Photo by Hedi El KholtiCONTEMPORARY ART CAN BE AN ALIENATING EXPERIence for some viewers. This is nothing new; but doing something about it -- specifically putting money and careers on the line to counteract that alienation -- is. Tired of the inaccessible works they find in most galleries, the founders of the start-up Dilettante Press hope to restore art's soul by publishing artists and visionaries with no formal training -- blue collars, outcasts, and any joe with a camera or paintbrush.
"Art has been marginalized to the point where pop culture is all people can relate to. So much of the emotion has been drained out," says Jodi Wille, editor and one-third of Dilettante, whose debut offering, The End Is Near! Visions of Apocalypse, Millennium and Utopia, snagged the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best First Book. Featuring artists from Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), it's a stunning reflection of the imprint's mission -- "to publish books of archival quality that challenge traditional notions of art and culture."
Despite their impressive track records -- Wille is a photographer and filmmaker; art director Nick Rubenstein is a former head designer at Epitaph Records, Addicted to Noise and Mean magazine; publisher Steven Nalepa is a Yale grad and business guru -- none had any publishing experience. Nevertheless, when they heard AVAM couldn't afford to print a catalog, the group stepped up to the plate. "The museum said, 'You guys are so sweet to offer that, but there's a small chance in hell that it'll actually happen,'" recalls Wille. What better way to motivate a bunch of rebellious overachievers? "We just committed to it," says Nalepa. "Fuck it. I quit my job."
Their lack of experience wasn't necessarily a liability, though. While their diverse backgrounds provide an array of skills, their similar outlook gives them focus. Wille and Rubenstein met while designing a Dwarves album cover and bonded over their mutual disgust with the art scene. "It doesn't speak to any of us," says Wille. "Nick dropped out of art school his final quarter because he was so completely disillusioned." The attitude of Rubenstein's professors -- "If a work is backed up with 16 pages of postmodernist theory, hang it no matter what it looks like" -- prompted him to turn in his dorm key and seek art that didn't require Cliffs Notes to speak to a viewer. Wille was on the same quest. The two became "instant work soul mates" and fantasized about launching a publishing company. The pipe dream materialized in '97, when they brought in Nalepa, then a researcher for the TV show Strange Universe. "I didn't want to go and sell my ass to Wall Street," Nalepa says. "I'm still working my ass off, but it's so much more rewarding than working for a big corporation." â
The trio learned the ropes by picking the brains of local publishing pals such as Feral House's Adam Parfrey and dealing with each crisis as it came. Skating by on mounting credit-card bills, generous parents, loans and a hefty donation by ex-R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt, Dilettante mustered the $90,000 needed to go to print. Such a steep price is atypical for a first book, but the results -- 192 pages of full-color reproductions and essays by everyone from Howard Finster to the Dalai Lama -- are worth it. "We say we've been jet-setting on no fuel, because we have no money, but we've been flying all over the country and meeting all these great people," jokes Wille. Dilettante got a recent letter from David Bowie saying how much he loved the book, and a congratulatory phone call from Michael Stipe (who gave Wille her first paid gig as a video director for '94's "Find the River").
Oddly, The End Is Near! has become a magnet for readers across the spectrum: Nihilists are drawn to its intense, often horrific scenes of chaos and destruction, while religious fundamentalists appreciate renderings of the Book of Revelation's apocalyptic tales. The praise the book has received from underground troublemakers and Christian groups alike indicates the growing interest in outsider art, whose universal themes require no explanation. "People have a gut reaction, because this art is so utterly human," says Rubenstein. The book is packed with emotionally charged images by ex-cons, grandfathers, mental patients, prophets and woodcutters -- but no professional "artists." "Most outsider artists aren't thinking profit," says Rubenstein. "They've been working in seclusion in their basement."
THAT IS LITERALLY TRUE OF DILETTANTE'S next subject -- celebrity-obsessed amateur photographer Gary Boas. After finishing junior high with home studies because he was too shy to give a report in class, he combed the streets of New York and Philadelphia, shooting famous folks with his Brownie camera. Boas' fresh perspective caught the eye of Wille, who felt the unflattering poses and "wrong" lighting made the pictures work. The best of them (culled from Boas' 30-year, 60,000-photo collection) will make up Star Struck: Photographs From a Fan (due in October), a candid glimpse of A-list life through the eyes of "the world's most obsessed fan."
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Boas' approach may seem exceedingly lo-fi, but no more so than those of many significant artists who have been shunned for their unconventional styles. "It's all about 'do-it-yourself' -- like punk rock, but for people who picked up paintbrushes instead of guitars," says Rubenstein. Indeed, Dilettante's philosophy extends beyond visual art and the arts in general. "We want to make books fun and exciting again," says Nalepa. The three Dilettantes plan to host talks and other events in conjunction with their upcoming publications, which include a book on prison artist Ray Materson, an edgy coffee-table collection called Jesus 2000 and a study of Mexican rock. They also aim to challenge the accepted "truths of the experts," whether art critics, historians or advertisers. And they hope their readers -- especially the younger ones -- will do the same.
"A lot of people our age and younger are into this stuff and hungry for it -- something genuine and uncommercialized," says Wille. But in a culture where sarcasm and rebellion are used to market everything from SUVs to tennis shoes, what can be trusted as genuine? Where S&M and body mutilation are common exhibition material, the most unusual and unnerving art may now be the untrained doodlings of your neighbor, the amateur photographs of a recluse -- works that employ some of the rarest and most dangerous elements of contemporary times: sincerity and guilelessness. They may not be accepted by the art establishment, but, as Rubenstein suggests, it doesn't matter: "You need to listen to your gut, not your frontal lobe."
On Friday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m., Dilettante Press hosts a lecture and slide presentation on scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla, featuring biographer Marc Seifer. At the Foshay Masonic Lodge in Culver City. See the Learning listings in Calendar for details.