Category: Material Culture

Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments

By Jo Farb Hernández. 2013. Watford, Hertsfordshire, UK: Raw Vision. 595 pages. ISBN: 978-0615785653 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Gregory Hansen, Arkansas State University

[Review length: 1455 words • Review posted on October 6, 2015]


[Cover ofSingular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments]

The subject of outsider art is one of the most prominent areas where folkloristic perspectives are often at odds with perspectives developed by art historians. As Jo Farb Hernández notes in her introduction to her remarkable book, there are insightful studies of artists who are labeled “outsiders,” but the discourse has also been hampered by a “term warfare” that too facilely pits folklorists against art historians and critics. The publication of her new book should signal a way to end the warfare. In both her introduction and throughout the text, she succinctly critiques salient problems connected with the term “outsider art.” More importantly, the focus of her critique provides a solid rationale for using the term “art environments” to describe these highly idiosyncratic artworks. In explaining how individuals create new art sites through the use of a range of construction techniques, choices of materials, and other artistic resources, she provides an excellent resource for integrating ideas from the study of folk art and folklife into research on these sites. She engages diverse ideas fairly, sensitively, and critically, and she draws from years of research to affirm the value of studying these sites and their artists using approaches honed by folklorists. As a consequence, she has created a truly monumental study of forty-five environmental artists from Spain, a nation that has been virtually ignored by those who study these types of folk artists.

The book consists of profiles of artists who have crafted a range of environments throughout the nation. Most of these artists are contemporary, and many remain active. Throughout the book, Farb Hernández shows how understanding the artists’ own life experiences is integral to appreciating their artistic expressions, and she provides special attention to the precarious future of these sites as many of their creators are now elderly and are seeking ways to preserve their work. Numerous art environments are in disrepair, and a number have been razed. The preservationist element is important to her writing, yet she also demonstrates that there are nineteenth-century precedents for what she has documented. Most notable is Juan María García Naveira’s “O Pasatiempo” in Betanzos in Galacia. Her description of this park vividly documents what remains of it, and she uses historical images to show its original splendor. This case study shows how fantasy and history are central elements in many of these other studies, and she provides an engaging balance of imagery and text to present her fieldwork. If readers are looking for historical context for the art environments, this entry is a fine starting point before reading about the other sites and artists. This point is important to note as the book isn’t arranged chronologically. Its arrangement works more like an art environment itself, and Farb Hernández’s suggestions for using the book and accompanying CD will help initiate newcomers to the wealth of artistic expression that she documents. Readers can follow the somewhat geographic layout of the entries, but most will choose to browse through this massive tome to find artists who interest them.

Both figuratively and literally this book is a heavy tome. It represents years of scholarship in the folk arts and the extended periods of her own fieldwork during numerous trips to Spain. The visual layout and the photography provide excellent presentations of her findings, and the text is often as vibrant as the colorful images in each chapter. The book’s sheer volume is impressive, and her work also includes an extensive CD that supplements the text with additional vivid photographs, further descriptions of the artistic environments, and maps of the various sites. The CD, in fact, contains more pages than the printed volume. Because of the scope and depth of her research, it is impossible to do justice to Farb Hernández’s major contribution to folk art scholarship in this review. So many of the artists captured my interest that I can only allude to a few of them. Among the most intriguing is Lino Bueno Utrilla who lived from 1848 to 1935. He spent much of his life literally carving a house from a massive boulder that stands in a small village near Guadalajara. The author aptly portrays his life story as reading like a fairy tale. He was a poor, obscure worker who created a magnificent abode, but he came in conflict with civil authorities. Appealing for help, he was visited by King Alfonso XIII and Queen Vitoria Eugenia who intervened to prevent local governmental officials from evicting him and his family from their Casa De Piedra. Another hero of the book is in the mold of Don Quixote. Justo Gallego Martínez currently is building his own cathedral in Madrid. Born in 1925, Don Justo left monastic life and subsequently began to construct his own cathedral fifty years ago. Encompassing over 86,000 square feet, the as yet unfinished edifice encompasses most of a city block. He remains optimistic that his successors will complete the building. In the meantime, he knows that his legacy is preserved in the stones and found objects that he has used in its construction as well as in numerous publications and media presentations on this architectural wonder, including James Rogan’s 2009 documentary “El Loco de la Catedral.”

Another well-known Spanish environmental artist is Josep Pujiula i Vila of Girona. Farb Hernández devotes over thirty pages to his intricate labyrinths and seemingly precariously balanced towers. His creativity is matched by a tenacity to rebuild his art environments, and the author chronicles how he was forced to raze his own constructions numerous times over the years. Of all the artists, he perhaps best captures her interest in the ways that artists adapt and persevere despite the pressures from authorities to close down the sites. This same spirit is evident throughout the book. Environmental artists are faced with a range of pressures, including ridicule from neighbors, economic disenfranchisement, and the internal pressures of their own emotional tensions and dashed ambitions. Some of the artists are, in fact, suffering from mental disorders, but it is to Farb Hernández’s credit that she presents their art sympathetically and in terms of their own creative aspirations. This approach is central to the work of folklorists, and this documentation will serve as a valuable resource for additional studies.

Too easily classified as outsider artists, many of these artists actually defy the sense of being removed from their communities. The work of Francisco González Gragera of Badajoz demonstrates the importance of understanding the place of the artist within a wider cultural context. González learned various building trades and absorbed elements of the architectural and artistic expression of various Spanish and Basque communities. He built Capricho de Cotrina (Cotrina’s Whimsy) as an imaginary fantasy world based on Spanish castles. The quality of his worksmanship is exceptional, and he created a warm, inviting space with his family in mind. He is not at all atypical of these artists when he uses a highly individualistic sense of expression to create a built environment that is designed to engage the curiosity of others. Even those who seem to close themselves off to outsiders are also creating these spaces with a sense of displaying their work to others. Notable in this respect is Emilio Pérez García of Cáceres. Profoundly deaf, he seems to exemplify the preconceived image of the outsider artist who shuns connections to others. The author had to work to gain his trust when she completed her fieldwork, but she discovered that he clearly wanted to share his work with outsiders. Yet, Pérez’s work also remains fascinatingly enigmatic. He decorated both the interior and exterior of his home with a range of art objects both familiar and strange. What stands out are the cryptic numbers that adorn the walls. Various sequences of seemingly random numbers show up throughout his home, and they also decorate the street in front of his house. Farb Hernández was unable to decipher their meanings, but she conjectures that the imagery could relate to the artists’ attempts to define his place in his own site as well as the potential to use numbers to gain a sense of control in an uncertain world. That he wanted to show his work to others is proof that artists like Pérez defy simple classification schemes such as “insider/outsider.” It’s to the author’s credit that she chose a detail of a photograph from her fieldwork with this artist to adorn her book’s cover. The imagery’s bold red color and engaging textures of splattered paint on the artist’s chair engagingly set off the number 2120 that is painted on a sidewalk. The image symbolizes how these artists work to pull outsiders into their own world to experience the wonder and mysteries that they depict in their own built environments.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.