In Pen and Ink

They are unschooled, undisciplined, and often unpopular, but it’s outsider artists like the convict who drew this who can sometimes shape mainstream culture

Nothing about the Institute for Unpopular Culture seems very easy. Funding, for example. Who wants to give money to an institute that supports murderers, the mentally unstable, and the socially dysfunctional? It seems the donors don't want you to know who they are.

"Most of our donors prefer to stay anonymous, so their families and lives aren't affected by everyone knowing they have all this money," explains Cassandra Richardson, IFUC's associate director and CFO. One of IFUC's major donors, she says, "has resources on such a high level, he fears for the safety of his family. His kids are in school under fake names."

And perhaps it's for the best that an institute supporting artists, some of whom are darkly on the fringe, keeps its major funding sources well hidden. "I'm not saying our artists would approach the donors with a lot of money, but we work with some artists who are mentally unstable," Richardson explains.

One of IFUC's more annoying artists is Clinton Fein, of the controversial sociopolitical Web site Annoy.com. During Fein's legal battle against Janet Reno in the Supreme Court, IFUC's interns provided numerous hours of legal research to support Fein's case. ApolloMedia v. Reno challenged the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act, which would have prevented artists from distributing offensive work on the Internet. Fein won the case in 1997.

Artist Susan Murdoch, also supported by IFUC, retreats to an annual "self-sentenced sabbatical" and study of Mexican culture, "voyaging against the tide of immigration to produce an alternative vision of Christianity, femininity, and spiritual iconography," according to her spokesperson at IFUC. Her paintings of holy vaginas, masturbation, and Madonnas with in-utero Jesuses have provoked quite a bit of controversy in Mexico.

IFUC has also worked with the Mission District's Creativity Explored, a San Francisco organization that enables developmentally disabled adults to express themselves artistically in ways that are both rewarding to the artist and appreciated by others.

One of IFUC's donors was willing to go on the record to talk about the role of the outsider in art. John Brower is a Canadian rock concert producer, who in 1969 brought John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Toronto for the "Live Peace in Toronto" concert.

Of Ferguson's ability to see talent where others see madness, Brower says, "David has the ability to look at people in different stages in their creative expression and see that, after a lot of polishing, they have something valuable to bring to the community."

For people who are outsiders in the art world — and the real world — to be showcased in a first-class manner is what Brower finds Ferguson has done with the Institute. And by doing this, Ferguson, and IFUC, is often at the inception of the blossoming of an aspect of culture.

"I feel a great privilege to be on the edge of things that have been rejected by contemporary culture," Ferguson says. "It feels to us that this is the path of the future."

In accordance with the philosophy of rejecting contemporary culture, IFUC eschews running the foundation on more than just a few thousand dollars a month. "We could easily get funding to run it on a lot of money," Ferguson says, "but it seems antithetical to what we're doing." Much of the business that takes place at IFUC is volunteer-driven, or works given in trade. For example, a film editor who owed thousands of dollars in parking tickets was able to work them off through DPT's Project 20 (a program that allows you to work off the price of your parking tickets through community service) by donating time to two of Creativity Explored's volunteers, who'd run out of IFUC funding during the making of their documentary film.

Entirely donor-funded, IFUC gets about $100,000 a year from various sources and "turns around and gives the money away as quickly as we can — as soon as the checks have cleared!" Because Noguera, as an inmate on Death Row, cannot legally do business, the proceeds from the sale of his artwork goes into a fund for the future education of his son.

Taking no commission and teaching no technique, IFUC thumbs its nose at the art world that so often dictates what art is by what will sell based on a few trendy galleries.


Pablo Picasso's fragmented face looks out from behind a plastic sheet. Cassandra Richardson is nervously approaching potential art buyers with it, getting ready to present the work of Noguera, who by law can't attend his own opening. By now she's growing used to the brush-offs and looks of horror that often follow when she begins to talk about the talented artist she represents. "Even in wonderfully liberal San Francisco," her boss says, "we have people warn us that working with him will taint our future here at the Institute."

Picasso's portrait, broken up into dozens of overlapping boxes, is composed of shaded cubes of black and white and grey, meshing seamlessly together in homage to one of Noguera's biggest influences. All of Noguera's art work is broken up into boxes, fragmented pieces of his dream world mapped out in carefully measured increments.

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