Art fair season is upon us once again, but like everything else in the pandemic era, it's all going to be very different this time around. Starting things off is the Outsider Art Fair, which for nearly 30 years has been one of the world's preeminent showcases of self-taught artists, which basically just means anyone who makes art without any formal education, without following any particular movement or set of rules, and often without any financial motive or presumption that their work might be sold.
Usually attendees cram into the Metropolitan Pavilion and wander around bumping into each other amid literally thousands of works from artists all over the world. It's generally a good time, and always filled with strange and wonderful surprises. This year's Outsider Art Fair, however, follows a different model, with seven curated exhibitions spread out among five separate locations in Manhattan, mostly downtown. This will help keep things appropriately distanced. There's also a large online component, which is well organized and fun to browse through. $15 gets you access to everything, though you must make timed appointments to visit the galleries.
Four galleries are playing host to this year's in-person exhibitions. At Salon 94 Freemans, situated toward the back of the alley, you'll find Semiotic Terrain: Art From Australia and New Zealand, which features works from three Aboriginal artists (Yukultji Napangati, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and Mantua Nangala), and drawings by Susan Te Kahurangi King, who is described as autistic and lost her ability to speak in 1958, at the age seven. In recent years King's work has been shown around the world, and has found a place in the permanent collection of multiple museums, including MoMA.
Right nearby on Bowery, at Andrew Edlin Gallery, there's a largish group show called Figure Out: Abstraction in Self-Taught Art, an often-overlooked manner of expression in a field dominated by representational storytelling. The artists here include the likes of Dan Miller, Eugene Andolsek, Hiroyuki Doi, and Tom Bronk. The recently expanded Shin Gallery on Orchard Street houses three exhibitions, all of them instantly engaging: Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, featuring African-American artists from the Deep South; a solo show by North Carolina artist Minnie Evans; and Small World, featuring tons of small-scale works by some 40 self-taught artists.
And if you've ever wanted to check out the legendary Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street, founded by Jimi Hendrix and the site of seminal recordings by David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Blondie, Patti Smith, Frank Ocean (and many more), the Outsider Art Fair's got you covered. This year's OAF Curated Space event is held inside the studio, a solo exhibition of drawings by the outsider musician (and visual artist) Daniel Johnston. Honestly, just being able to stand inside the giant "Live Studio A," with its famous popcorn ceiling, where so much music history has been made, was a definite highlight of the afternoon.
Finally, for the uptown crowd, Hirshl and Adler on 57th Street play host to another group show, To Be Human: The Figure in Self-Taught Art.
Is this year's model as exciting and rewarding as the usual Outsider Art Fair, one big room packed to the rafters with sculptures and paintings, drawings and assemblages, plus lots of fun people-watching? Of course not. But in a cultural season bereft of any... you know, culture, I will definitely take it.
The Outsider Art Fair opens today and runs through February 7th (outsiderartfair.com)