Outliers and American Vanguard Art

Riot Material
4 min readNov 26, 2018


at LACMA (through March 17, 2019)
Reviewed by Genie Davis

What is an outlier? Is it someone outside conventional norms, beyond the commonplace? In art, both are almost certain true, and among outlier artists are the seeds of innovation, change, and a fearless evocation of what constitutes art. Boundaries are pushed, both in terms of content and creation. We may love this art, be drawn to it, seek out individual artists, but it is rare to see a wide-ranging collection of these works in a major museum. With that in mind, the west coast presentation of the National Gallery of Art-curated Outliers and American Vanguard Art at LACMA is in and of itself an outlier of an exhibition.

Seeing the mix and mingle of avant-garde and outlier artists is exhilarating, as is the breadth and depth of the media and artists presented. There are over 250 works and over 80 artists represented, including Henry Darger, Sam Doyle, William Edmondson, Lonnie Holley, John Kane, Greer Lankton, Jacob Lawrence, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Matt Mullican, Horace Pippin, Martín Ramírez, Betye Saar, Judith Scott, Charles Sheeler, Cindy Sherman, Bill Traylor, Kara Walker, and Joseph Yoakum, among many others.

Horace Pippin, Interior, 1944

Focusing on American artists, the exhibition was initially researched and curated by the National Gallery’s Lynne Cooke, touching on outsider art within three defined eras stretching from the mid-1920s up to the present. Each time period covers years of social and political change, periods well-suited to appreciate the cultural significance of these works. At LACMA, Rita Gonzalez, curator and acting department head of contemporary art coordinated the exhibition. It’s interesting to note that LACMA has been expanding its collection to include outlier art, and along with this exhibition, focusing on the historical importance of marginalized artists of all kinds. In short, it’s a good fit.

The entire exhibition is packed with works that are “outside” the mainstream art world, not only because of the status of those who created them, or their gender, race, or sexual identity, but in terms of their uniqueness of technique, subject, or both.

In the first section of the exhibition, which includes artists from the years 1924 through 1943, there is an emphasis on techniques that reflect historic folk art, naïve art, and children’s works.

John Kane, Self-Portrait, 1929

Self-Portrait, a 1929 piece by John Kane, is oil on canvas work over composition board. It resembles a religious icon, as if Kane were a minor saint. Rather than a halo, an art-deco-like arch rises over his head; nude to the waist, the gold cast to his skin also recalls icon imagery. Both in the recall to works as early as the 8thcentury, and in its fresh, folk-art approach to the titular figure, Kane is altering the usually traditional approach to portraiture while still deeply capturing his own spirit in the image.

Horace Pippin’s Interior gives viewers a domestic scene out of a folk tale, naïve style, vibrant colors, and skewed perspective offer an appealing look at what was even then a disappearing/disappeared family lifestyle. If the technique is both naïve and charming, so too was the cozy narrative it depicts.

Jacob Lawrence, Sidewalk Drawings, 1943

Jacob Lawrence’s Sidewalk Drawings, from the same time-period, is more modern in approach. The artist partially uses a child-like style in a gouache on paper work that simulates a sidewalk with chalk drawings positioned in a wonderfully complex grid. Two figures of young artists, created in a more fully realized style, are caught in the act of creating the drawings. The vibrant sense of immediacy in the work is striking, enhanced by the bright full colors used in the clothing of the young artists and the vivid blue lines separating the sidewalk squares.

In the second main section of the exhibition, the focus turns to art created between the years 1968 to 1992, when the environment, feminist and civil rights, and alternative lifestyles were concepts depicted through outside art. This was the time period in which African American artists, female artists, regional artists, and activists broke barriers with their art, creating groundbreaking work from fresh artistic perspectives. . .

To read the rest of Davis’s review, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/outliers-american-vanguard-art/

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