The Neo-Outsider at Monmouth Museum
Imagine walking into an art gallery and finding a giant, yellow shoe—8 feet tall—sitting in the middle of the room. Nearby is a goat made completely out of children’s toys. Along the wall is a series of drawings depicting the Seven Deadly Sins, made with magic markers.
Such is the scene at “The Neo-Outsider: The New Outsider Artist,” an eclectic exhibit on display at the Monmouth Museum through September 7. There’s a lamp fashioned from a clarinet and a spaghetti strainer. There are grotesque figures crafted completely from masking tape.
And the artists who made them? Many have backgrounds that might surprise you.
“Some of these people are trained, but you’ll never figure out who,” explains Dion Hitchings, the exhibit’s curator. “I have a truck dispatcher, a cop, a housewife, an art director, an illustrator. It’s just all over the place.”
That’s the idea behind “outsider art,” a decades-old movement in which people from outside the mainstream and traditional art worlds craft pieces in a wide array of mediums, from paintings to pottery to sculptures to metalwork. Sometimes, they’re professional artists working on fringe projects. Often, they’re self-taught.
This exhibit features dozens of outsider artists from across New Jersey and around the globe, including Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Georgia, Idaho, California, England, and France.
“We don’t fit in the mold,” says Hitchings, who runs the Outsider Art Gallery in Frenchtown. “There are no rules. It’s a huge spectrum and a huge amount of people, trained and untrained. They have kind of made up these little worlds they live in.”
Hitchings’ own story is as unconventional as the exhibit. He grew up in the Midwest — “St. Louis, Misery,” he jokes — and later spent years as a fashion art director in Chicago and New York. Along the way, he began collecting outsider art.
Then, about 20 years ago, Hitchings and his boyfriend traveled to an outsider event called the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, held in a park in Newport, Alabama. There, he met artists from all walks of life — some of whom even turned their cars into canvasses.
“You felt like you jumped down Alice’s hole,” he recalls.
Hitchings was in his 40s at the time, but the festival inspired him to begin making art. “I turned to my boyfriend and said, ‘It’s now or never,’” he remembers.
The decision proved fruitful. Four years ago, Hitchings had created so many pieces that he ran out of room in his Milford house. So, he found studio space on Craig’s List and opened his own outsider gallery in nearby Frenchtown, a borough along the Delaware River in rural Hunterdon County. It’s a small space in a tiny town surrounded by cows and fields.
“But it ain’t like any gallery you’ve ever been to,” explains Hitchings, now 55.
Avis Anderson agrees. She and her husband had dinner in Frenchtown last summer when they stumbled upon the gallery. They looked through the window and saw an unusual piece.
“I said, ‘There’s a giant shoe in there! We’re going in,” recalls Anderson, the executive director of the Monmouth Museum.
Anderson was so impressed with the gallery, she offered Hitchings the chance to curate a show.
“I’m still gobsmacked,” Hitchings says. “You should have seen my face. I’m still in heaven.”
The shoe — a piece made by Hannah Fink, a Princeton housewife, in a nod to the nursery rhyme “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” — is now one of the central pieces at the Monmouth exhibit. In fact, much of the work on display comes from friends Hitchings made during his two decades in the outsider world
A bunch are from New Jersey artists: large faces made of wood and metal by Bob Justin; avant-garde paintings and drawings by Jennifer Levin of Upper Montclair, Charles Smith of Jersey City, and John Stringfellow of Frenchtown; and a glittery snake by Chris Cash, a retired police captain from Trenton. There are pop-culture-tinged drawings by Joe Ciardiello of Milford featuring the Lone Ranger, Popeye, Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Paige, and J. Edgar Hoover. And there are pieces by Patrick Bowen, Carla Coleman, and Carol Johnson, who are part of A-Team Artists, a group of homeless, low-income artists who make art every Tuesday at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.
Other pieces include the clarinet lamp by Brian Marshall of Delaware; the masking-tape people by Bob Shultz of Virginia; and a basket made from hoses by Caroline Maw-Deis of Philadelphia. There’s an abstract painting of a bird mixed with a man’s face by Frederick Bonin Pissarro, a French artist living in Kentucky — who happens to be a descendant of French Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro.
And there’s a machine made by Erik Von Ploennies of Brooklyn that bleeps and gurgles when you twist its knobs (like one of the synthesizers played by Brian Eno on early Roxy Music albums). It’s actually his response to the machine E.T. makes to call home in Steven Spielberg’s classic film.
“It’s something like something a child would do, but it’s sophisticated, too,” Hitchings says.
In fact, “child-like” is a phrase Hitchings uses frequently to describe outsider art.
“For some reason, you kind of fall back into being like a child,” he explains. “The more you do it, the more child-like you start to feel. I mean, I draw flowers with eyeballs. I have a whole series with them. Don’t ask me why.”
Hitchings uses only crayon, magic marker, and colored pens to make his drawings. A few are on display: One is a portrait of drag queen Devine, a staple of John Waters’ films. Another is the series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
The entire exhibit turns the Monmouth Museum’s main gallery into a mishmash of colors and genres.
“It’s very engaging for the visitor,” says Anderson. “They immediately feel happy and engaged in the process. Not, ‘I don’t understand it.’ Everyone’s smiling. You don’t see that a lot in the world anywhere.”
Not surprisingly, Anderson says, children are drawn to the exhibit. They especially adore the toy-filled goat, made by Jim Shores of Georgia with figurines of Batman, Spider-man, Mickey Mouse, Shrek, a Star Wars storm trooper, and more.
“It’s an opportunity to teach kids about art without them being afraid of it,” Anderson says of the exhibit. “They run right over to that goat. You explain to them that even though it’s filled with toys, it’s a piece of art.”