Archive for September, 2009

What Is “Unconventional Art”?

Posted on: 1 Comment

It’s a term we’re using because we’re tired of “outsider art,” and all the baggage that comes with it. The notion of “purity,” of artists not wanting to seek profit from their works, of the isolation and ghettoization entrenched in the outsider art narrative just gets in the way of discussing and enjoying the art that we consider “unconventional.” This art can be made by an art student in Nebraska, a doctor in Paris, a housewife in Canada, a busboy with developmental disabilities in Ohio, a wannabe construction worker, a professional artist in NYC… It’s a choice to make unconventional art, not a destiny or predicament.

A majority of the outsider artists with developmental disabilities we have come across establishing Visionaries & Voice, really want to make money from their work, want to challenge their sense of aesthetics, want to learn and grow, and seek a little fame and adulation. Their journey is the opposite of the purity of isolation and obsession: they love the spotlight, they love opening nights and people paying attention to what they can do. “Outsider art” can be anything you want to call it, of course, but we feel the term is so loaded with all kinds of cultural assumptions that we want what we curate and market to be seen as “post-outsider.”

One of our favorite unconventional artists is Joseph Cornell. His life and work really point to the distinction we are trying to make.

Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York in the early 20th Century. He lived for most of his life in a wooden frame house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class area of Flushing, along with his mother and his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy. Mr. Cornell spent most of his life supporting his mom and brother through part-time work as a door-to-door salesman, defense plant worker , gardener, and a designer of magazine layouts. He stumbled into the artworld in New York City as an adult, going to exhibits of Surrealist and other works, and then showing his collages and shadow-boxes to gallery owners. Slowly his reputation grew, but he remained shy and reclusive. In the end, Cornell became a highly regarded artist towards the end of his career, yet remained out of the spotlight.

Mr. Cornell’s life can be represented in a number of ways: as the bio of a lucky outsider, an eccentric genius, a working-class Matisse, a visionary, self-taught isolate functioning on the fringes of mainstream culture, etcetera. But as Mr. Cornell created his works in isolation and obscurity something inside him urged him to break out of the isolation. It was proximity to the NYC artworld, the times he lived in, and his own personal ambition. He wanted his work to be seen, and while he did not profit a lot from the sales during his lifetime, he did sell his work, and he did at times take time out to celebrate his achievements. Part of his artistic journey was about the social aspect of what he was doing: marketing, explaining, showing, and gaining small pleasures (and some annoyance) from the way the work was received.

Our favorite unfamous (so far) unconventional artist is Raymond Thunder-Sky. His biography reads quite a bit like Mr. Cornell’s, except he lived a majority of his artistic life outside of the mainstream artworld in Cincinnati, Ohio. If Mr. Thunder-Sky had proximity to the New York City artworld of Mr. Cornell’s time, he probably would have eventually stumbled his way into exhibits as well. Both Mr. Cornell and Mr. Thunder-Sky were both intensely bashful and reclusive, while also intensely interested in the world, and even gregarious when they could manage it. Mr. Thunder-Sky, when his work was shown in local Cincinnati galleries toward the end of his life, would dress in full construction-clown regalia, enjoying the attention and the accolades.

What we are getting at with all this is the fact that labeling an artist “outsider” may increase the chances of some marketing potential, but it also ghettoizes the art and artist, connects it too explicitly to an identity politics that probably in the end does not matter. Whether you are seen as someone with a disability, or poor, or African American, or gay, or homeless, or whatever, that identity connects you to a complex system of assumptions. You usually can’t escape all of these assumptions of course, but art can help you to escape some of them by allowing you a brief respite from orthodoxies.

The art gallery can free you up. And if you can sell some of it while you’re at it, good for you. The art is unconventional. The biography might be. The artist is just an artist, making stuff.

How to determine what is “unconventional”?

We’re using Raymond Thunder-Sky as our metric:

  • Methodically made works, contemplative and unpretentious.
  • Simple on the surface, very complex under it.
  • An attention to detail that is almost scary but also very astute, that pays homage to reality in a way that somehow transcends it.
  • Representational works (drawings mostly, but we’ll look at paintings, photography, sculpture, video, sound, whatever) that second-guess the “truth” of representation, of the real world.
  • The materials, like the work itself, simple on the surface, but used in ways that make you rethink what art and subject matter can be and do.

As far as the Artist Bio: A life lived in search of inspiration. Hard work merging with a sense of self. Not a lot of BS.

If you are an artist with work that can be described in this manner, please get in contact with us. If you don’t have anyone cheering you on, we’ll be there. If you need a professional, clean space to show your work, we’re here.


4573 Hamilton Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45223
Hours: Saturday/Sunday 1 to 4 pm, or by appointment.

(513) 426-0477 |

Recent Posts