This is a large thrift store, with maybe eight or nine employees and usually no less than 15 or 20 mission hipsters on the floor. When you're trying to sort through a giant pile of paintings in the middle of this action people get curious. It's the opposite of what you want, which is to work under a cloak of invisibility. The employees become giddy at first, then nervous. They try to justify the low prices. You act sympathetic and polite.
After scumbling in the bins, I discern the artist's full name, Helen Director. It's almost as odd as the paintings. IPhone yields info on a few low-end auctions, a dubious reference to an obscure German museum, and the listing of her Central Park West apartment: Not enough to decide on whether to buy 40 portraits no matter how cheap they are. As is often the case with outsider work, these paintings would have to be judged on the merits, which rewards connoisseurship (yea!) and penalizes those who simply operate by the numbers (other people).
Scratching my head, I try to place the work in a cultural framework before dealing with the formal issues. The vast majority of the sitters are women, and they cover a wide spectrum of types, from rough trade lesbians to tea-drinking grandmas. One recurring muse is a buck-toothed brunette with a casual fashion sense and hilarious frontal charisma. Perhaps it's the artists' girlfriend. Another woman is depicted in her superman shirt, yet another is pantsless in a football jersey and ankle boots. There are transgendered figures and several men of color. A Caribbean woman in Olivia-Newton-John leg warmers confirms the eighties vintage. The signature is a dead ringer for that of Tamara De Lempicka, a rich, bi-sexual artist of the '20s and '30s, who famously painted beautiful women and hung out with lesbian poets and artists. I thrill to the fantasy that Ms. Director might have been painting the New York lesbian scene of her time, a mostly invisible tribe.
The paintings are all 20 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas. About half the surfaces are wan and smooth, the others frantic and impastoed, giving the collection a bi-polar quality. At first glance, a few of the works seem dorky enough to have been made during a women's Sunday art club. But something off about them always emerges to keep them interesting. Sometimes the wrongness is barely visible and haunts the image like a perfume. These works seem the most dangerous for the way they court mediocrity, only to pull back at the last minute into their strangeness. Most of the pictures, however, are more overtly tattooed by eccentricity and read as symptoms of delusion and weirdness, both of which maintain a special currency in an art world driven by rational, careerist MFAs. I realize I can sell these as clichés of otherness and I grow more comfortable with the idea of buying the pile.
Driving to my warehouse, I realize that my cheap art historical take cannot account for the strong emotional experience I am having now that I own the paintings. I struggle for an explanation and it occurs to me that I am drawn to their tightly woven inner fabric, which protects them from my desire to slice them up into critical chunks. The paintings are intensely unified by a force field connecting painter and sitter and dramatized by the way the bodies' hold together until some crucial moment when they fall apart into disfigurement. It is unclear if this is intentional, a politics of physical imperfection, or merely the product of flawed draftsmanship. Or both. It doesn't matter. Static and absorbed, the figures harbor rich interior worlds that vibrate against entertaining, colorful backgrounds. It's corny, I know, but you want to crawl into these funny little worlds like some clubhouse of oddballs and hang out. I find this kind of an invitation from a work of art a rare thing.