PHOTO | BRUT: Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie @American Folk Art Museum

JTF (just the facts): A group show of roughly 400 photographic works by roughly 40 artists (some unidentified), variously framed and matted, and hung against light grey and red walls in a series of connected rooms on the main floor of the museum. The works were drawn from the collection of Bruno Decharme and complemented by the museum’s holdings and other loans from public and private collections. The show was curated by Valérie Rousseau and Bruno Decharme, in collaboration with Barbara Safarova, Sam Stourdzé, and Paula Aisemberg. (Installation shots below.)

The following artists have been included in the show, with details for the works on view:

  • Horst Ademeit: 33 Polaroid prints with inscriptions in ink, felt tipped pen, ballpoint pen, 1991-2003
  • Steve Ashby: 5 sculptural assemblies of wood, magazine clippings, fabric, hickory nuts, hair, lace, paint, 1960-1980
  • Morton Bartlett: 9 gelatin silver prints, c1950, 1 chromogenic print, c1955/2006, 1 set of 17 digital projections of 35 mm transparencies, c1955, 1 doll (in vitrine)
  • Marcel Bascoulard: 10 gelatin silver prints, c1940, 1962, c1970, 1971, 1974, undated, 3 color prints, c1940, 1970
  • John Brill: 3 prints on paper from digital file, 2013
  • Felipe Jesus Consalvos: 3 collages of photographs, cigar box clippings, press clippings, advertisements, 1930-1960
  • Jesuys Crystiano: 3 collages of colored pencil, press clippings, banknotes, adhesive tape, 2014
  • Henry Darger: 1 double sided collage, 1950-1960, 3 collages of clippings, Christmas seals, 1953, 1959, additional materials, tracings, drafts (in vitrine)
  • John Devlin: 3 collages of ink, colored pencil, press clippings, 1988-1989
  • Frédéric: 15 Polaroid prints, 1976
  • Pepe Gaitán: 4 collages of ink, press clippings, photocopies, 1975-2014
  • Pietro Ghizzardi: 3 double sided collages of gouache, soot, blackberry juice, press clippings, 1958-1972
  • Lee Godie: 14 photobooth prints, some with ink, ballpoint pen, c1950, c1980, undated, 1 ballpoint pen on canvas, c1950
  • Yohann Goetzmann: 8 printouts of comupter screen captures, 2010-2015
  • Kazuo Handa: (in vitrine) pipes, cigarette holders, toolbox, magazine strips, 1970-2016
  • Marian Henel: 78 gelatin silver prints, 1960-1993
  • Mark Hogancamp: 13 digital prints, 2007-2014/later
  • Paul Humphrey: (in vitrine) 5 crayon, ink, pencil drawings, 1987-1999
  • Zdeněk Košek: 5 ink, colored pencil on printed magazine pages, 1980-1990, 17 spiral notebook pages with ink, colored pencil, 1980-1990
  • Alexander Lobanov: 4 silver prints, 1975-1990
  • Tomasz Machciński: 10 gelatin silver prints, 1984-2000
  • Albert Moser: 4 color print panoramas, adhesive tape, 1985, 1993, undated (one in vitrine)
  • Norma Oliver: 2 collages of gelatin silver prints, colored pencil, with typed inscription, 1947, 1948
  • Luboš Plný: 6 gelatin silver prints, 2003, 1 ink, gouache drawing with newspaper clippings, 2011
  • Ilmari Salminen: 3 collages on cardboard of press clippings, felt tip pen, colored pencil, 1994, 2001, 2002
  • Valentin Simankov: 5 collages of gelatin silver prints, music scores, press clippings, book covers, paper, with felt tip pen, ink, gouache, 1993-2015
  • Ichiwo Sugino: 42 digital photographs (shown on video screen), 2015
  • Leopold Strobl: 7 pencil/colored pencil on newsprint clippings, 2015-2106
  • Elke Tangeten: 10 embroidery on printed paper magazine sheets, 2013-2018
  • Dominique Théate: 6 monotype and acrylic on newsprint, 2010
  • Miroslav Tichý: 20 gelatin silver prints on cardboard, 1960-1995
  • Type 42: 9 Polaroid prints with ballpoint pen inscriptions, 1969-1972
  • Elisabeth Van Vyve: 24 silver prints, 1993-2013
  • Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: 6 silver prints, c1940s-1950s, 1 digital projection of 37 35mm transparencies
  • August Walla: 5 silver prints, 1953, 1967, undated
  • Zorro: 7 chromogenic prints, 1967, 1 gelatin silver bromide print, 1968, 3 gelatin silver prints from glass negatives, c1940, 2 aristotype prints, c1940
  • Unidentified: 6 double sided collage pages, 1960s
  • Unidentified: 3 double sided photomontages, 1870s
  • Unidentified: 7 gelatin silver prints with watercolor, colored pencil retouching, 1930-1945
  • Unidentified: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1914, 1918, undated, 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints, 1911, 1 set of 4 glass plates, 1925
  • Unidentified: 8 gelatin silver prints, ink on cards, undated
  • Unidentified: 4 silver prints, undated, 1962
  • Unidentified: 4 silver prints, 1913, 1914, undated

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by Flammarion (here). (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: The success of the sprawling and eclectic PHOTO | BRUT exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum lies in its ability to get us actively wrestling with its essential premise. Billed as an expansive compendium of “outsider photography,” it immediately forces us to try and define what exactly that term means and what kinds of photography from the past century might be included (or excluded).

The term Art Brut (from which the title of this show takes its cue) was coined by the French painter Jean Dubuffet in the late 1940s and included art (and graffiti) made by children, prisoners, the insane, and other “primitive” artists who made their work outside the (Western) fine art academic tradition. We can apply the same kind of framework to the last century of photography (which the show does to some extent), but the democratic nature of the medium makes the definitional edges and cut-offs of such a characterization much more difficult to locate.

In the past few decades, we’ve seen the broadening institutional acceptance of vernacular photography of various kinds, and archives of snapshots, family albums, travel photos, commercial and advertising imagery, and countless other specialized subjects have been looked at with fresh eyes, and in many cases, have been reinserted into dialogue with the so-called fine art canon. This is an active and ongoing process (one that has been supercharged by the sharing possibilities of the Internet and social media), and curators have been forced to pull down once impermeable walls that previously kept different modes of photography rigidly apart.

If we apply a standard of “academically trained” to the vast ocean of imagery now swirling around us, only a vanishingly small portion of it could fit into such parameters – nearly all of us smartphone shooters and meme makers are “outsiders” by that definition. PHOTO | BRUT tightens its constraints much further by essentially requiring the artist to be both untrained and unrecognized by the art establishment, but also to be making photographs with a definite artistic purpose. These are photographic works that were made from a strong (and in some cases obsessive) impulse or urge to create, but weren’t ever assimilated into any kind of fine art world. Often, the works were made in private, and in several cases, were never seen or appreciated until after the death of the artist. Many look inward, follow personal fixations, and build worlds out of isolation. Seen as a group, if the works in PHOTO | BRUT feel a bit manic and haunted, it’s likely the residue of passionate artistic drive refusing to be thwarted.

Once we agree on the first level separation of who gets to be included as a photographic “outsider” and who doesn’t, the next set of questions attempts to unravel the why and how of that art making. The exhibition is divided into four sections that gather like aims, impulses, techniques, and processes together, creating a loose sense of order amid the chaos. And while it is tempting to draw connections between the works on view here and specific artists of trends in the fine art world, that effort feels wholly misguided – these artists were likely never aware of that context, and so made their innovations in parallel with rather than in reaction to anything else. Highlighting how they conform to our understanding of photography is exactly what we shouldn’t do – instead, we should celebrate their inspired deviation from that canon and search for the unexpected pathways they have opened up.

For those artists interested in probing the depths of their own personalities, or revealing sides of themselves they had otherwise kept hidden for one reason or another, the performative aspects of photography must have felt like a gift. Some don elaborate costumes and makeup to take on alternate personas (both male and female), while others imagine themselves in exaggerated setups and scenes. The unexpected jolts of inspiration in this group come from Tomasz Machciński’s mixed gender self portraits, Alexander Lobanov’s studio self-portraits with elaborately styled arrangements of guns and related imagery, and Ichiwo Sugino’s homages to various famous people made from his own face and pieces of transparent tape. Other works on view feel more elemental in their insistent urge to redefine their makers, using dresses, wigs, tall black boots, aeronautical models, mysterious symbols, toy miniatures, and photobooths to reveal inner truths.

A flanking section of the exhibit further probes the reasons why these photographers have made their images, diving deeper into sexual urges and other obsessive behaviors that took form or found outlet in photography. The works of both Miroslav Tichý (stolen images of women in parks and public places) and Morton Bartlett (staged images of innocent female dolls with an edge of transgression) will be familiar to some given their art world crossovers, and many of the other artists on view seem to have been following well trod male, heterosexual pathways. The intermittent nudity and exaggerated female bodies don’t feel hugely original, but Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s posed images of his wife surrounded by clashing vegetal patterns and fabrics and Type 42’s late night Polaroids of female movie stars straight from the TV follow some more unlikely pathways.

Up a short flight of stairs, the photographic impulse broadens out to include various forms of collage and embellishment, essentially adding further artistic alternatives and modes of expression. In many cases, we seem to have descended into areas of incomprehensibility, where shades of mental illness have introduced internal logics, structures, and frameworks of thinking that are difficult to follow or comprehend. But that doesn’t make the resulting artworks any less beautiful – in particular, Pepe Gaitán’s collages cross out letters of text, creating squiggling amoeba-like symbols that are then mixed together with diagrams and drawings, and Felipe Jesus Consalvos crafts geometric order out of cigar box labels, layering imagery and text together in graphically sophisticated ways. Other collagists get craftier, bringing elaborate felt-tip pen drawing, embroidery, and reductive overpainting into the mix.

The final section of the show gets a little spookier, following along as various artists channel internal voices and chart invisible forces. Obsessive behaviors come forth with ferocity here, the most notable being Horst Ademeit’s Polaroids of radiation measurements (inscribed with the tiniest handwriting you may ever see), Zdeněk Košek’s meticulous drawings and annotations filling porn magazine pages and spiral bound notebooks, and Elisabeth Van Vyve’s carefully ordered snapshots of arranged household objects. The show then deliberately steps toward the paranormal, filling in with various spirit photographs and UFO images. These pictures of ghosts, ectoplasms, and doubled faces feel a little out of place, as they move away from the inward orientation that grounds most of the show. More aligned with this searching urge (however strange or unlikely) are Frédéric’s 1970’s Polaroids of movements of the mind’s eye and Norma Oliver’s collages pairing photographic portraits with drawings of geometric spiritual representations of the deceased.

There is always a tendency to see shows of “outsider art” as corrective or rebalancing, filling in some of the blanks the world of fine art has omitted, overlooked, or deliberately ignored. But instead of pitting one side against the other, perhaps a better way to think about the work of these photographers is that they are part of the larger continuum of photography, whether they knew it or not, and their contributions are no less important or valuable for having been entirely personal or inwardly focused. If their images move us, it is because they have succeeded in using photography to tell their stories, however oblique or obtuse they might be. For many of these artists, photography was the only outlet they had to express parts of themselves they had kept hidden, to quiet the voices in their heads, or simply to see and process the world around them.

We’re at a moment in photographic history where we are more open than ever before to hearing the stories of those who have been previously marginalized, particularly in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation. PHOTO | BRUT persuasively encourages us to go even further in changing what we see, and proves that even out on the shaky edges of personal obsession, some surprising artistic innovation can still be discovered.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices, and given the broad group of artists on view, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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