As Curator of Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Percy has compiled Great and Mighty Things, which catalogues an extensive—and mind-bending—exhibition of “outsider” art from the museum’s Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.
Could you draw our attention to one work in the collection that is particularly evocative or inventive? What would you tell a viewer approaching this work for the first time?
I’d rather do two, if you don’t mind, because the artists in the show are so individual and the kinds of work they produce are so diverse. To me, the Eugene Von Bruenchenhein chicken bone thrones and tower are magical. Think about bones. They are usually inside (people or birds or animals), you don’t see them so much. Brought outside and assembled into tiny sculptures—or architecture—with all their odd shapes and knobs and protrusions, touched up with a little sprayed or brushed on paint, they seem to come from another world.
On the other end of the small-and-quiet/large-and-powerful spectrum, William Hawkins produced some of the strongest work in the exhibition, using house paint in brilliant colors applied with a scrubby old brush to found pieces of wood, sometimes with three-dimensional elements attached to build up the drama of his compositions. They tend to derive from buildings in his town of Columbus, Ohio; popular culture; printed materials; and current events. Many of Hawkins’s works were done in the 1980s, when he was in his late 80s.
How has your engagement with outsider art affected the way you view more mainstream art (works coming from traditional or conventional institutions)?
I can’t see any way that working on outsider art for the last eight years has affected how I look at mainstream work. I am always thinking of the artistic strategies and ways of operating that outsider and mainstream artists share—things like tendencies toward abstraction, working with collage and assemblage, using surreal imagery, incorporation of text, use of found materials, appropriation of pop culture—and also of ways the two kinds of art can be shown together.
Many writers in Great and Mighty Things spend time considering what it means to label an artist as “outside” or “inside” the institutionalized art world. They trouble the terminologies of “outside artist”, “self-taught artist”, and other labels. As a curator, how do you approach these questions?
I am afraid I am not very interested in terms and definitions; it is just not my thing. There have been decades of argument about how best to describe this field—i.e., the work of 20th and 21st century individuals who make art but are not trained in art schools, do not operate as professional artists, and are not part of the mainstream art world—and none of it has ended in a simple, workable term to apply to the material. We decided to skip any “label” discussions in our catalogue and let the writers of the essays use whatever terms they wished. We felt it was more important to get on with considering the work as an aspect of modern and contemporary art that is parallel to but not identical with mainstream production and that deserves to receive the same level of critical attention that is given to the mainstream. Other curators may well view this question differently.