Creating the ‘Outsider’

Above image: ‘Wagenbach’s’ art at his home (Courtesy of

By complete accident, I stumbled across an article I read a few years back about identity, authenticity and autofiction in relation to outsider art. The piece is called ‘Fake Identity, Real Work: Authenticity, Autofiction, and Outsider Art’ and is by M. Kjellman-Chapin.

The essay focuses on several examples of ‘mainstream’ artists who have exploited the term ‘outsider’ for artistic purposes. It starts as you might expect an article focusing on outsider art to – with a description and contextualisation of the term. It then delves into the biographical histories of a selection of artists; their homes, their relationships. It describes their work; their style, their process, their medium. Then Kjellman-Chapin goes on to inform the reader that none of these ‘characters’ are real. They do not and have never existed in their own right. They are all the figment of various others’ imaginations.

Iris Haussler, an installation artist born in Germany and living in Canada, inhabits the minds and lives of a series of characters. The character that Kjellman-Chapin examines is Joseph Wagenbach, a long term resident of Robinson Street in Toronto, Canada. So private was Wagenbach, that he very rarely left his house. He took to covering his windows in newspaper to further maintain his privacy and was extremely estranged from his neighbours. But in June 2006, following a prolonged absence that was noted by various people in the neighbourhood, the authorities were called and Wagenbach was moved to a care facility. The discovery of hundreds of handmade creations in Wagenbach’s home following his removal, carefully rendered from wax and plaster, was enough to elicit the support of a committee of experts, including an archivist.


Iris Haussler with ‘Wagenbach’s’ work (Courtesy of

All of the handmade objects found in the house had been crafted by Haussler, as had the life of Wagenbach. An extension of the physical, tangible works ‘he’ created, Wagenbach was an art work in his own right, carefully constructed with a completely believable back story (there are many similarities between this and the story of the discovery of Henry Darger’s work). In a 2012 interview, Haussler said of her practice: “My characters are often underdogs, people who are developing obsessive work out of an inner need. When visitors come across their legacies, they notice that these people have dedicated their lives to something bigger in life. Observing that can be inspiring.” [1]

Another example of this character creation is the Spelvin Collection; dreamt up by Beauvais Lyons, professor of printmaking at the University of Tennessee. The Spelvin Collection, part of the Hokes Archives, was brought together by ‘hoax’ collectors George and Helen Spelvin. It contains works by a string of Lyons’ characters including President portrait maker Arthur Middleton, librarian Emma Whorley, jilted bride Charlotte Black, and a selection of religious tracts printed on cereal boxes by Max Pritchard.

Kjellman-Chapin explains the motive behind the dual-role creators and curators Haussler and Lyons: “Through works made by avatars, Haussler and Lyons can critique the orthodoxy of Outsider Art from the inside and reveal it to be itself an elaborate fabrication. Their projects are not simply exercises in faux histories; the layered fictions they have created function in a critical capacity.” [2] The practices of Haussler and Lyons are an incredible illustration of how we – the audience – define outsider art. All of the conjured artists quite neatly fit our evaluation of the outsider category. Their value is “located not in the plastic realities of the objects themselves, but in the capacity of the makers’ location in social space to wash over those objects and images and coat them in a taxonomically valued rhetoric of authenticity.” [3]


‘Arthur Middleton’, with his portraits of American Presidents (Courtesy of

There is perhaps, I think, a lesson here in the recent rise in popularity of outsider art. The example of Haussler and Lyons illustrates the simplicity of creating a believable character whom we can easily (and correctly?) assume would fit even Dubuffet’s strict definition of Art Brut. The use of the term outsider artist is bandied around a considerable amount in Europe and the US at the moment, and there is concern amongst some people that ‘mainstream’ artists will ‘jump on the bandwagon.’ I don’t think Haussler and Lyons have jumped on such a bandwagon – after all, their art is a ‘three dimensional novel’; a whole narrative of these characters, the situations they are in, their thoughts, beliefs, and their experiences. I do wonder, however, why they chose ‘outsiders’ – “shut-ins, outsiders and hoarders with an artistic bent whose fears and obsessions compel their odd creations.” [4] I like to think it’s because they are able to experience true, uninhibited creativity this way, and conjuring up a character so different from themselves provides Haussler and Lyons, and us as the audience, the opportunity to understand more empathically what it might be like for the real Middletons, Horleys and Wagenbachs of the world.

Personally, I found myself fascinated by the work of Haussler and Lyons, but are they turning their characters into the art work? Are they instead exhibiting vulnerable people (regardless of their realness – or lack of it)? And what does this mean for real ‘outsider artists’? I would be interested to hear what you think about this one, so please let me know in the comments below.


[1] Artist Interview: Iris Haussler, Now Toronto

[2] Kjellman-Chapin, Fake Identity, Real Work, p153

[3] Kjellman-Chapin, Fake Identity, Real Work, p153

[4] Artist Interview: Iris Haussler, Now Toronto

Further information


One thought on “Creating the ‘Outsider’

  1. Cornelis Pelgrim says:

    This weekend I watched the documentary on the life of Vivian Maier (Finding Vivian Maier). I think she has a lot of charactaristics of an outsiderartist. Although they compare here with photographers as Robert Doisneau. I think there are a lot of arguments to look at her work as that of an outsider artist.

    Greetings from the Netherlands

    Cornelis Pelgrim

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