6 Inspiring Outsider Artists You Should Know

Scott Indrisek
Jan 18, 2019 5:47PM

The Outsider Art Fair is an oasis in the art world’s packed calendar. The 27th edition of the fair is up at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York through Sunday, January 20th, and its 65 exhibitors have brought an array of idiosyncratic, marvelous, perverse, and hard-to-classify work. (In a controversial move sure to ruffle feathers, one of them—Maccarone—is showcasing Jim Carrey and his anti-Trump doodles.)

Unlike the flashy Art Basel in Miami Beach, you won’t find Leonardo DiCaprio or Jay-Z here, looking to scoop up six-figure deals. You might see Susan Sarandon or former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo milling about—they were both at the fair’s preview day—as well as a whole lot of art lovers and dealers wearing their eccentricity on their sleeves, often quite literally. Here, I present six personal highlights of the Outsider Art Fair, from a young man painstakingly creating scale models of Philadelphia buildings to an Italian painter discovered on Instagram.

Vera Girivi

James Barron Art

The painter Vera Girivi was happily making work out of her bedroom-studio in Genoa, Italy, and sharing it on social media, when James Barron got in touch via Instagram to see if she’d be interested in showing it more widely. Her modest canvases mostly depict nude women—generally alone, but sometimes in exuberant groups—standing or lounging in ornate interiors. The influence of Henri Matisse looms large, but Girivi also namedrops other art-historical greats as inspirations, from Amedeo Modigliani to Paul Cézanne. “Clothes are unimportant to me,” she’s quoted as saying in a wall text. “What’s important for me is what’s beneath the clothes: a beautiful woman or a heavyset woman, it makes no difference.”

Bill Anthony

Joshua Lowenfels Works of Art


“He’s an up-skirt guy,” joked the gallery’s Kevin Duffy, reflecting on a series of ink drawings from the 1930s by Bill Anthony. Categorized as a series of portraits of “Fetish Chicks,” the works depict various anonymous women caught in the act of retrieving money from the floor. Sure, there’s something disturbing and borderline stalkerish about such a niche fixation, but Anthony’s fine draftsmanship adds a gentle touch to what might otherwise be plain creepy. There isn’t much known about the Virginia-born artist’s personal life. Gallery owner Joshua Lowenfels posits that he worked at a television station, and identified as a “self-proclaimed illustrator” with “a certain fetish for women dropping something in a tight spot.”

Daniel E. Rohrig

Marion Harris

The New York–based private art dealer Marion Harris is giving Daniel E. Rohrig’s gouache and watercolor paintings on paper their first public outing (two works have previously been acquired by the American Folk Art Museum). Harris is showing 60 out of a total bounty of around 70 intricate works, kept in the family for decades following Rohrig’s death in 1969, and essentially hidden away until now. (Like many so-called “outsiders,” he did not seem compelled to publicize the fruits of his incredibly personal artistry.)

The works are fantastical mash-ups of time periods and reference materials, almost all appropriated from Japanese culture. Rohrig catalogued all of his inspirations in the form of typewritten labels stored with each painting. As Harris’s assistant Anne-Marie Dillon explained, these allusions could range from Japanese mythology to images of 20th-century wrestlers. Rohrig, she added, was born in Indiana, but served in World War II, passing through Japan, the Philippines, and Guam. With their graphic punch and often absurd mingling of disparate subjects, the works read like an uncanny precursor to the feverish postmodernism of contemporary artists like Jamian Juliano-Villani.

Yan Cong

Part of the curated exhibition “Good Kids: Underground Comics from China”

Zhou Yi and Brett Littman—current director of the Noguchi Museum—teamed up for this exploration of comics culture in China. The centerpiece of the booth is a curated library of zines, anthologies, and comic books, many of them exceedingly rare. Littman was struck by the energy of the scene, the “totally direct expression” and reflections on “how difficult it is to live in this repressive society,” with its ever-fluctuating censorship policies.

Yan Cong is a stand-out of this group, an artist who found inspiration and success among an online community of like-minded cartoonist-subversives. In Spring is Coming (2014), we see a sweet anthropomorphic cat chilling out in his apartment, staring wistfully out the window. Haircutting for Hairy Man no. 1 (2017) shows a hirsute muppet—Gritty’s long-lost cousin?—getting shorn. A Little Girl’s Dream (2011) is a bit more sinister: Sperm-like ghosts flit around a child’s bed, and a veiny-armed father figure seems to contemplate infanticide.

Robert Rapson


If you’re one of those sea-adverse people who just doesn’t quite trust boats, these glazed ceramic sculptures by the New Zealand artist Robert Rapson probably won’t calm you down. The lovably wonky pieces are renderings of historical ships—commercial liners or the occasional cruise ship. They transform the rigidity of maritime architecture into something woozy and melted. Gallerist Sonia Dutton explained that Rapson’s fixation with the theme came from growing up alongside Wellington Harbor, as well as a pivotal, five-week ocean journey he took to Europe in his youth. While they’re not “sentimental,” she said, they do nod to an era in which travel was serious business—an undertaking, rather than a quick diversion.

Kambel Smith

Chris Byrne

Chris Byrne—a curator, artist, and co-founder of the Dallas Art Fair—has a sharp eye for talent (he was instrumental in bringing the work of Susan Te Kahurangi King, for example, to a wider audience). Here, he spotlights a suite of scaled-down models of famous Philadelphia buildings and landmarks by Kambel Smith, an artist with autism. There’s a tiny Betsy Ross House, a mini Benjamin Franklin Bridge, and a multi-part rendering of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, all hewn from cardboard, foamboard, paint, and other media.

The works beg you to squat and peer inside to see if equally tiny humanoids are hanging out inside the dollhouse-like structures. They may recall the architectural marvels of Bodys Isek Kingelez, but with a crucial difference. Byrne noted that a venue like the Outsider Art Fair is full of wild imaginings and invented landscapes; he finds it refreshing that Smith’s installation focuses instead on a very “real place,” one that has been meticulously reinvented out of common materials.

Scott Indrisek

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Robert Rapson had traveled by boat to Europe as a young man with his father. Rapson took this journey on his own.