At Philly gallery, developmentally disabled artists get respect as ‘outsiders’

A group of developmentally disabled adults in the greater Philadelphia region is now represented in one of Center City’s most respected commercial art galleries.

Over its 62-year history, the Fleischer/Ollman gallery on Arch Street has earned a reputation as a dealer in self-taught or “outsider” artists.

To find work for the current show, “All Different Colors,” exhibitions director Alex Baker trolled for undiscovered artists at three area community art centers catering to developmentally disabled adults: The Center for Creative Works in Wynnewood,  the Creative Vision Factory in Wilmington; and the Oasis Art Center in Philadelphia, which closed six weeks ago due to Medicaid cuts).

He says work by developmentally disabled adults is coming into the contemporary art mainstream.

“It’s definitely part of the equation, as outsider art in general is being embraced by the contemporary art world at this moment,” said Baker. “That goes through sine waves, in and out of fashion, over decades, the relationship of outsider art and contemporary art.”

The works in “All Different Colors” include drawings made with Magic Marker pens, wall sculptures made from assembled cardboard thickly layered with bright acrylic paint, and a clay sculpture resembling the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Alonzo Troy Humphrey, a 53-year-old artist who was a client at the Oasis, has a grid of 45 portraits made in ballpoint pen hashmarks. The figures do not represent actual people, but are vague assemblages of half-remembered people.

“These are really expressive drawings, so expressive at times with his ballpoint pen that he perforated the paper,” said Baker. “You can see where he broke through the paper, and he has patched the paper. This is a very confident draftsman who uses the pen intensely.”

While teaching artist Lucy Pistilli would not say specify Humprhey’s condition is, she did say that his finely detailed figurative drawings were made entirely from his imagination.

“I think he has a pool of memory, of places and faces and details in his mind, but can’t always attribute them to specific things,” said Pistilli. “Some of the titles are part of a sentence, a little bit of a story about a person.”

Humphey is one of 19 artists in “All Different Colors,” which got its name from a piece by Jenny Cox, a client at The Center for Creative Works. Working with Magic Markers, Cox draws brightly colored ovals around words, which pile up like great mounds of candy lozenges.

“It seems to have a narrative, but, once you get involved with looking at the work, it’s hard to discern what the narrative might mean,” said Baker. “It works well as a maplike drawing that evokes all kinds of abstraction.”

Fleischer/Ollman is a private, commercial gallery; Baker curated the exhibition with the expectation of selling work. He said the artists were consulted about pricing.

Recently, the Philadelphia Museum of Art featured a major exhibition of outsider art from the collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. That show featured extensive biographical information about all the artists, both on the wall and in the audio guide.

At Fleischer/Ollman, “All Different Colors” offers nothing in terms of artist background.

“It’s a conscious decision on my part not to show the biography over the art,” said Baker. “We’re at a crossroads in this self-taught field. There’s a decision not to showcase the biography too much, and let the art speak for itself. I’m in the middle with that. I think we need to know about people’s lives a bit to understand the work, to a degree.”

If asked, Baker will refer interested viewers to the art centers for more information about individual artists. The exhibit continues through Aug. 31.

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