of East Hampton’s Mark Wilson. Some dating back to the Civil War era, all presumably from before the age of plastic, they constitute a folkloric shrine to the pathology of our nation’s grotesque infatuation with its Second Amendment right to shoot shit.
Thirtysomething years ago, when I used to write reviews regularly for Artforum, I returned frequently to the otherworld of outsiders. Writing about these artists from time to time always felt like an unforgettable encounter with the uncanny and a needed relief from all those aspects of contemporary art that can slowly drive you crazy. It’s likely that so much of the art world that walks through the Outsider Art Fair these days finds a similar quotient of reprieve and reaffirmation. As long as the fair can keep its delightful measure of intimacy, something that may be imperiled by its fast-growing popularity, there remains a bond of discovery and wonder, a rare uncommon ground that holds both longtime veteran dealers (for instance, the United Kingdom’s Henry Boxer Gallery, New York’s Cavin-Morris and Ricco/Maresca, Chicago’s Carl Hammer, and Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman) and new generations of aficionados (Dallas’s Chris Byrne, or New York’s SHRINE) that appeal equally to collectors of curios and younger artists looking to tap into something that just can’t be taught in an MFA program. In the end, like most everything, it may come down to sales. Yet with every uneven step along the way it’s far more of a conversation, the narrative of other lives, the frisson between folkloric traditions and outré visions, the curious contemplation of what authenticity and originality might still mean in this age of instant redundancy, and the sharing of secrets as the treasures of truth.