A 'Superunknown' Impulse Binds Neo-Folk Artists

Northside’s Thunder-Sky, Inc. wrestles with the term “outsider” art. Though it’s a marketable label, it can heap sometimes-false assumptions upon artists. They’re presumed to be uneducated, untrained, isolated, developmentally disabled and/or indifferent

click to enlarge "Raymond and I" by The Cooney Brothers
"Raymond and I" by The Cooney Brothers

Northside’s Thunder-Sky, Inc. wrestles with the term “outsider” art. Though it’s a marketable label, it can heap sometimes-false assumptions upon artists. They’re presumed to be uneducated, untrained, isolated, developmentally disabled and/or indifferent to profit. Thunder-Sky, Inc. co-founders Keith Banner and Bill Ross prefer “unconventional” to describe the works.

But an appetite for definitive labels persists. Ontario artist Leigh Cooney (of the Cooney Brothers), curator of the gallery’s current show Superunknown, is the latest to address the issue, subtitling the exhibit The Neo-Folk Impulse.

He acknowledges deliberate irony in assigning yet another category. You could go ahead and dissect what neo-folk means but, if like Leigh, you’d really prefer to forget classifications and enjoy art, then focus on the last word: impulse. 

“These artists and I are not inside and we are not outside. We are creating because … we don’t know what else to do,” Leigh writes in an essay for the exhibition.

The work of the gallery’s own Ross, a graduate of Indianapolis’ Herron School of Art, hangs between paintings by the self-taught Cooney Brothers, Leigh and Rolo. Ross paints with precision but without pretension. His interiors are nonsensical DayGlo spaces where an ostrich might bust through a wall to sample a cake. The Cooney art displays similar pop influences but delves further into psychology. “I can’t go with just pure humor,” Leigh says.

His “Self-Portrait with Gumball Machine” is funny and sadly dead-on in its depiction of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While most people can readily access a particular idea — represented here by a blue gumball in a globe of red and pink ones — the person with ADHD must keep cranking the dispenser. 

Leigh’s spoken and written words form long paragraphs — in part due to his ADHD but also because he now possesses the impulse to paint “with absolutely no expectations as to the results.” 

In his essay, Leigh reveals that the only high school course he failed was art. He didn’t pick up a paintbrush again for seven years. “I thought, ‘If I can’t paint like the masters, I’m not a painter,’ ” Leigh explains. Now, he feels that if he can’t do it in one day, it’s not worth doing. 

Matt Waldeck Sr. could be called an accidental artist, someone who “didn’t know what else to do” after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. 

The self-professed garbage picker was brought in as a technical adviser for the gallery’s spring show, She Blinded Me with Science . After the health news came, the Sayler Park man threw himself into the show, transforming from tinkerer to wizard alongside artists Pam Kravetz and Antonio Adams.

“I’m in love!” a Superunknown visitor exclaims as she peers into Waldeck’s electronic shadowboxes made out of old transmitters and populated with steampunk figures created from computer parts and timepieces. Three of the four boxes are not for sale; his first impulse is to create. During Science, “I sold them before I could enjoy them,” Waldeck explains. 

With a similar spirit for repurposing materials, local sign painter Marc Lambert uses ceiling tiles as his canvases and imagines a sci-fi world where spaceships zip past glass spires and flying cars hover above highways. They’re vivid yet quiet settings, devoid of humans or aliens. 

“I’m building the society of people who live in Marc’s paintings,” Waldeck observes. 

Rounding out Superunknown are Pittsburgh artists Ben Kehoe and Mike Egan, whose folk paintings are rich with skulls and spirituality, and the hilariously naughty Andrea Heimer of Washington state, who the Cooney Brothers call “the Norman Rockwell of the suburban underbelly.”

Maybe there is something primal about appreciating neo-folk/outsider/unconventional artists. Maybe we’re getting in touch with our roots, like the pig that feels a kinship to the wild boar in one of Kehoe’s paintings. 

The Cooney Brothers can sum it up. Their tribute “Raymond and I” depicts Leigh as a child viewing a demolition site-turned-circus park with artist Raymond Thunder-Sky, the gallery’s inspiration. The two figures silently understand one another. A crane is marked with the number 42 — the answer to everything, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The absurdity of that premise makes as much sense as anything, says Leigh. 

He concludes in an email that the Superunknown artists create “because it’s what their gut tells them to do, and when it comes to art, sometimes the gut knows better than the brain what’s best.”

SUPERUNKNOWN: THE NEO-FOLK IMPULSE continues through Dec. 14 at Thunder-Sky, Inc. Hours and more info: 513-823-8914 or raymondthundersky.org.

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