There is something particularly energizing about stepping over a crawling baby and a little bug-eyed dog to look at portraits of artists you’ve never heard of. These homages painted on castaway maps are helped with some context, though, if you know who made them.
Tim Kerr is an Austin musician and visual artist with heavy influence in the advent of Texas skate-punk and DIY (The Big Boys, Bad Mother Goose.) His depictions of outsider artists appear in the exhibition “Cosmic Telephone Party Line,” which opened at Webb Gallery over the weekend and runs through April 21. Kerr was met with longtime friends and fans who’d driven from Amarillo and Austin to check out the show and take in a short acoustic set he performed Sunday in the center of the gallery.
Two of those fans were Bruce and Julie Webb, the gallery’s proprietors and curators, who saw Kerr play when they were teenagers. The artists Kerr paid homage to in this show were mostly discovered at a prior visit to Webb. He signs each work with “your name here” to inspire onlookers to make something themselves.
I talked with Kerr about his series of large-scale portraits of outsider artists such as Royal Robertson, Burgess Delaney and Mary T. Smith. Each features the artist’s name and includes a few of his or her own plain words on the drive to create (Mary T. Smith: “I did it to pretty up the place and please the Lord.” Hawkins Bolden: “Scarecrows that keep the birds away.”)
Lyndsay Knecht: Your part of this show is all portraits of visionary outsider artists. For someone who’s never heard of Austin musician and artist Daniel Johnston, who is a better-known outsider figure, for instance, how would you define the genre?
Tim Kerr: There’s a bunch of different definitions of it. And I really hate labels, so it’s like kind of the wrong thing to ask me. [The accepted] definition is people that didn’t have any schooling at all. They didn’t go to art school or have formal training. They just did it in their house. They didn’t even care if anybody saw it or not, or they put it out all in their yards so they could make their yards pretty. It was never – in their mind, being in a gallery or selling stuff, or things like that, for the most part – it wasn’t even in their vocabulary. Is that good enough?
L.K.: So why portraits of artists that weren’t about being famous?
T.K.: I told Julie that it’d be really cool to do a show sometime where I could paint an artist and you guys put their art all around the person that I did, so that people would make the connection. They’d see the face. And that’s how this kind of started. We’re hoping that it might tour, just to shine a light on some of this stuff. At one point it was kind of in fashion, but it’s not anymore. It’s kind of trying to bring it back.
L.K.: What about your portraits of Pete Seeger and Langston Hughes that are part of the gallery’s permanent collection?
T.K.: This show is a little bit different from what I usually do. Usually I do people who really, really influence me. So you have people from John Coltrane to John Fahey, Rosa Parks … just all kinds of stuff.
This sounds really horrible, but I want to really try to be something positive, if I’m gonna do this. If I’m gonna do this, I wanna try to do something that might maybe educate somebody or plant a seed into somebody that’s coming to a show. And maybe they never even realized that MC5 used to copy, you know, Pharoah Sanders’ stuff. You know, free jazz. It’s like, oh wait, “Free jazz and rock?”
If you go upstairs [at Webb Gallery], you’ll see civil rights, you’ll see free jazz.
People were asking me, “Why don’t you paint your history? Like, why aren’t you painting like all the hardcore shows, you know, Minor Threat, Black Flag? And it kind of took me a back for a second. And then I realized the answer is: At least at this point, most of the people coming to shows, they know about all that stuff.
You have beatniks, hippies, dada, punk, all that stuff starts with that DIY idea. And then all of a sudden, here comes the people who come and put a uniform on it, and rules. Self expression? There’s no [expletive] rules. So that’s kind of the idea of where this all comes from.
L.K.: What did the environment in Austin’s music scene, and your own work on posters and album covers, teach you about what art is?
T.K.: There’d be posters for shows, but there’d also be just art all over the street. People would put up, you know, like some fraternity guy would be so drunk that he ran into the frat house and ran over somebody. And they’d have it in the paper. Well we’d have posters up the next day going, “Well look at this idiot. Look what he did.” It was just saying a lot of stuff without being an advertisement.