The Boca Raton Museum of Art has a long and noble tradition of showcasing works from the private collections of its board members and benefactors. "Outsider Visions" continues that tradition, assembling 95 works from the collection of Ted and Ann Oliver.
Collectors often establish well-defined parameters and then lavish their attention — and their cash — on art that fits their specifications. The Olivers, who have been collecting for more than three decades, are no exception. Their collection focuses on art distinguished by three characteristics: It's the work of self-taught artists, those artists are from the South, and the artists lived and worked primarily in the 20th Century.
That said, those criteria are somewhat flexible. At least one artist is from a state (Maryland) that may or may not be a part of "the South," depending upon your point of view. And a few of the artists were born in the 1950s and '60s, so that well into the 21st Century, they're still in their prime productive years.
The "self-taught" criterion, however, is a more stringent requirement. What all these artists share is their lack of professional training.
Still, we can form some other general conclusions. The subject matter often includes rural scenes and religious imagery. Portraiture is common. The paintings are frequently characterized by the use of bright colors, by attention to detail, and by pictorial flatness rather than depth; the sculptures tend to make use of found objects.
That reliance on found materials, in fact, applies across the board. Self-taught artists typically have a knack for availing themselves of whatever's at hand, from house paint and plywood to door and window panels to fragments of wood and metal. One of the best-known of all outsider artists, Miami's prolific Purvis Young (who died last year), was notorious for incorporating a wide variety of found objects into both his art and his frames for it.
Here, for instance, we find Kentucky brothers Ronald and Jessie Cooper painting and adorning cow skulls. Chris Clark's I Have a Dream interprets Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech in acrylic supplemented with buttons and bottle caps. Floridian Michael Banks painted his Birth of Love on a large wooden door panel.
Alabama's Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910-2007), one of the most accomplished artists in the show, incorporated what is identified as "sweet mud" into the acrylic he used to paint such images as Sawmill in Red, Log Cabin, and Red the Weenie Dog. Sudduth was also known to use such substances as motor oil, soft drinks, instant coffee, and juices extracted from plants. He painted primarily with his fingers.
From time to time, the exhibition's imagery brings to mind the art of Haiti, perhaps the quintessential outsider art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Several paintings by the well-known Mose Tolliver (1920-2006), also of Alabama, summon up the presiding spirits of the style of Haitian art known as Saint Soleil, with large, ethereal heads that seem to suggest aliens.
No show emphasizing self-taught Southern artists of the 20th Century would be complete without the inclusion of the Rev. Howard Finster (1916-2001), who achieved far greater fame and acclaim than most of his contemporaries. Finster was born in northeastern Alabama but is known for the sprawling compounds he established nearby in northwestern Georgia beginning in the late 1940s. A preacher since he was in his teens, he set out to chronicle the abundance of God's creation in his work.
Finster is known for incorporating text, often from the Bible, into his art, cramming every available space with words. He was "discovered" in the mid-1970s, thanks to media exposure from such outlets as an Atlanta TV station and Esquire magazine, which dubbed his complex Paradise Garden. Perhaps not surprisingly, given his fascination with pop culture, Finster was soon creating album covers for R.E.M. (Reckoning), Talking Heads (Little Creatures), and others, which only added to his allure.
Three Finster works are included here. One, Devil and His Wife, is painted in latex and acrylic on a plywood cutout, another Finster hallmark. The other two are etchings, including a self-portrait and a tower that looks to have been inspired by the Biblical Tower of Babel.
You might think such widespread exposure would pose risks for outsider artists, who could easily slip into "insider" status and become absorbed by the mainstream. That seems not to have happened with the artists the Olivers collect. Sudduth and Tolliver clung to their rural roots all their long lives. Purvis Young remained a street artist to the end, despite building a résumé that would be the envy of any artist. Even Finster saw his celebrity as a tool for spreading the word of his God. Maybe once an outsider artist, always an outsider artist.