Aron Packer doesn’t like to be called an art dealer. “‘Art dealer’ sounds a little underhanded, kind of like a card dealer in Las Vegas,” he says.

“Gallery owner” would no longer be accurate either, at least not since he closed his Wicker Park gallery in October. But during his five years there he gained a reputation for showing art that was also difficult to label.

From Iris Adler’s “heart and brain machines” to Don Stahlke’s carved and painted teeth, the artworks in Packer’s exhibitions were for people who could find the sublime in the oddball. “Most people think my focus is narrow, but it’s actually broader than other art dealers’,” he says. “I look for idiosyncratic work, usually with exceptional craft or some obsessive quality.

“I show three types of art–self-taught, outsider, and contemporary,” he says. His bread and butter might be called “American folk art,” except most of it doesn’t resemble the work of Grandma Moses. While folk art is also created by self-taught artists, outsiders are a different breed. Packer says they’re usually “isolated,” defining their own vision in an often hermetic, personal world. “The beauty is, that artist is far removed from any influences. An incarcerated artist may try to draw an eagle even though he has never seen one before, except maybe on the arm of a fellow inmate. The final outcome of the outsider’s work is often a much more interesting eagle.”

After graduating from Sullivan High School in the mid-70s, Packer took some time off before going to college. He waited tables at night–a job he would later pursue off and on to support his gallery–and rummaged through flea markets and antique stores on weekends. One of his early enthusiasms was Dick Tracy memorabilia, but soon he was collecting anonymous folk pieces, such as handmade chairs, toys, and sideshow banners. He would later sell his finds at other antique shows.

“The 80s were the perfect time to be involved in art,” he says. “The stock market was flush and everything was considered ‘collectible,’ including toys, mission furniture, and Coke bottle caps. Prices were grossly distorted, and I bought and sold everything I could find.” Though he did well, he soon grew tired of the grind. “I’m not a morning person, so it was challenging to pack up my things and arrive by 6 AM on Sundays to set up and sell in the sunshine or the rain.”

Packer began exhibiting his own paintings in coffeehouses. He says his paintings were “inspired by comic books and slash-and-gore movies.” Ironically, the experience of hustling his own artwork made him interested in promoting the work of others. He approached Carl Hammer, the successful dealer of outsider art. “I wanted to know the inside scoop on the business, so I asked him for a job, and he turned me down,” says Packer. “You could say that necessity drove me to find my own stable of artists. I felt like an outsider, but I knew there was a place for me.”

His first show–in his apartment in Edgewater–featured the work of artist William Ross Simpson, who uses such materials as rope and animal skulls and bones. Packer invited about 100 people, and “40 showed up.” Today he pulls a Simpson “voodoo stick” from a storage closet. He brushes aside the feathers and wires to reveal delicate, colorful renderings of animals. He purchased the stick for $100 and plans to sell it “when the price is right.” Though he calls that show a success, he says he’s learned to not expect too much from openings. “It’s hard not to think about money, especially when you’ve invested so much upfront. But the idea is to give people a taste of what’s available. Sometimes people decide to buy pieces weeks, months, or even years after an opening.”

In 1992 he found a 400-square-foot space on the second floor of the Flat Iron Building at North and Milwaukee. During the next five years, Packer says, he averaged 11 or 12 shows annually–usually with three or four artists exhibiting at the same time. He says he wanted to keep things fresh and affordable. The decision to close the gallery came about “because things were changing in the neighborhood. Bars and boutiques were moving in and edging out art galleries. It was just time to go.”

Now Packer may be without his own place, but he still represents about 20 artists. Since leaving the Flat Iron in October, he’s mounted two new shows in borrowed spaces–that’s more frequent than some galleries. “It hasn’t slowed me down a bit,” he says. “Some naysayers thought I’d give up the business, but that wasn’t even a consideration. This is what I do.”

This Saturday, from 4 to 8 PM, Packer will open “Alchemy in Paint–The Landscape and the Figure,” a show of work by Alma Furnace and Pamela Murphy. It’s at Justine Jentes’s Inside Art, 1651 W. North; the show runs through February 28. Call 773-772-4416 for more information.

–Marcia E. Gawecki

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nathan Mandell.