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Crop of the cover of the book Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught Artists by Lisa Slominski

Rewriting and Rereading Art History

Lisa Slominski–

Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught Artists re-examines twentieth-century art history, with an exploratory reconsideration of many creatives previously defined in relation to Modern Primitives, l’Art Brut, Outsider Art, and Black Folk Art. I explore and grapple with the terminological debacle of such terms with a sensibility rooted in the present day. I also shed new light on a number of self-taught artists working as contemporary practitioners in the 21st century. The book’s many contributors offer a range of perspectives; for example, Phillip March Jones explores artistic practices as they relate to community and performative aspects, and Katherine Jentleson’s essay Once Seen As Modern traces MoMA’s historical relationship with presenting self-taught artists. Moving away from the ubiquity of the term “Outsider Art,” I propose that even the notion of “self-taught” often presents a further conditional circumstance–gender, race, poverty, mental health, disability–that historically makes this assignment (of operating outside of the cultural mainstream) far more complex than mere pretexts of training or relationship to the art world.

To disrupt preconceptions, Nonconformers presents artists within a context that continually defies presumptions about self-taught artists. The book also explores creative practices adjacent to exhibitions, be it environment building or spiritual-based practices. I propose that a definitive categorical framework, whether “Outsider,” “self-taught,” or something else, may no longer be relevant or beneficial to artists.

The publication of Nonconformers coincides with the opening of the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s most significant global events. Curated by Cecilia Alemani, the 2022 exhibition’s title Milk of Dreams is taken from a book by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington which describes a world of constant reinvention and reimagination. Alemani’s ambitions for Milk of Dreams mirror those of Nonconformers: an effort to circumvent the institutional hierarchy by presenting “a historical narrative that is not built around systems of direct inheritance” and presenting artistic narratives that have “not yet been absorbed into the official canon.” Milk of Dreams features 213 artists, the majority of whom are women or gender non-conforming. Milk of Dreams will include the work of three artists featured in Nonconformers: Sister Gertrude Morgan, Nikki de Saint Phalle, and Minnie Evans.

Sister Gertrude Morgan’s (1900, Alabama-1980, Louisiana) creative practice, which developed in the 1960s, was guided by the divine. An exuberant preacher, musician, poet, and painter, she harnessed her spirit and creativity to support her religious messages. She often eschewed traditional art supplies such as canvas, reaching instead for materials more readily available around her: notebook pages, cardboard, styrofoam packaging, lampshades. She drew and painted on them with acrylic, tempera, watercolor, wax crayons, pen ink, and pencil. Aesthetically musical and improvisational, her iconographic gestures of visual culture and faith vocabulary seem intrinsically informed by pentecostal traditions. Morgan was religious from her late teens, and in 1934, she received her first direct calling to evangelize. In 1939, she settled in New Orleans and became an active preacher within the African American Baptist Holiness-Pentecostal missionary. A further transformative event occurred in 1957 when she had the divine revelation that she was the Bride of Christ; from then on, she dressed exclusively in white to signify the union. For Morgan, her paintings, performance, and music did not function or exist exclusively as art; rather, they were tools to support her missionary pursuits. Her work received widespread approbation: in 1970, Morgan’s paintings were featured in three important national exhibitions, including Dimensions of Black at the La Jolla Museum of Art in California, and she performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival alongside Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson.

Despite being self-taught, and likely the only artist in Nonconformers to refer to herself as an “Outsider,” Nikki de Saint Phalle (1930, France-2002, California) was widely accepted into the modern and contemporary art curriculum. De Saint Phalle began to explore her creativity in 1953 as a therapeutic exercise while in a French psychiatric hospital. She gained early acceptance in the Nouveau Réalisme movement and collaborated with Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (whom she married in 1971 and collaborated with until his death in 1991). In the 1960s, de Saint Phalle became best known for Nanas: colorful patterned sculptures embodying her idea of the feminine spirit. In 1978, she embarked on her most ambitious endeavor, The Tarot Garden, an immersive outdoor sculptural environment in Tuscany, Italy representing Tarot’s major arcana cards. De Saint Phalle’s star continued to rise during the development of The Tarot Garden, notably with a retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in 1980. She dedicated over ten years to The Tarot Garden, moving on-site in 1983 to live and work inside the Garden’s sculpture The Empress. The vivid, eccentric sculptures of The Tarot Garden are monumental, bold, and feminine–encompassing important qualities in de Saint Phalle’s long exploration of female identity.

The lush, phantasmagoric compositions of Minnie Evans (1892-1987, North Carolina) interpret the space between waking vision and lucid dream. From a young age, Evans had vivid, recurring dreams and formed a strong connection with religion. In 1908, Evans moved to the Pembroke Park Estate, working first as a domestic servant and then as a gatekeeper at the property’s Airlie Gardens for almost 30 years. Beginning with a drawing in 1935, and refining her style into the 1950s, Evans’ oeuvre was undoubtedly influenced by her natural surroundings. She was also impelled by her evangelical community and spiritual higher powers to create divine drawings. Her work has both biblical and mythological reference points, interwoven with a cacophony of cultural traditions. The abundance of rich, herbaceous visuals is a signature element, but Evans’ compositions also often feature pairs of eyes, sometimes multiples, to represent God’s omnipresence. God is often portrayed with wings and rainbow halo; depictions of spiritual mystics and other wise people further demonstrate Evans’ visionary influences. She credited her dreams and deciphered visions for her compositions of suns, moons, and stars that allude to a cosmological landscape. Evans’ first exhibition was at the Little Gallery, Wilmington, NC in 1961, and with the support of photography student Nina Howell Starr, Evans began exhibiting in New York in 1966. Her work entered the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1972 and she had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975.

Cecilia Alemani asserts that Milk of Dreams is participating in “the complex process of rewriting and rereading history.”  These intentions are profoundly mirrored in Nonconformers, and, to one extent or another, throughout the art world in 2022. The artists and creatives showcased in Nonconformers, including many women, people of color, and individuals with disabilities and mental health issues, are not defined by the title Nonconformers. Instead, the book proposes to meet them as they are: individual and idiosyncratic creative voices nonconforming to potential preconceived notions concerning their practice, status, or relationship to the establishment or anti-establishment. It is a contribution to an evolving dialogue: as Alemani reminds us, “no historical narrative can ever be considered final.”

Lisa Slominski is an American curator, writer, and cultural producer based in London. She provides a voice of diversity and inclusivity within a contemporary art context and lectures on the topic of “Outsider Art,” including for Queen Mary University of London.

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