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Outsider Art Fair: Here’s 8 Things to See

If you’re new to the genre, this year’s 32nd edition of the Outsider Art Fair offers a crash course for only $35. (Last year’s tickets were $44.) From an unmissable Elijah Pierce sculpture of the crucifixion (Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, A5) to a spectacular mixed-media Thornton Dial painting (Andrew Edlin Gallery, A12), and from the artist and investigator Abigail Goldman’s “die-o-ramas” (Hashimoto Contemporary, C17) to the sinuous drawings of Shuvinai Ashoona and Quvianaqtuk Pudlat’s formidable colored pencil caribou (Feheley Fine Arts, B10), the event is well-stocked with classics and new additions alike.

For those who’ve been to this party before, however, the chief joy of this often overwhelming fair, where many exhibitors cram their booths with work by a dozen artists and the quality ranges widely, is the small, singular discovery. What follows are eight pieces or groups of pieces that caught my eye.

“Beat Art Work: Power of the Gaze,” A13

Standing out in an otherwise very serious collection of beat ephemera curated by the poet Anne Waldman — even Allen Ginsberg’s doodles, at 70 years’ remove, have something self-conscious about them — is an earnest but innocent oil-on-shirt-board self portrait by a young Peter Orlovsky, made before he became Ginsberg’s partner. With an orange and yellow face, teal-ringed eyes and oversize lips, it could be the glowing afterimage of someone who’s looked in the mirror a moment too long.

Ricco/Maresca Gallery, B9

This 1930s gouache on artist board, one of a large group of works discovered by a collector of circus ephemera in a print shop in New England, was a maquette for what would have been 5-foot-high wheat-pasted posters advertising the Sells Floto Circus. Though they were painted by commercial artists with a mastery of saturated color and Deco-inflected realism, the maquettes fit right in here, not only because of their margins-of-society subject matter but because they’re marginalized objects in their own right. Look for Charlie Chaplin waiting diffidently in a crowd of 49 other sad, happy, ghoulish, white-painted, nightmare-inducing clowns.

Cavin-Morris Gallery, B12

After retreating from the temptations of Paris to an ancestral home in the Auvergne, Sylvain and Ghyslaine Staëlens began making art from materials found on the land or nearby farms. Rope, sticks, and leather straps surround this simple but effective black burlap face; its eyes are outlined in twine, and half a dozen chunks of volcanic rock hang down as ornaments. The most magical detail is a mouthful of teeth made from handmade iron nails, which evoke both Kongo power figures and a very serious scarecrow.

Aarne Anton/Nexus Singularity, C21

Cindy Gosselin’s string-wrapped Barbies and Disney princesses aren’t the only such bundles in the fair. Creative Growth Art Center (D21) has two magisterial pieces by Judith Scott, and Yuka Nohda’s exhaustively-wrapped objects appear with Jennifer Lauren Gallery (B1) of Manchester. But Gosselin’s in particular, which leave only the dolls’ heads and feet free, look like attempts to metabolize the violence and misogyny of popular culture, or simply to render pointy plastic doodads tender and warm. Think of oysters making pearls around sand.

“Expanding the Canon: 50 Years of Creative Growth,” D21

Stripes, bright colors and horror vacui collide in a bright-eyed creature by Louis Estape that could have been an alternate for “Where the Wild Things Are”; Nelson Tygart’s Prismastix tiger, which is at once a golden cosmos and an iron-barred prison; and a deeply evocative row of colors by Laura Jo Pierce. All three artists worked at the Creative Growth Art Center in California, an art center for people with disabilities which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a roundup of historical works curated by director emeritus Tom di Maria.

Joshua Lowenfels Works of Art, D17

Russell, a stay-at-home mother and self-taught ceramist in Tennessee, began constructing three-foot-tall porcelain dolls in the early 1980s, later enlisting a tuxedo seamstress to help with the clothes. The faces often had to be fired five or six times to get the makeup right; each entire piece took more than 400 hours. The results are unnerving but spectacular — fashionable ghosts with blank but perfect faces marching out of the uncanny valley in leopard-skin coats and low-cut red dresses.

Stellarhighway, C6

Elizaphanson Mwangi Kuria Gibson was a member of the Pamoja collective of Kenya, once known for decorating the borders of Peter Beard’s African photographs. His own acrylic painting “Tana River” depicts a kind of Noah’s ark in waiting: Dragonflies, birds of prey, crocodiles and elephants fill the land, water and air from edge to edge. Lifelike and moving but evenly spaced, they seem to imply a supernatural order behind the nature that we see.

Dutton, B4

Rose deSmith Greenman (1898-1983) didn’t start making art till she retired, and didn’t really get going till 1970 when, unable to sleep, she spent hours obsessively drawing flowers, family and plants. What makes her work so fascinating is its unusually delicate balance of the observed and the imagined. If her curling tendrils are as regular as paisley, she makes sure to apply them asymmetrically; if the leaves typically look all the same, the branches are always different.

Outsider Art Fair New York

Advance access Feb. 29, after 6 p.m. ($100); opens March 1-3 (single day pass, $35); Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, Manhattan; 917-623-9023; outsiderartfair.com.

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