The Frist's Outsider Art Exhibits and Their Influence on Contemporary Art



Bill Traylor, untitled
  • Bill Traylor, untitled

When I was walking through the newly opened exhibits at The Frist, I kind of felt like I was watching the Matrix rain little green columns of code across all of my favorite contemporary artists. I began to make a mental list of people who are making work that that reflects the influence — either directly or indirectly — of work by rural Southern outsider artists Bill Traylor or Thornton Dial. Here's a rundown of a few of them.

Shinique Smith is a Brooklyn-based artist who seems to transform textiles into an extension of graffiti. After seeing Thornton Dial's "Birmingham News," as well as some of the lawn art sculptures in the exhibit, I wondered whether Smith had been inspired by Dial's use of clothing and ephemera as a tool to create a new kind of painting.

Shinique Smith
  • Shinique Smith

Shinique Smith
  • Shinique Smith

Jose Parla layers scraps with spray paint with trash to create these intricate, beautifully organized messes that are like the urban version of work in the Dial exhibit.

Layered Days, Jose Parla
  • "Layered Days," Jose Parla

Dekalb Avenue Station, Jose Parla
  • "Dekalb Avenue Station," Jose Parla

Painters Rags, Jose Parla
  • "Painters Rags," Jose Parla

Artist Laylah Ali makes these cartoonish figures that borrow from both comics and folk art, and I feel like they'd be right at home having a conversation in some of Bill Traylor's darker drawings.

Laylah Ali
  • Laylah Ali

Laylah Ali
  • Laylah Ali

Neckface got a lot of fame in the early Aughts for his defiant junior high doodle-style of graffiti, which always seemed more Beavis and Butthead than Grandma Moses, but there are also a lot of similarities with the scratchy chaos of Traylor's drawings.

Neckface graffiti
  • Neckface graffiti


If you had to trace the history of graffiti like a schoolroom evolution chart, Keith Haring would be the guy a few steps before Neckface, but a comparison to Traylor might be just as apt. Both artists can make simple stick figures dance.

Keith Haring
  • Keith Haring

Kara Walker is arguably the most successful artist of her generation, and her paper silhouettes address the complicated history of sex, violence and race in a visually simple way. While the theme of racial tension seems like an easy connection to draw to the work of a black artist who was born into slavery, the real similarity is the artists' shared style of simplifying forms into almost hieroglyphic storytelling forms.

Kara Walker installation
  • Kara Walker installation

Benjamin Edmiston is a Brooklyn-based artist who walks the line between cartoonish and tribal. His shapes remind me of Traylor's — simple but not fluffy enough to be mistaken for anything drawn by Walt Disney. Other artists in a similar vein: Matt Leines, Chris Lindig and Taylor McKimens.

Reaping and Sowing, Benjamin Edmiston
  • "Reaping and Sowing," Benjamin Edmiston

Benjamin Edmiston
  • Benjamin Edmiston

Holding the Rope, Benjamin Edmiston
  • "Holding the Rope," Benjamin Edmiston

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