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The Tufts University Art Galleries takes a look at outsider art

Bessie Harvey’s “The Spirit of Love”
Steve Briggs
Bessie Harvey’s “The Spirit of Love”

MEDFORD — Outsider art, made by untrained artists outside any art-historical framework, raises questions about privilege, how art is defined, and who defines it.

“Expressions Unbound: American Outsider Art From the Andrew and Linda Safran Collection” at Tufts University Art Galleries, celebrates the Safrans’ gift of their collection to Tufts. The whole lively group, amounting to close to 40 objects made before 2000, is on display.

Most of the artists are African-Americans; most grew up poor. At 14, Bessie Harvey married. Her husband drank and abused her. She raised 11 children in Tennessee. When she was in her 40s, she started fashioning sculptures from roots and branches as a means of talking to God. 

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Her terrifying “The Spirit of Love,” a long-necked, two-faced, black-painted bust with twine for hair, is the manifestation of a tightly coiled, explosive apparition. Harvey’s works connect to African cultural practices; they’re like nkisi, objects in which spirits reside.

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Not wanting to call attention to himself, Thornton Dial, son of sharecroppers, buried his paintings. A collector saw his work in Dial’s aunt’s turkey coop, and brought the artist into the open. In the spectacular, humming “A Hippo Got a Right to the Tree of Life,” flowers swirl around a low-slung black hippo. 

We can look at this art through the lens of art’s paradigms — Howard Finster’s and David Butler’s works swing deliriously between painting and sculpture, a divide art school grads love to jump into. But any good art busts through the rubric, wittingly or unwittingly, to show us something new. 

There’s a wonderful suite of works about the Statue of Liberty: Benjamin (B.F.) Perkins’s broad, yellow lady surrounded by spangles, Ray Hamilton’s ink drawing boxed in by black nationalist flag colors, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s mud-caked painting. Sudduth always painted with mud, so his medium is not commentary, but today it’s easy to read it that way. 

All are fresh and visceral, and assail the behemoth of theory that undergirds the art industry. We need more art like this.

EXPRESSIONS UNBOUND: American Outsider Art from the Andrew and Linda Safran Collection

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At Tufts University Art Galleries, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, through Dec. 16. 617-627-3518, artgallery.tufts.edu

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.