Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Blocks of Art and Stuff: Taking in the Heidelberg Project, East Detroit’s Spectacle of Transformation and Perseverance

Installation, Outsider Art, Public Art, Sculpture No Comments »
Views from Amy Danzer's visit to the Heidelberg Project

Photo: Amy Danzer

When you first pull up to the open-air art installation on Heidelberg Street in East Detroit, you’re struck by the remnants of houses that have recently been set afire by arsonists. Twelve blazes have gutted six installations in the last two years. The devastation and loss are felt at once, never absent throughout the exhibit, and serve as commentary on the plight of Detroit’s inner city. But Tyree Guyton and his volunteers continue to clear the ash and debris, create new works, and transform the space into one that persists in provoking thought, inciting imagination, and drawing in people from all over the country and world. Read the rest of this entry »

News: Intuit Appoints Debra Kerr New Executive Director

News etc., Outsider Art, West Loop No Comments »

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art announced that Debra Kerr has been appointed as its new executive director as of November 3, succeeding Joel Mangers, who had served since June of 2012. In a letter to the board upon her hiring, Kerr writes, “My vision for Intuit is to enhance its mission and serve as a model in the international museum community.” She goes on to set goals to break expectations for how outsider and intuitive art is understood and to “be a leader in the movement of museum as forum—a gathering place and community catalyst for good.”

Intuit's new executive director Debra Kerr

Intuit’s new executive director Debra Kerr

In an email exchange, Kerr elaborates on the one component she hopes to implement at Intuit, “One change is to firmly state that Intuit is a museum. I’ve been an advocate for the need for museums to increase their role as centers of dialogue and catalysts for change. I see Intuit as a place that can model what museums can and should be in the twenty-first century—and that’s much of what attracted me to this position. Intuit has huge potential as a place that presents phenomenal outsider art, a place that can activate each audience member’s own creativity, as a place that serves as facilitator for social change for good, and yes, a model of museum as all the above.” Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist: Melvin King

Artist Profiles, Outsider Art No Comments »


Melvin King’s paintings are pure Americana. It is artwork that tells important stories about black religious worship and the civil-rights movement.

King’s paintings hang from every available space on the walls in his three-story brick house and studio in Burnham. When there is no more wall space, paintings are placed on the floor, where they lean against walls. They also are stacked in boxes, stored under tables and desks or stacked on top of them. Some of the paintings are framed, others are wrapped in plastic. Still others have cardboard packing protectors on each of the frame’s four corners. Read the rest of this entry »

Art Break: In Search of Slang

Outsider Art No Comments »

William Hawkins and Hawkins Bolden

“Ain’t nothing but the frame.” Hamza Walker’s quotable summation of the difference between so-called “black vernacular art” and “fine art” teasingly skirted a value assessment of what goes in the frame itself. This was the overwhelming consensus among panelists gathered last Thursday to discuss how some artworks are defined as black, vernacular, or both, and possibly neither.

The panel’s contemporary read of the term “vernacular” added a new way to think about the overwrought “outsider artist” divide. Although there was uniform understanding of the importance of the term by the panelists at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art—including Walker, Fo Wilson, Krista Franklin, and moderator Lee Ann Norman—the word was not fully defined. Instead, characterizations of “Black Vernacular Art” included assemblage techniques, “gut-bucket funky from around the way” materials (Walker again), and influences from hip-hop, regional African-American dialects, hair weaves, bottle trees, yard shows, face jugs, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” and a grandmother’s quilt.  Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Outsider Art for All

Galleries & Museums, News etc., Outsider Art No Comments »

 By Jason Foumberg, with reporting by Harrison Smith

Late last year the American Folk Art Museum announced it could no longer afford to stay in the building it called home, in Midtown Manhattan. Like an allegory of hubris, the museum constructed a monument to self-taught art that it could not sustain. The institution vacated its contents, and the classy structure was absorbed by its neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art.

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago is feeling similar pressure to grow, but its newly installed executive director, Joel Mangers, is embarking on that path carefully. Despite Chicago’s deep commitment to the legacy of self-taught art, Mangers says, “It’s a constant struggle to get people in the door.” He means that literally. Intuit’s door is easy to miss. There’s no grand entrance to the museum, just a regular brick façade like any other on that stretch of Milwaukee Avenue in West Town.

Intuit is about to upgrade its street presence, thanks to a pro bono design by Studio Gang Architects. Unlike the American Folk Art Museum, Intuit won’t be gambling its future with a $32 million construction project, but it will need to raise awareness about its mission and meaning for Chicago artists. Mangers is poised for the task. The self-described “arts advocate” also holds an MBA. He has fundraised for the youth arts program at Gallery 37 and most recently for the Gene Siskel Film Center. Mangers follows the much loved and recently retired director, Cleo Wilson, as the outsider art center’s fifth director in its twenty-one-year history. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Accidental Genius/Milwaukee Art Museum

Drawings, Milwaukee, Outsider Art, Painting No Comments »

Sylvia Levine, "Cornish Landscape with Donkeys," 1987. Photo: Larry Sanders


Featured art collector Anthony Petullo began acquiring works at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s annual “Lakefront Festival of Arts,” which includes contemporary arts and crafts. Now, thirty years later, he has divided the pieces among his children and the museum, gifting 300 works with an indicated special focus on outsider and self-taught artists. However, some of the exhibition’s best work comes from the trained artists within his collection.

Petullo seems to have taken some chances with several European as well as American artists who aren’t well known. Beside iconic names like Henry Darger and Minnie Evans hangs work by Sylvia Levine, whose work can be purchased on the internet for under 500 dollars. Levine wasn’t completely self-taught; she took art classes that probably helped her develop the strong quality of her reclining nudes in an early twentieth-century figurative style. David Pearce is also far from famous, though his sparse, lonely village-scapes show that he is adept at presenting a dreamy and beautiful world. His gallery markets him as self-taught, but his own website indicates that he studied at the Epsom, Kent and Chelsea schools of art. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Howard Finster/Chicago Cultural Center

Loop, Outsider Art, Painting 8 Comments »

Caught In The Devils Vice, 1988


We can be absolutely certain that Reverend Howard Finster hailed from parts unknown, even if those parts resemble rural southern U.S.A. The mystery surrounding him expands with each piece of art, signed “Howard Finster from God” or “Howard Finster Man of Visions” or “Howard Finster World’s Minister Of Folk Art Church Inc,” among other outlandish and intriguing things. He might come from a charming tourist attraction he displays intimate knowledge of with “Jeff and Jane Camp on Planet U Run.” The chaotic and over-populated landscape resembles Finster’s own alien homestead in Summerville, Georgia, which bursts with handmade buildings and sculptures onto which are affixed paintings, wood carvings, wood burnings and artifacts ranging widely from the buttons of a pea coat to melted cathode-ray tubes. The spectacle of accumulation is as powerful as the sheer otherness of Finster’s vision, which exists solely to transmit the word of God as Finster hears and sees it, and is frequented by a cast of characters such as Presidents Washington and Eisenhower, Henry Ford, Coca-Cola, Satan and, of course, Elvis Presley. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist: Peter Anton

Artist Profiles, Outsider Art, River West 1 Comment »

I met artist Peter Anton just as he was about to have a life-long wish reach fruition: seeing his work installed for the very first time in a formal gallery space. This dream was a long time coming for Anton, who is now 78. His reaction revealed that the wait was worth it. Anton, who is wheelchair-bound, gazed up at his paintings and the photos of his work, grinning unabashedly, his eyes wide behind plastic-framed glasses. His first words were “Wow, wow, wow!”

For someone who has experienced many personal struggles (nearly dying from pneumonia at age 3, mourning his brother’s childhood death, being removed from his decaying home by social services), Anton is a rarity—affectionate, outrageously funny, unpretentious, and humbled by his own life and experiences.

“I promised God, until I’m finished, for my life to have purpose, to serve people,” Anton says. “I’ve had perseverance, you know what that is? You have to keep trying, keep trying.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The New Gallery of American Folk Art/Art Institute of Chicago

Ceramics, Craft Work, Outsider Art, Painting No Comments »

William Bonnell, "J. Ellis Bonham," March 5, 1825


If the Art Institute had an attic, it would look exactly like Gallery 227, a strange narrow hallway on the second floor that wraps around the brick dome of the Ryerson Library. Until last year, it held temporary exhibitions of architectural drawings and models. In the recent reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection, architecture and design moved to the Modern Wing, and Gallery 227 now houses the American Folk Art collection—except that not all of it is American, and it’s only “folk” because it defines a period of American art before modern European styles dominated the scene.

For example, there are commercial ceramics from Stratfordshire and Mexico, which are only American in that Americans once collected them. There is a fine set of nested baskets made by a specialist on the New York Stock Exchange as “a release form Wall Street’s pressures.” There is also a perspective view of Roxbury, Massachusetts by John Penniman (1782-1841), a highly skilled former assistant to Gilbert Stuart. If these two are “folk artists,” then who isn’t? So, like an attic, this gallery is full of surprises, including some fine portraits by a local hero of the underground railroad, Sheldon Peck (1797-1868), a professional artist who lived in Lombard, Illinois. And, of course, there’s plenty of old furniture, though not every attic has a transcendent Shaker sewing desk like the one found here. There’s almost enough great wood carving to have a gallery of its own, including a crucifix by one of New Mexico’s famous Santeros, Jose Benito Ortega (1858-1941), and a newly acquired carving by Leslie Bolling (1898-1958), who was almost a star of the Harlem Renaissance. There are also some significant omissions. Where are the toys, dolls, rifles, tools, iron work, and silverware? Hopefully this gallery of surprising stuff will eventually go into permanent rotation. (Chris Miller)

On view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan. Digital catalogue of art on view in gallery 227:

A Crazy Idea: The lost cause of outsider art

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Ulysses Davis in front of his barber shop/Photo: Roland L. Freeman

By Monica Westin

Ulysses Davis is not an outsider artist.

The Savannah, Georgia-based barber, who died in 1990, very much saw himself as an artist, knowing the value of keeping his collection of sixty years’ worth of carvings together—most of which he created during his downtime at the Savannah Barbershop where he cut hair. The interest in hair shows in Davis’ figural busts, including his most famous grouping of every American president from George Washington to the first George Bush. Davis’ passion for history extends to Nigerian wood-carving traditions. And as clear as it is from Davis’ current retrospective at Intuit that the artist was self-taught, it was that self-awareness of his art that sets him apart from the artists often tagged as “outsiders.” In any case, the collection is worthy of showing at any museum (which it was, in 1980, at the Corcoran Gallery), leading Janet Petry, Intuit’s chair of Exhibits Committee, to point out that the work of Intuit, which champions “intuitive and outsider art,” is something of a catch-22; by trying to mainstream the work of self-taught artists, the institution undermines the very distinction on which it was founded.

Petry points out that “outsider” is no longer a stigma—to the point that both she and Cleo Wilson, executive director of Intuit, are starting to see trained artists of all backgrounds brand themselves as outsiders. Wilson remarks that she’s seen an increase in people calling themselves “outsider artists” trying to donate work to Intuit. “Interesting to see what comes,” she says, casting a wary eye at the prospect of the rising tide of self-proclaimers. But if outsiders cannot dub themselves as such, who does? When I ask Wilson about how new outsider artists are found, she tells me there will always be undiscovered garages somewhere, but she also warns that there are more imposters than before. Where ”outsiderness” was once a fantasy of its insider proponents, its invocation by those who want to be in—or out—is yet another sign of the death of the movement. What began as a sincere interest in promoting the art of under-represented artists has now become a locus for fetishization, and—perhaps more disturbingly—a promotional gimmick. Read the rest of this entry »