Discerningly scheduled amidst the buzz of New York’s Outsider Art Fair, the Judith Scott’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum entitled Bound and Unbound — curated by Catherine Morris of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art and Matthew Higgs of White Columns, New York — has made waves within the New York art community and generated discourse about the nature of “Outsider Art” as a label, given the late artist’s biography of being institutionalized for Downs Syndrome and undiagnosed deafness.
In my experience of the show, the pieces that Scott created were not only relatable in their familiarity of materials and implicated form, but playfully eerie in their obscurity, creating an inscrutable quality that fall deep into the Uncanny Valley. Perhaps the most dominant sensation I derived from viewing the works was an impression of process — the neuroticism, experimentation, yet sheer confidence in the physicality of the object-making process that is utterly relatable to all artists, no matter their psychological condition or health.
As I was leaving the exhibition space, I overheard many conversations revolving around a singular question: would the works be as powerfully enigmatic and poignant as they were without the prerequisite knowledge of the artist’s condition? For me, it is impossible to say given that I could not have approached the show with a tabula rasa; I had specifically come to the Brooklyn Museum with interest in seeing works created by an artist with Downs Syndrome — an intention I am sure many visitors shared. However, what is certain is that the paradigm shift in societal expectations of the artist persona that this exhibition has induced is a ripple in institutionalized art-making and viewing practices that is long overdue.
The condition of “Outsider Art” within the contemporary art scene is still subject to an extent of exoticism, in a similar way that non-Western works are treated with such fragility and xenophilia in the Western art market. Besides the obviously problematic Other-ing of institutionalized artists, even in reference to Roger Cardinal’s art brut definition of the genre as rooted in “impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization,” “Outsider Art” has subversive implications of being borne of an uneducated, unrefined taste.
For these reasons, I firmly approve of the curators’ deliberate evasion of the term in any literature surrounding the exhibition. The lack of explicative wall text — contrasting the disproportionate amount of wall text in Kehinde Wiley’s seemingly more popular show, A New Republic, just one floor above — allowed the work to speak for itself in all its viscerally unapologetic form and materiality. In the limited text that provided, they admitted their own hesitations in an eloquent summary of their stance against the stigma: “The desire to search for the biography in the work — to hunt for it, expand upon it, and analyze its implications — can limit our seeing what the artist actually created.”