Outsider Art’s Inner Sanctum

Featuring nontraditional talent at her Chinatown galley, Paige Wery has a knack for spotting the extraordinary

Paige Wery is sitting in her cluttered office loft overlooking the exhibition area of the Good Luck Gallery, which she opened among the red lanterns of Chung King Road three years ago. Chinatown became an international art destination in the early aughts when a spate of galleries moved in, but none has been quite like the Good Luck, a pioneering commercial space dedicated to self-taught and outsider art.

Wery is a tall, fiftyish brunet who speaks in measured can-do tones. “Our first show,” she says, “had 103 ceramics—these playful totem figures—made by this 103-year-old retired ear, nose, and throat specialist named Harry Steinberg, who had never had a solo exhibition before.” Subsequent shows have spotlighted the work of a wide range of unconventional talents, among them sexy space-unicorn disco fantasias rendered in meticulous watercolors by the developmentally disabled Deveron Richard, white-on-black scratchboard drawings—close-ups of impossibly intricate hairdos or diagrams of cosmic energy fields—by the U.K.’s Cathy Ward, and beautiful allegorical drawings by Andrew Frieder, who is schizophrenic. The current exhibition features the works of French prankster Jacques Flechemuller, who performed magic and other odd jobs in Paris so that he could paint cartoonishly eroticized calendar images of happy couples.

Of course outsider art has existed since the beginning of the 20th century, when a handful of progressive psychiatrists started doling out art supplies to asylum inmates. Over time the genre has come to incorporate work generated by an entire spectrum of psychological eccentrics as well as self-taught rural visionaries, prison tattooists, UFO contactees—even the occasional art school graduate. It has its own magazines, museums, collectors, critics, art fairs, and galleries. But until Wery opened the Good Luck, outsider art had no toehold here apart from Simon Rodia’s iconic Watts Towers. “Most of the L.A. gallerists find their artists through the school system,” says Wery, who finds hers elsewhere, including at state-funded art workshops that allow “clients” with both developmental differences and creative impulses to work full-time as visual artists.

Wery took the scenic route to discover her niche. She was on the golf team at UCLA when she dropped out to pursue art, then wound up playing pro golf anyway. Later she enrolled at what is now called the California College of the Arts, in Oakland. “I was in a class and the instructor said, ‘You think you’re artists?’ ” Wery recalls. “ ‘The real artists are out there in their studios, making art!’ And I thought, ‘You’re right.’ So I got up and quit.” Returning to L.A. in 1998, she began displaying her paintings on a blanket on the Venice Boardwalk and was soon curating shows for others doing the same thing—“homeless people and drug addicts with these raw, singular voices,” says Wery, “who were making art because they had to, even though they’d never been to a museum.” After an eight-year detour as publisher of the upstart local art magazine Artillery, Wery launched the Good Luck with the intention of bringing outsiders into L.A.’s mainstream art world.

Her most spectacular “discovery” so far: Helen Rae, a deaf, minimally communicative septuagenarian whose solo debut of baroque colored-pencil translations of fashion magazine photo spreads sold out, putting her on the fast track to stardom. Her work has been reproduced in Vogue, and she’s having an upcoming solo show at New York’s legendary White Columns space. As for those who suggest that popularizing outsiders like Rae is condescending, Wery isn’t buying it. “I have no pity!” she says. “I have admiration. She’s found her voice.”