I think where I cannot say that I am.
Author's note: I ran into Georgia Speller's work back before criticism came to visit folk art and made a nest there. I was instantly mesmerized by her candor and have remained so.
To what extent does the Other recognize itself as being such? In the context of Other, it is "they" who think how I am. "They" designate. By the very designation, a distinction grows between the "them" and the "us." If there is one thing that the discourse on "the definition of the folk and their art" illustrates, it is the acceleration of the colonizing pathos of Western culture in its attempt to stabilize the determinates of folk nomenclature.
From the point of view of the so-designated outsider, Other is rarely the equivalent of inferior, dominated, or colonized, except when it is defined as such by a self-proclaimed hegemony. In the physical detritus of domination and colonization (the assertion of authoritarian power), thankfully there persists the rich cultural residue of the oppressed. Even through the process of homogenization, this residue is not and can never be completely eradicated. While it is based in heterogeneity, homogenization becomes something else through the willing participation of some members of the group, regardless of its painful source.
Everyone who nominally began to collect folk art as it came to be defined around 1982 (and the definition then became something other than the existing folkloric definitions) began as an amateur, because there were no refined or specialized definitions of this new expansion of what signified "folk." Everyone began as an amateur when it came to the appreciation of folk, outsider, self-taught, art—however these artists have come to be defined. Those who became obsessed with their fascination with the self-taught became collector/dealers or chronicler/critics of the "new" field. And most of them are coming to accept that the label "self-taught" does nothing more than to signify a shift of theoretical gears in broadening our understanding of this field, a field that decries the lie that all artists have endured—perceived separation from societal standards.
While certainly there are dangers inherent in cross-cultural criticism, there are also advantages in the ensuing relationships formed between the observer and the observed; especially, it seems, when the point of view expressed is not from the center, whatever the center may represent in any given construct. Georgia Speller, more than many artists, contributes to the above by her astounding candor and her distinct positing of herself as observer, social commentator, and voyeur.
Georgia Speller's art represents the organizing principle of all that is wrong with how we come to categorize and characterize, and even more important, how we place an act of creativity within the construct of art, an increasingly anemic site for analysis and comprehension of human expression.
When art critic Dan Cameron asserts in Art & Auction that distinctions among social factions regarding art practice are approaching insignificance, his insight forever revises this curious typecasting of all artists. Maybe the so-characterized "vernacular" conjecture of certain types of art making such as folk, outsider, insane, penal, etc., is a necessary step in determining the intellectual evolution of history; just as the accretion of consensus necessary for a critical mass is the prelude to requisite analysis of an art heretofore devoid of theory.
In his essay "From Domination to Desire," Metcalf brings to bear on the outsider knot the fascinating theory of sociologist Dan MacCannell on tourism:
In such a world, tourism has developed as a primary preoccupation of the middle class. A central ritual in modern, technological societies where leisure is displacing work as a means of self-identity, where experience seems fragmented and discontinuous, and where the individual often feels atomized and disconnected from previously sustaining traditional institutions and relationships, tourism has become a way of attempting to reconnect the now seemingly disparate and unrelated pieces of modern experience.
The social activity which supports Outsider Art can be illuminated by considering it in terms of MacCannell's model of tourism. Yet it is not just other people and places that are touristically experienced. As MacCannell mentions, both history and tradition have become tourist attractions as the past and earlier lifestyles are scavenged and pieced together as antidotes to, and measures of, the present. In this perspective, one can suggest that through celebrating and viewing Outsider Art, some of its proponents may touristically journey, if only emotionally, to what they perceive as the farthest and most exotic reaches of human experience.
In an earlier passage, Metcalf describes the binary aspects of Other in which opposing boundaries are defined through the location of its opposite: "'primitive' and 'outside' can exist only in binary terms; each implies, and determines the boundaries of, its opposite.'"
Let's posit in binary fashion that the opposite is also true, meaning that the "outsider" also tours beyond the familiar habitat through various acts, one of which is the act of creating. Consider economic class as an example: Is it possible to know anything about the working-class poor or the underclass, since they are always framed demographically by institutions? This returns us to the art of Georgia Speller not coincidentally but precisely at the time when such speculation is ripe for deliberation. Her work becomes one fascinating example because of her social insights. The subject matter more than the formal devices she uses to depict content, rivet us to the question of context and meaning. Her work transcends the boundaries of social (read economic, in the late twentieth century) class. Georgia tours, and takes us on a tour of, not nostalgic realms of fantasized nonmodern landscapes as Metcalf via MacCannell would have us believe, but a tour of a real, but always to the tourist, hybrid social perspective—another point of view from our own-the point of view of the other, which is the reason we all tour in the first place whether in our minds (internal projecting outward) or in physical space (external projecting inward).
The notion of tourism travels back and forth across ethnic, racial, economic, sexual, religious-collectively cultural—boundaries. It is key to understanding what captivates us beyond the formal qualities of the self-taught (for grievous lack of a better term). MacCannell's model of tourism is not limited to a particular socioeconomic class but flows both ways. As a model it shuns the black/white hegemonizing thing that gets humans stuck so often. It locates the vulnerable amateur in us and the voyeuristic tendencies among us.
Tourism's versatility in this regard is invaluable, since it also demonstrates how mercurial the readings of, and emphases upon, desires and interests in particular subject and place are. Consider the souvenir, the symbol, the collectible, the artifact, the residual . . . the object transformed . . . a traditional construct from the Western viewpoint: art for art's sake, in and of itself, devoid of the practical (utility) that dissects how various observations and subsequent histories have formed (and changed). It would be wonderful to hypothesize as to how Western culture might be in the absence of curio or antiquity cabinets. How would things have been framed in the absence of such an acquisitive, basic yet abstract, human practice as collecting? Collecting as has repeatedly been demonstrated, evolves (or devolves) in every dimension, especially in the redress and subsequent reparations of various histories made from the dominant or master perspective.
What is it about Georgia Speller's work that makes it so remarkable? Her line quality contains a curious dulled 2B pencil intensity that recalls the delight of one's first encounter with art materials in Sunday school, day care, or elementary school. Her vivid color schema stimulates the same type of memory, as her paints are primarily of primary and fluorescent tempera. Her line structure is fascinating in the way she uses it to build familiar forms on the page. While these qualities are of significant interest, this assessment of the formal is familiar. Instead, it is the curiosity, investigativeness, and the ability of her work to mirror that mesmerizes. All her art is a tour of social mediation, and within that realm, it is her sexual candor that disturbs yet attracts. She casts a strong light onto themes of domination, the assertion of power and of authority. She is observer, social commentator extraordinaire, trickster, tourist, voyeur. She is in control. How did Georgia come to direct her attention to the sex scenes she depicted? They can be read from so many perspectives: the revisionist feminist of the nineties; the sexual liberations of the sixties and seventies; the romantic/erotic/ pornographic gaze; the symbolic that can range from thoughts on African retention to psychoanalysis. Did she envision these works at a time when there was new emphasis on sexual freedom? When the tenor of the times allowed women to admit to and erect sexual fantasies more openly? Was Georgia a sex radical?
Examining the history of pornography strips away the notion of reality itself as a totality—a familiar reality—only to divulge the fact that there is no one. "Folk Art," does the same thing. Folk brings us closer and closer to different views of familiar (what have become generic) realities, and has become a great magnifier that sparks critical fires in the mainstream. The ensuing critique uncovers extraordinary moments of clarity, even if the shelf life is brief. As various realities converge (tourism), a lucidity is revealed in that moment and a new mass is defined. We learn from the mutations.
Georgia's work has been treated in somewhat formal manner here for many reasons: one reason is in the "folk" quagmire, where she has been regarded as a "secondary player." This will change as an understanding of her work brings the interstices between "folk" and "fine" to closure. As with all explorations, defining the path you choose to take is a perilous journey. The first path is exciting but usually not the only one that is made.