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Critical Eye
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Life in the Outside
A profile of an artist whose idea of housework is to create art that blurs the line between indoors and out

March 31, 1999

The term "outsider art" was coined to denote work made far from the art world; it is often used to describe the work of the insane, the untaught, and the elderly. Today, however, outsider art is suddenly very much in, featured at fairs, museums, and auctions. Does this rage for outsider art drain the term of meaning? Or is it still of use in opening our eyes to the kind of work that we might not otherwise have known how to think of as art at all?

Questions like these come up in relation to the outsider artist Lee Barron, a round-faced, graybearded man in his late fifties who works with notions of inside and outside at one of their points of origin -- in a house's walls and windows, ceilings and doors. Barron's house is his canvas; he explores the meaning of "house" as others have explored the implications of painting.

In 1974, Barron moved out of the van he had been living in since arriving east from Montana (an International Harvester with an Alice in Wonderland paint job), and moved into a townhouse he purchased for a song in Boston's South End. His goal as a homeowner was not only to have somewhere beside his van and park benches to lay his head, but also to "make a palace out of garbage." Because of urban renewal, garbage -- sometimes fit for a palace -- was plentiful in the alleys and the dumpsters of the South End. It was while combing through these sites -- while "garbaging" -- that Barron came up with the walnut door, the stained-glass windows, and the fireplace mantle that are fixtures in his house.
Previously in Critical Eye:

"Live to Paint, Paint to Live," by Lee Siegel (February 1999)
The life and work of Jackson Pollock, an artist whose "surging, floating, shooting, melting, yielding, charging, attacking, embracing, merging colors are emblems of the way modern people perceive."

"The Art of Overcoming," by Sheila Farr (November 1998)
For many artists creativity is rooted in problem solving. For some -- like Chuck Close and Ginny Ruffner -- this includes overcoming their own bodies' misfortunes.

"Subtle Mechanisms," by Harvey Blume (August 1998)
For Arthur Ganson, an artist whose ingenious contraptions tell stories, meaning and motion are all but inseparable.

"Truth and Consequences," by Lee Siegel (May 1998)
The films of Luis Buñuel reveal a vision of human violence that is complicated, unsentimental, and always honest.

"Posing for Egon Schiele," by Lee Siegel (February 1998)
The artist, the critics, and the importance of being jaded.

More writing on arts and culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

Related links:

Visionary Art

A resource on outsider artists that includes biographical information, essays, and pictures of artwork.

Raw Vision
The Web site of the leading magazine on outsider art.

The Outsider Pages: Folk and Outsider Art
Images of outsider art along with an extensive list of links to galleries, museums, and other Web sites.

The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
Includes information on what's new in the outsider art world, and links to outsider art "environments" on the Web.

Garbaging skills were especially prized by a sixties counterculture that delighted in reversing ethical and aesthetic values: ugliness was beautiful, only outlaws could be honest, and only the mad knew anything about being sane. Barron still identifies with these ideals -- and not nostalgically. Most countercultural venues have either disappeared or been turned into turgid museums of themselves. Barron's house has few if any explicit reminders of the sixties -- no hookahs, no posters of Che Guevara. But Barron's house -- a living remnant of the counterculture -- can be disorienting. It's as if the whole house had a serious brush with electric kool aid once upon a time and has ever since refused to go straight. Another taste or two and the building might have fully mutated into a cave, a teepee, or a geodesic dome -- forms it seems to daydream about.

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 A glass bubble in the bedroom

Right now the dome impulse is kept in check, restricted to Barron's bedroom wall, which has been torn out and replaced by a glass bubble that, from the street, gives just the slightest appearance of a goiter. On a clear night in this dome Barron gets a good view of the stars and of parts of the Boston skyline. It's one of a number of ways he brings a suggestion of wide open spaces to the inside of a house situated close enough to the drug war for gunshots to be heard at night and for deals to go down just beyond the heavy wisteria limb gracing the doorway. Barron gets to his sleeping alcove by climbing elk antlers embedded in a fifteen-foot cedar tree he chained himself to and dragged, ox-like, out of a southern swamp. After a while, he says, tree climbing, even in the dark, becomes second nature.

Barron is self-taught. He learned architecture on the fly, the way he learned most things. He describes how when he was twelve "a voice came and said, 'Ask any question you want, you'll get the answer.'" Barron has trusted that voice, accepting that the answers it supplies are not from any textbook, and knowing, too, that taking dictation from an inner voice can lead to brushes with psychopathology. He has been called a "paranoid schizophrenic" but has adapted the label to his own purposes: paranoid, to him, is just another way of saying "pattern sensitive"; schizophrenic means "open to multiple realities." Together these terms give Barron a working definition of what it means to be an artist. It's the artist's job, in his view, "to become a window between two dimensions." Barron believes that there's nothing especially rarefied about this role, but it does mean the artist has business to attend to.

Barron senses that his desire to tunnel through or tear down walls is well-nigh universal. "Everybody has a wall they could easily poke a hole through in the time they spend watching an NFL football game," he says. "But it's not their job. It's the artist's job." Barron does the job not only by means of big gestures such as the dome, but with numerous glass-covered apertures in the outside walls positioned to greet the solstice sunlight. Walls, for Barron, are barriers to the flow between inside and outside -- a flow that he feels compelled to reassert. He works in similar fashion with windows. His high-vaulted upstairs room is a large space made to feel even larger -- and more like an extension of the outdoors -- when he removes the glass from the big rear windows so he can sip tea while his feet dangle over a backyard garden.

The house contains the archive of its own history. The interior makes many claims on your attention -- it's hard to avoid staring at an assemblage of sea shells, tumbleweed, wire, mirrors, and toys, for example -- but eventually your eye is drawn to cabinets full of notebooks and videos. The notebooks mix text, photographs and drawings to tell tales of Barron and friends that often center on his house. The videos are of get-togethers in the house and elsewhere. (Friends who feel Barron has a tendency to hide behind the video camera are told that videotaping makes him "twice as here.") He maintains his overflowing collection because it yields a portrait of his life, he explains, "so I can see if the spirit inside is visible. The images themselves aren't the point. They are just a device to tweak reality into showing itself."

barhous2 picture
A cedar-and-elk-antler ladder in the attic

Barron is just as eager to tweak and document the inner life of buildings, and does so by means of his graphical novel, The Cloud Club. The historical Cloud Club was the private residence Walter Chrysler built atop the Chrysler Building to entertain colleagues such as the head of Chase Manhattan and the CEO of British Steel. Barron's Cloud Club is about the adventures of the inner Chrysler Building as it wakes up on Halloween, for example, consults with Elmer the Elevator on how to dress, and meets with old buddies like the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building on their way to the parade. According to Barron, "you can imbue anything with spirit."

Barron's shelves contain a good deal of material on artists he feels kinship with. There's a book about Tony Price, the New Mexico artist who builds structures out of Los Alamos atomic-bomb scrap; a book about Nadia, the autistic child whose drawings from the 1970s have been compared favorably, with regard to accuracy and boldness, to those of Picasso at a young age; a book called Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis, Works from the Prinzhorn Collection; and some collections of children's art. In the past, work from such unorthodox sources has often slipped through traditional art-world categories and has been treated, if at all, as anthropological or psychological data. In the 1980s the term outsider art gained currency as a way of embracing such unconventional sources. When Lee Barron encountered the term it led him to conclude he was not a splendidly isolated countercultural leftover; there were others like him who worked with indifference to or in ignorance of art-world standards, and without need of art-world recognition.

barhous3 picture
The attic transformed 

The term outsider art is not intended only as an invitation for the barbarians at the gates of the art world to join the barbarians already within. For the French painter and art activist Jean Dubuffet (whose promulgation of "Art Brut," or raw art, laid the basis for outsider art) raw art was the only real art; what Dubuffet called "cultural art" was no more than "a paltry, watered-down counterfeit," a sham produced by intellectuals addicted to art-world formulae. Barron, in the same spirit, sees outsider artists as "serving no master" except their "desire to personally realize the sublime, to know truth and their place in it." He prizes the art of children and the insane because these groups, he feels, are "free of social conventions, and able to pursue the dictates of the human heart." The critic Arthur Danto has weighed in with a parallel formulation, declaring about several outsider artists that each "was an art world unto himself."

But there are problems maintaining such rigorous polarities. Van Gogh, for example, does not meet the most stringent of outsider criteria; his purity as outsider was compromised by attending art school and by hanging around with the likes of Gaugin. Van Gogh was also a consummate draftsman. But who would seriously argue that he was, for these reasons, anything less than an art world unto himself? It might be better to allow for all sorts of hybrids and to think of insider-outsider as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy.

Henry Darger, a reclusive day laborer who died in Chicago in 1973, might represent one extreme. Darger gave no thought to the art world in the sixty years he devoted to his voluminous graphic narrative, "In the Realms of the Unreal," a tale of innocence, represented by hermaphroditic children, threatened by the incursions of war. Yet today Darger is at the core of an outsider-art canon that has been crystallized by shows like the traveling exhibition organized by the Museum of American Folk Art, which debuted at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the spring of 1998. Darger has become that paradoxical thing, an outsider old master. We might place an artist like Ray Johnson at the other extreme. Johnson's mail art, as displayed in a recent retrospective at the Whitney, is meta-art, art that connects and comments on established artists; it's a kind of art-world intranet. Darger didn't know the art world; Johnson is inconceivable without it.

What about Lee Barron? The very fact that he identifies himself as an outsider artist indicates that the term has changed in meaning. In the past you wouldn't call yourself an outsider artist -- not if you really were one. Outsider art wasn't a style or a school; it wasn't pointillism or performance art; it was a state of charged and irremediable otherness. But today, where there is outsider art there is art-world hunger for it. Works by Henry Darger sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The New York Outsider Art Fair has been going strong for a decade. (The New York Times compared the atmosphere of the last one to that of a "gold rush.") You can turn up at the art fair, show your work, and be upgraded on the spot from child, madman, or octogenarian artist to outsider master, as happened to Malcolm McKesson when he became celebrated for the depictions of female dominance he had begun producing in his eighties.

The outsider-insider relation brings to my mind a Hayden Planetarium display I saw some years ago featuring a moon of Jupiter that regurgitated its innards periodically, only to re-absorb them. Inside and outside regularly trade places on this moon. The volcanic activity -- the churn -- of today's art world is likewise perpetual, indicating that everything will sooner or later endure and enjoy its moment of frame. Frames, of course, choke off and restrict even as they demarcate and render visible. But Lee Barron seems to be feeling few of the restrictive effects of the outsider label he has applied to himself. It's safe to say his house will keep evolving as long as he feels the need to punch literal and cognitive holes in it, opening its insides to space and, as he puts it, "linking the human heart to something larger than itself."

Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More writing on arts and culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume, a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Photographs are copyright © 1999 by Lee Barron.
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