Jim Houser – A Self-Taught Philadelphian

Burst. Jim Houser. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

Burst. Jim Houser. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

Jim Houser’s print Burst is part of the 2001 Philadelphia Invitational Portfolio from the Philadelphia Print Collaborative at the Print & Picture Collection of the Free Library. It’s a visual poem, combining words and images, like a magazine advertisement, but not selling anything.

Houser uses the tools of graphic design (text, image, chart) but for his own poetic ends. He has a sure sense of color harmonies, limiting himself to colors he has said inspired by “sea water, dog fur, and dried blood”. His naïve graphics and hand-drawn lettering are in contrast to the sharp rectangular blocks of color that make up the composition.

detail, Burst. Jim Houser. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

detail, Burst. Jim Houser. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

Houser is not your typical self-taught artist. He spent a year at the University of Pennsylvania, spent several years hanging out with art students at RISD in Providence, RI, and returned to Philadelphia in the late 1990’s just as his buddies were starting Space 1026. His first show there in 1998 established his art career. This print was produced by Space 1026 for the portfolio a few years later. He has since shown every couple of years at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York.

This is a different career trajectory than that of the artists now on view in the Outsider Art show now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Those artists are more firmly rooted in the world of the outsider, the visionary who’s compelled to produce their art largely outside the world of galleries and artist marketing. Houser is self-taught in the sense that he comes from skateboard street culture and has no art school degree. He developed his own method and visual vocabulary as part of a creative community that produces art on their own terms:

“Jim is an artist/poet who explores the relationship between the look, sound, and meaning of words and the things they represent. His painted words suggest snippets from overheard conversations or his own inner monologue, but they are not random—they converse with one another and with Jim’s vocabulary of images, saying a lot about the artist and his art. Jim’s gifts are his abilities to survey the infinite inventory of his own consciousness, to clear away the static, to find those shapes, words, colors, thoughts, feelings, and sounds that reside at the core of his being, and to translate and transform all of this, his essential self, into art that speaks to others.” – Matthew F. Singer

His work, along with the outsider, self-taught artists in the PMA show make a compelling case that art is self-expression that emerges regardless of formal training. And there’s a lot more art worth looking at that hasn’t made it to museums, galleries, and print portfolios. Keep your eyes and minds open!

For more on Jim Houser, read this interview by Space 1026 co-founder Adam Wallcavage here and his page at Jonathan Levine Gallery here.

For more on outsider art, see the show at PMA, and read about the Foundation for Self Taught Artists here.

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