When my pal Jim told me about an opening at the Outsider Gallery at the GoggleWorks, I said, "Sure, er, what's an Outsider Gallery?"
To which he replied, "Folk art, you'll love it."
"Okay," I said, envisioning urban landscapes Grandma-Moses style, or maybe mosaics made out of found materials like discarded tin foil and out-of-date National Geographics, or maybe, if I was lucky, a half-assed collection of baseball cards pinned to a black velvet backing, the best efforts of the "self-taught."
Not sure why I thought that. Folk art is anything but unstudied, and, by the way, "self-taught" is no longer considered lesser-than.
As a matter of fact, the talented unashamedly take up the practice. In these post-modern days of DIY everything — music, movies, steampunk — self-taught anything is not just a thing of beauty, but the message itself.
Ever since the 70s, when we learned to bleach our jeans to make the high-gloss, manufactured-to-specs offerings of corporate production our own, we've celebrated the homemade, the unstudied, the innocent, the honest.
Art that is seemingly produced by a line streaming directly from the artists' brains to the canvas du jour.
It's not absence of technique that we celebrate. There is definite method to the artists' madness. What we celebrate is uniqueness of technique. Personal experience writ large. The sort of thing a human being produces with courage and without question; no reason to develop a protocol, pedagogy, or curriculum. Even style is superfluous. The idea or form alone is important.
Primitive is what folk art is called, as if it was musty stuff found in caves in the south of France. It sounds negative ("pejorative", George Viener, owner of the Outsider gallery says), like it's work that has potential, could be good if only the artist had taken Perspective 101.
Totally unfair, wrongheaded, and elitest. It's not musty at all and, in fact, it's fully realized as is.
I know this and still I was blown away by the blue rooster. When I say "blue," I'm not talking about blue in the sense of blue whales, blue pigeons, or even blue moods. I'm talking neon blue like a gas-fired flame, like the water of a Grecian grotto, or like the signage in Times Square before Disneyfication: it attracts the eyes and mind like an ad for indecent exposure.
And in turn, the rooster's eye follows you everywhere. You cannot escape it. The blue rooster sits on the far wall, opposite the entrance. You see it the minute you step in the joint and head over as if drawn by a cable hooked through your sternum.
On your way you pass through the rest of Gabriel Shaffer's exhibit as well as Mark May's fabulous work. This was a stroke of genius on the part of the curator, because everything else is just as good, if not as shocking, as the rooster. Emily Christensen is a master of bait and switch, enticing us to come for the rooster, stay for the robots.
About Shaffer's non-rooster work. Much of it is as neon-colored and beautiful as the rooster. He definitely has the touch. In addition, though, his found-text pieces merit comment. I found them poignant and almost sad. They made me think about the lost art of typesetting. How did they do all that without the desktop publisher? Makes one wax poetic about fonts and layouts and leading. Good on Shaffer for realizing the beauty in the lost art and showing it to us in a new way.
And then there are the robots. What can I say? I am attracted to robots in a vicarious way. I don't know much about them but that doesn't stop me from writing about them at every turn.
Mark May is another man with an eye. What he sees in a pile of junk is beautiful. Kudos to him for his ability to interpret our detritus for us. It's all there, he knows, if you just look. Like David in a block of flawed marble. The genius is to see it when others are blind.
I suggest you get your hat and cloak and head up, down, or over to the fifth floor of the GoggleWorks.
It's called the Outsider Folk Gallery and it's just down the hall from the elevator. Watch out for a little blue rooster. Go soon, though; it's only going to be there until the end of the month and then it'll up and fly away. Precious and ephemeral. Like ideas in the mind of a self-taught artist.
Sue Lange writes about robots at every turn. In addition she is currently writing about a little alien that lives in her computer. She'll be emceeing the Reading Reads event at the Speckled Hen (Fourth and Cherry) on Oct. 19. Come for the food, stay for the readings! 6:30 p.m. Free.
Outsider Folk Art Gallery
201 Washington Street
Reading, PA 19601
610 939 1737 p
610 939 1738 f