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Chicago’s influence on outsider art—work created by those who exist on the fringes of the traditional art world—is often only recognized by enthusiasts of the underappreciated genre. In the larger art world, the city’s role in incubating outsider artists tends to go unacknowledged. A new exhibition at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, however, hopes to change that.

Independent curator Kenneth C. Burkhart and Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, organized Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow, which tells the story of Chicago’s impact on the acceptance of outsider artists. It features work by 10 Chicago artists, including Wesley Willis and Joseph Yoakum. 

Debra Kerr, executive director of the Intuit, says that outsider artists tend to come from a wide range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. “They often have overcome some barrier or disenfranchisement. Chicago and Chicagoans can be proud to be a place that embraces art and artists on the edge.”

The selected artists and their works touch on any number of themes related to race, gender, and class. For instance, the installation “Power / Powerless” brings together work by three artists—Dr. Charles Smith, Henry Darger, and William Dawson—depicting their expressions of fierce resistance to vulnerability. Smith’s representations of poverty, enslavement, and childhood trauma mingle with Darger’s fantastical watercolors, excerpts from the 15,000-page manuscript discovered after his death.

As with other genres, there’s long been a strong bias in favor of male artists in the domain of outsider art. The Intuit exhibition, though, does showcase the work of a pair of women, Lee Godie and Pauline Simon, whose female figures show the influence of Impressionism, Pointillism, and Abstraction.

Both, in their own way, also exemplify 1960s-era counterculture. Take Godie’s painting of a nude woman and her nearly nude photograph of herself. Both express self-awareness and confidence. With apparent disdain for patriarchal norms, they hang in defiance beside Drossos Skyllas’s nudes—illustrations forged by the male gaze.

The exhibition is part of Art Design Chicago, an initiative by the Terra Foundation to mount exhibitions about art and design history in Chicago. It will travel to cities in Europe beginning in March of 2019, educating viewers about the exemplary historical narratives of these genres.

“Nine of the ten artists in the show are no longer living. Dr. Charles Smith is the only living artist in the exhibition,” Stone says. “We wish to honor them and show their work in new and, in some cases, untested ways. Come enjoy the artistic voices of self-invented artists who speak and spoke from the heart.”

Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow runs at the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art through January 2019.

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