Outside in L.A.

In a large, aging brick office building in a nondescript commercial strip just next to the Magic Johnson Theaters on MLK Jr. Boulevard in Baldwin Hills, 100-some artists -- ranging in age from 18 to 65 -- are at work. Some are working harder than others, but most come in for at least six hours a day, five days a week. Tammy Brakins methodically paints one of her trademark arrangements of babies, toilets, telephones and mallard ducks. David Sinclair Walton fashions crowns out of foil and wire, or draws up oversize charts detailing the structure of a hypothetical medieval kingdom. Lonnie Thompson fills page after tiny page with his jewel-like Gary Panter--esque pictographs, and Eric Yates covers every side of a boxlike form with jumbled masses of scrawled text, found and invented. The artists‘ space is equipped with a small printmaking shop, a loom, a ceramics facility -- even a small gym -- and is provided free of charge. As are materials, technical instruction and assistance. The host organization, called the ECF Art Center, mounts exhibitions for the artists several times a year and arranges for the work to appear in high-profile film and television productions. And while the money generated from these sales isn’t enough to live on, most of the artists qualify for state assistance with their living costs, so they get by. What is this -- some kind of communist nightmare?!

This would be a sweet deal for most artists, but most wouldn‘t be willing to take on the extra challenges that come with the deal -- Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, autism and assorted organic mental abnormalities. The ECF Art Center is a private nonprofit foundation, or rather, the most visible segment of a larger one -- the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, which has existed since 1946, and operates a wide variety of programs that help the developmentally disabled cope with every aspect of life. From eight or so locations in the Los Angeles area, the charity provides residential services, life-skills development, assisted-workshop employment and recreational facilities to more than 1,500 children and adults with congenital or traumatic biological mental problems. The Art Center, founded in the late ‘60s, is technically one of ECF’s Developmental Activity Centers, where clients (or “consumers”) learn and practice job skills that allow them to participate in allegedly normal society. (Yeah, right -- that‘s what they told me at art school too!)

The ECF Art Center is among the oldest of many similar programs throughout the world -- one of the more conspicuous being the Creativity Explored program in San Francisco, which has successfully integrated its clientele with the mainstream art world via exhibitions at S.F.’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and at commercial galleries here and in N.Y. “The Creativity Explored people came down here when they were getting started, and modeled themselves after us,” says ECF Art Center‘s director, Dr. Richard Webb-Msemaji. “People come [to see us] from all over the world. Some of them are very selective about who they let in their program -- they aren’t equipped to deal with the same degrees of behavioral issues that we are. Some of our artists come from very messed-up homes. We try to emphasize our role as a creative, therapeutic milieu, and we don‘t have the academic or art-world connections that give places like Creativity Explored their greater exposure.”

The Center doesn’t exactly bury its head in the sand, though. ECF artwork has been seen in movies like Erin Brockovich; Spider-Man; Girl, Interrupted; Training Day and Red Dragon, as well as in TV shows, including Seinfeld, Ally McBeal and, somewhat subversively, as student work at the elite “LacArts” school in HBO‘s Six Feet Under. Aaron Brothers turns over exhibition space to the Center several times a year, and Warner Bros. Records in Burbank hosts an annual sale. Currently, the Center is bustling to prepare for its annual Holiday Open House, which takes place this Saturday, December 7, from noon until 4 p.m. only, at the actual King Boulevard studios.

The calculated scarcity of objects in the art market is just one of The Art World’s delusional sacred cows barbecued by the kind of art created at the ECF Art Center -- generally known as Outsider Art or Art Brut. Outsider Art has become a catchall for all kinds of self-taught or marginal idioms of self-expression, but its roots as an art “movement” lie in the Surrealists‘ fascination with the Prinzhorn Collection, an archive of drawings, paintings and sculpture created by inmates of the mental asylums of Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the early 20th century (many suffering the same developmental differences as the ECF’s population).

Since the ‘80s, Outsider Art has commanded an enormous market parallel to the conventional gallery system, generating an equally enormous animosity from threatened insiders, and resulting in separate systems of distribution and valuation. The mere presence of Outsider Art takes The Art World to task on a number of fundamental issues -- the labored and reactionary dismissal of the obvious link between mental “difference” and visual creativity; the idea that meaningful contemporary art is the pinnacle of some sort of societal evolution best left to university-educated professionals; the centrality (or even necessity) of verbal, theoretical rationalizations to the process of making art; and, most damagingly, the denial of art’s therapeutic power -- as a form of psychological and spiritual healing and growth, as a way of being in the world.

The real force behind these issues is the tremendous formal strength of the work. Not only do Outsider works compete (without a handicap) in the basic languages of colors, composition, surface, line, texture, spatiality and value, but they also possess tremendous humor, emotional impact, and deep, preverbal conceptual complexity, vitality and novelty. They also compete in price. Collectors have already discovered the work of Tammy Brakins, as well as Milton Davis‘ intricate black-and-white figurative ink drawings. But even their prices -- and we’re talking framed original painting -- top out at around $500. Equally substantial works are available for less than $100, with many original pieces going for as little as $5 or $10.

As the validity of The Art World‘s monopoly on cultural importance erodes, the relative value of Outsider and Insider will become more proportionate. Perhaps this will inspire academics and mainstream cultural workers to question some of the assumptions underlying their positions of authority, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. In the meantime, one thing is certain -- these prices won‘t last!

ECF ART CENTER HOLIDAY ART SALE | 3750 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (west of Crenshaw) | Saturday, December 7, noon--4 p.m. | (323) 290-2000


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