The Boca Raton Museum of Art spotlights the work of self-taught Florida artists

January will be a busy month for the Boca Raton Museum of Art. This South County cultural bastion is slated to open three new exhibitions on January 26: Paul Gervais: Faces and Forms, featuring the Florida artist’s small-scale portraits; Glasstress Boca Raton 2021, a sequel to the museum’s popular 2016 showing of works in glass; and An Irresistible Urge to Create: The Monroe Family Collection of Florida Outsider Art. South Florida–based photographer Gary Monroe has long sought out and shared creations by the state’s self-taught artists, whose eccentricity, he notes, informs their imagery. Inspired by Monroe’s 2003 book, Extraordinary Interpretations: Florida’s Self- Taught Artists, this exhibition will feature 86 pieces from Monroe’s extensive collection. A&C recently caught up with Monroe to discuss the concept and evolution of outsider art. bocamuseum.org, 561.392.2500, artwork provided courtesy of the Monroe Family Collection.

Untitled, Ed Ott

A&C: Can you define outsider art?
Monroe: The term “outsider art” was used to describe artwork made outside of established art-making ways, not so much technical than formal and aesthetic. The artists were untrained and, more often than not, renegade in their approaches; this is to say they worked in solitude, away from and unaware of museum culture and art history. Their inspiration was often based on profound personal experiences, from trauma to revelation.

Does it differ from folk art? Or are they one and the same?
Twenty or so years ago, this art was co-opted into the museum world and is now collected widely and even shown alongside masterworks. It complements the fine arts by challenging assumptions. The outsider referent has been largely discarded though, because it “marginalizes the marginalized.” So, other terms suffice, generally self-taught art. Although many see it in the folk-art realm, it’s really not that. Folk art deals with tradition bearing, the making of utilitarian objects from, for example, signage to quilts. Contemporary folk art is broad enough to suffice though. We also hear naive, primitive, visionary.

Untitled, Brian Dowdall

You describe your collecting of outsider art as unintentional, but what about the genre appeals to you so?
This might have been inspired by growing up in Miami Beach, from the Art Deco hotels’ sense of whimsy to the Fontainebleau hotel with its French-inspired wallpaper, huge chandelier, and circular staircase. It was idiosyncratic, slightly fantastic to unreal there. In college, as an art student, I began collecting old postcards, the dreamy airbrushed kind from the 1930s and ’40s. Maybe it was being a child of the ’60s; there’s a sense of rebellion in outsider art, and perhaps with championing it.

Are there any shared themes or visual commonalities among
Florida outsider art?

Interestingly, no. Maybe this is because these artists work in isolation, with a “not give a darn” attitude, and perhaps because Florida is a transient state. But I think it’s more the former.

Untitled, Jack “Mr. B” Beverland

Can you explain how outsider art has come to be accepted and celebrated at museums and within academia?
Twenty years ago, while researching my book Extraordinary Interpretations: Florida’s Self-Taught Artists, I spoke with a Museum of Modern Art curator, and her reply to this question was that “good art is good art.” That implied an opening of the doors to the ideas about art. And this art is appealing to arts academics and laypeople interested in experiencing the sublime pleasures of art just because it is so profoundly that—visceral, immediate and unmediated, and genuine.

How have advancements in technology over the last 20 years or so changed the look and feel of outsider art?
The end of this art’s golden age seems to have come when digital technology flattened the world. It’s easy to be more aware and less isolated, and we’ve become even more profit-oriented, whereas these artists worked not for acclaim or wealth but because they were driven. The scene has changed. Although I’ve discovered two outsider artists of note since the book’s release in 2003, both of their work was done before the millennium. There are no doubt others. On eBay most of what passes for outsider art is decorative and self-conscious.

Untitled, Alyne Harris

How were the works selected for this exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum of Art?
The direction for this exhibition was established by the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s visionary director, Irvin Lippman. He asked that I not duplicate the book. I saw the wisdom and opportunity in this. The selected pieces lend themselves to a conversation between viewer and artist. Some artists are represented with one piece, others with a few. Not all the artists [from the book] are in the exhibition, while others are. The exhibition is not meant to be explanatory but rather designed to be an experience.

The show includes works by George Voronovsky, whom you describe as a memory painter. Can you elaborate on that term a bit?
Memory painters fit in the rubric of self-taught and contemporary folk artists. As it suggests, they paint their memories. I met George Voronovsky while photographing the endings of South Beach’s old-world Jewish culture in the 1970s through mid-’80s. His room in the Colony Hotel was covered with his paintings on discarded cardboard. He recreated his charmed youth in the Ukraine to stave off his hard life after World War II. I’ve never seen art that was so lovely and moving, not before or since. He too propelled my interest into the magical world of such genuine art and new beauty. Irvin is a big proponent of George’s work, and I’m glad we are including it and celebrating it here.

Untitled, John Gerdes

What do you hope viewers discover when visiting this exhibition?
That art is always up for being redefined, with the definitions challenging
history and viewer. And that this realm of art is by its nature surprising, gripping, and wonderful.

Extra Q&A with Gary Monroe

A&C: How has your fascination with outsider art impacted your approach to photography?
Monroe: Since college I’ve used a Leica camera; it’s elemental, no bells or whistle (or batteries). One works in the moment, for the moment, and by wit and reflex. What results is largely unknown, until after the fact, and the results have to be still something else, more than a document. More dramatic, a new reality. It’s as unpredictable as the art that interests me.

What subjects are you most drawn to in your photos?
The marginalized if disenfranchised, but it’s not quite accurate. I work noncommercially with ideas rooted in the fine arts. I still work with Leica cameras and film, and I print in a darkroom. But the elderly Jews with whom I spent a decade living amongst (I’m Jewish and grew up in South Beach), if they were marginalized, they didn’t know it. They lived in a community of their own making, where they could live out their lives in accordance with their religious mores and a lifestyle of their own design. I spent a lot of time photographing Haitians in Miami/ South Florida and throughout Haiti, when Duvalier still ruled cruelly and as democracy availed. I photographed tourism across Florida as well as aspects of life in the Sunshine State, and I’ve traveled the world with my camera in hand.

The whole idea of “Florida weird” and the “Florida man” permeates popular culture. Do you think there is a specific, idiosyncratic weirdness to the state that manifests in art in particular?
As a native and lifelong Floridian, it seems perfectly normal to me…but I know it’s not.