Thunder-Sky’s the Limit

July 25th, 2011  |  Published in *, On View, Summer 2011  |  4 Comments

“Hard Knocks:  Art without Art School” is a loosely curated collection of more than one hundred works of art by thirty-one artists from around the globe.  By making use of their three curators (visual artists Antonio Adams, Ran Barnaclo, & Spencer van der Zee,) Thunder-Sky’s Face Book page, and exhibition blog to cast a wide net for participating artists, they reached out to artists typically outside of the mainstream gallery system. This wholly democratic process for selecting work results in an exhibition that is at turns richly rewarding, but often mediocre, and confuses the curatorial premise with the already-muddled concept of outsider art.

The exhibition’s confounding of the rejection of art education & concept of outsider artist is worth addressing.  The ongoing labeling of art work as “outsider” is problematic, but let’s be clear:  “Hard Knocks” makes no outright claim to consist of outsider art.  Instead, Thunder-Sky, Inc. has garnered a reputation as a locus for outsider art,[1] and the proclaimed rejection of education in “Hard Knocks” is just another point of entry for the gallery to address this issue.  In the exhibition-specific blog maintained by Thunder-Sky, Inc. co-founder Keith Banner, he does tag blog entries with the keywords “outsider art” and “self-taught art.” He also states that the gallery is “dedicated to deconstructing notions of what ‘art’ and ‘outsider’ can mean.”

This concept is not proprietary to Thunder-Sky, Inc. and there are certainly other organizations in town that also explore the genre.[2] Outsider art (originally known by the French term “art brut,”) had its roots in the work of psychiatric patients and children, but since the final quarter of the twentieth century, the meaning has increasingly been expanded to include art created by “unschooled artists living outside the mainstream of contemporary culture, uninvolved with the art world.”[3] The latter part of that definition, which speaks to the inherent disenfranchisement of outsider artists, is the exception to the outsider rule that “Hard Knocks” opportunistically ignores.

In their statements, many of the artists acknowledge attending workshops and classes, reading instructive books, and learning from their peers.  Multiple artists in “Hard Knocks” also have solid ties to the art world.  Some of the most successful pieces included in the exhibition were done by artists who have taught art curriculum, had solo shows at mainstream galleries, run their own galleries, and been featured in international art publications. While there are several significant artists in this exhibition who do not meet the criteria according to the aforementioned definition of outsider artist, Thunder-Sky’s own pre-determined qualifications (“artists who could not go, did not go, chose not to go to, and/or dropped out of art school”) also seem to have been relaxed in order to allow artists whose ethos, more than their actual experience, qualify them for inclusion.

What is outsider-like about “Hard Knocks” is that there is little communality in style and content amongst many of the works.  That is certainly understandable with so many pieces included in the show.  It would be quite difficult with so many participating artists and such a broad thematic paradigm to successfully display consistency of subject matter or even quality.  Additionally, many of the participating artists successfully demonstrate a readily identifiable personal visual language, which is yet another quality of the outsider artist.

Deconstructing the issue of outsider art is not the same as providing viewers with possible answers however, and not vetting the participating artists and their artwork thoroughly detracts from participating artists like Doug Korfhagen, Andrew Pace, & Katherine Ziff whose work is not only visually compelling but also beyond the traditional frame of the art world.  Korfhagen’s wood-burned portraits are striking in their detail, and immediately identifiable.  His artwork takes many forms.  He makes videos, takes photos, (photo stills in this video at :08) and skateboards—which is itself an improvisational kind of performance art—yet there is something instantly recognizable about his artistic voice, and his small post card size wooden portraits are a few of the bright glimmers in a salon style exhibition of almost 120 pieces.

Other artists (outsider or not) whose work manages to speak louder than the visual static around them, include (but are not limited to): the aforementioned Pace & Ziff, collagist (and Museum Gallery/Gallery Museum co-founder) Chris Reeves, found-object-assembler Rondle West, and co-curators Adams & van der Zee.  Also worth mentioning are Ukranian sculptor Andrey Kozakov who assembles pieces of wood into painted reliefs, the Basquiat-esque painting father-son pair of Jason & Jansen Taylor whom Banner met at a Folk Art festival, and Robert McFate who dropped off work for inclusion a few days after the show was already up.  In their approach to art sans schooling, the curators and gallery staff seems to have emphasized providing a platform for everyone’s artistic voice over judiciously sticking to their curatorial and gallery-purported premise, and allowing those artists to really shine.

The work in “Hard Knocks” is at points inspiring and thoughtfully executed; however, the emphasis on quantity over quality of work actually demonstrates a correlation with those artists who are perhaps less “outside” of the art educational system than the show’s title would have one believe.  This self-professed mission—while noble in intention—is a tough cross to bear, fraught with contradictions and caveats.  I trust that if anyone can keep asking the tough questions (and looking for answers) it is the artists and organizers of Thunder-Sky.

-Maria Seda-Reeder

“Hard Knocks: Art without Art School” is on view at Thunder-Sky, Inc. until August 12, 2011.

[1] According to CityBeat art critic Steven Rosen, Thunder-Sky, Inc.’s founders “have become local advocates for de-romanticizing Outsider Art as a product of disabilities/primitivism and seeing it more broadly an alternative to art school.”

[2] Art Beyond Boundaries and Visionaries & Voices both also advocate on behalf of artists who can be considered outside of the mainstream art world.

[3] Sandra Sider “Outsider art”  The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art Ed. Joan Marter. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press, Inc.  University of Cincinnati.  8 July 2011 <>




  1. Matt Morris says:

    July 25th, 2011at 6:34 pm(#)

    I have read through this article a few times, and I have several questions, because many of the points being made are unclear to me, or don’t seem resolved in the text.

    -Aside from being a semantic pun, what does the title of this article mean to imply? It seems to be suggesting that this local organization limits possibility, either for artists, art, or the bookish discussion of semantics surrounding art. Is that its intent?

    -How specifically does this exhibition confuse “the curatorial premise with the already-muddled concept of outsider art”? Especially since you almost immediately point out that (a) the application of that terminology originated from another writer and (b) Thunder-Sky Inc. does not apparently claim that this exhibition is in fact “outsider.”

    My perception of this exhibition is that it is intended to do exactly what you seem to hold against it. The connotative parameters around an increasingly flexible term like “outsider” are being tested within this space just as they are elsewhere in the art world (recent examples that come to mind are the traveling museum exhibitions for Thorton Dial and Gee’s Bend quilts—both dubbed and discussed as ‘outsider’—or the exhibition of Rothko’s paintings at the American Folk Art Museum).

    -How does Thunder-Sky or “Hard Knocks” “opportunistically ignore” the “disenfranchisement of outsider artists” as “the exception to the outsider rule”? I know what all of those words mean, but I don’t know what is meant here. And in what ways are they guilty of it?

    -How has the only clearly/publicly stated premise of the exhibition (“artists who could not go, did not go, chose not to go to, and/or dropped out of art school”) been relaxed for some artists’ inclusion in the exhibition? As best as I can understand that artist call, the only breech of it would be if someone were awarded a degree from an art school. If there is a point to parse through here, it may be at questioning what is meant by ‘art school,’ and I personally look forward to hearing how this is brought up in the upcoming artist talk on August 5th.

    -You make a point of distinguishing that “Deconstructing the issue of outsider art is not the same as providing viewers with possible answers.” I totally agree. So… are you saying the gallery/exhibition is doing one of these and not the other?

    -As best as I can tell, the crux of these arguments seems to hang on the parenthetical back stories of different artists relationship to art fairs, other galleries or ambition to try and get their work show by a gallery that are mentioned in the last paragraph. Is the entire angle of this story is built upon your observation that while some of the exhibited artists may not have degrees in art, they are more than a little involved in the art world?

    By pointing out these other means through which individuals are connected to the art world, you seem to not only be confirming that a project like this one does indeed deconstruct what is meant by terminology like “outsider”, but also that even the Grove Encyclopedia of American Art may have some problems with the scope at which they attempt to pinpoint a definition for such an art terminology. I don’t mind saying that it makes me anxious that rather than discussing the specifics about the artwork of other artists whose art you say “manages to speak louder than the visual static around them,” this paragraph lists them off with ‘expose´’ style mentions of their art backgrounds. It makes me anxious because most of this article seems to be about definitions and how they are being upheld or not upheld, rather than the experience of visual objects, and that feels like a missed opportunity, when there are, as you say, almost 120 pieces of work on display.

    I am by no means an expert on this discussion, nor would I presume to be. I’m asking these questions not to provoke an argument exactly, but as a read and as a writer, I am finding a lot of loose threads in the points being made. I think if you could answer these follow up questions, it would clarify what it is you are trying to say.

    I first found out about Thunder-Sky because of this piece of text published by Keith Banner about the artist Kevin White:

    “While culture and society have made it a great deal harder for Kevin to be seen as a significant artist, focusing on his outsiderness only prolongs that narrative beyond its usefulness. Even worse it often simplifies our responses to his art as charity or pity. As a working artist, Kevin has earned the freedom to step away from the old “outsider art” narrative and orthodoxy, and move into a realm where his art can do the talking for him. His art seems to be saying, It’s not what you think.”

    This seems to be a primary document available online about the organization’s intent with confronting/deconstructing what is meant by “outsiderness,” and may be useful in assessing what has been done in the current exhibition.

    -Matt Morris

  2. Maria Seda-Reeder says:

    July 26th, 2011at 12:53 pm(#)

    Thanks for your thoughts, Matt. I know you are a firm supporter of the folks at Thunder-Sky, Inc. and I consider myself one as well—I hope that my article doesn’t imply otherwise. I have high hopes for what I believe Thunder-Sky is capable, which is why I chose to write about this show. I just don’t think that any art gallery (“outsider” or not) is beyond the realm of art criticism—maybe that’s where we disagree?

    My answers to your questions/requests for clarifications:

    The phrase ‘the sky’s the limit’ means that there are no limits to said activity. My title meant to imply that there are no apparent limits to the interpretation of the word “outsider.” I’m genuinely surprised that you would interpret it so negatively. Please don’t read any meaner insinuations into it.

    In addition to the evidence I provided in the article regarding the attribution of “outsider art” to this exhibition by Thunder-Sky staff (both by tagging it “outsider art” and Thunder-Sky’s written mission of deconstructing outsiderness on their exhibition specific blog—linked in the article,) when I met him at the gallery Keith and I actually discussed their reputation as a gallery for outsiders and how this show was just another entry point for them to address that issue. Perhaps my interpretation is mistaken; nonetheless, it is based upon facts.

    Yes, (at the risk of being repetitive,) I argued that Thunder-Sky & “Hard Knocks” “’opportunistically ignores’ the ‘disenfranchisement of outsider artists’ as ‘the exception to the outsider rule’” because there are many artists involved who have solid ties to the art world. In other words, they are not “uninvolved with the art world.” Regarding “parenthetical back stories,” there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, “while some of the exhibited artists may not have degrees in art, they are more than a little involved in the art world.” Take a look at the Exhibition Artist List’s bios for specifics.

    I relied on an art historical (if academic) definition of “outsider artist” precisely because I know that it is a slippery term and I wanted a proverbial yardstick against which to gauge “Hard Knocks.” I don’t pretend to be an expert either or to have any answers, but I look to organizations like Thunder-Sky, Inc. and shows like “Hard Knocks” to help me work through them.

    I formally (if briefly) described the work of half a dozen artists, but part of my point was that having that amount of work on the walls impeded my ability to focus on the more successful work.

    Look, my aim in writing about art is always to critique constructively—not to aimlessly disparage organizations or artists—but one can’t always agree with every creative decision a gallery has made just because one might agree full heartedly with that gallery’s mission.

    Like you, I look forward to the upcoming artist talk to hear more about the participating artists’ & curators’ opinions on the subject—particularly “what is meant by ‘art school.’” I hope there will be room for all kinds of interpretations—even ones that we don’t agree upon.

  3. Keith Banner says:

    July 26th, 2011at 1:10 pm(#)

    We had a couple Plexi-glassed wall-texts in the show, along with two accompanying brochures. Here’s a portion of one of the brochures, addressing the “outsider” thing:


    The title and concept “Hard Knocks: Art without Art School” alone might seem to illicit a polemical response. That was intended of course. We’re hoping “Hard Knocks” might also be seen as tongue-in-cheek, a way possibly to reinvent categories beyond “victimhood” and “privilege,” “outsider” and “insider.” (So often, the dichotomy is presented as that simple split: on this side “outsider artists” working either in isolation or in day programs, and on the other side “insider artists” working with professional materials in sanctioned studios.) In the essay I wrote for Aeqai last month, titled “Outside of Outsiderness,” I quoted from the Thornton Dial catalog: “For far too much time, Dial’s work has been tethered to a critical and curatorial limbo somewhere between high art and what’s known as ‘folk art’ and ‘outsider art.’ The difference between how those categories are received in the world often has more to do with art world agendas than with any true disparity in the cognitive and emotional powers of the work itself.”

    That “critical and curatorial limbo” is a direct result of categorization based on biography and status, I think. What we’re hoping with “Hard Knocks” is that we lampoon/critique that limbo by creating a category under the rubric of “Hard Knocks” that includes a wide variety of artists who did not go to, chose not to, and/or dropped out of art school. (In fact, one of the working titles of this show was “Rank Amateurs!”.)

    This means the works of artists with college degrees and careers, who attend day programs, who bar-tend, etc. seen together under one roof. The limits of this approach are easy to see: it’s still about “outsiderness” and of course someone seen as “privileged” can put on the drag of “victimhood” if they want, but I’m not sure if it would be in his/her best interest just so they can be included in a group art show in Cincinnati, Ohio. And also it begs the question: “Are all outsider artists victims?” And: “Are all insider artists privileged?”

    As far as Thunder-Sky, Inc. being an “outsider art” gallery, I guess so. But not because
    we want it to be. It’s just that’s what we’re given because we appreciate Raymond’s work and life so much. We are trying to take that given and enliven and deconstruct “outsiderness” with every show we do, so that Raymond’s work and world can constantly be reevaluated, not as “insider” or as “outsider,” but for what it is. In fact of the eleven or so exhibits we’ve curated since 2009 it’s been almost a 50/50 split between “insider” artists (with art-school backgrounds and degrees and ambitions) and “outsider” artists.


  4. Office Clearance st albans says:

    August 22nd, 2013at 8:39 am(#)

    I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I don’t know who
    you are but certainly you’re going to be a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!