Outsider Art: Where did all the outsiders go?
This year the Outsider Art Fair in New York will celebrate its 21st anniversary. Marc Quinn’s sculpture of the pregnant artist Alison Lapper, with no arms and no legs adorns the corner of Trafalgar square. Lille’s museum of modern art reopened two years ago under a new name – the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art. But critics still sidestep the term, perhaps because, confusingly, it no longer stands for exclusion, but endorsement.
Art produced from inside the mental hospitals has fascinated psychiatrists, artists and art collectors from at least as early as 1922 when psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn published Artistry of the Mentally Ill, a collation of the work of ten schizophrenic masters. The French artist Jean Dubuffet, who made primitive oil paintings tempered with sand, tar and straw, and coined the term “art brut” in the 1950s, was one of the first to assign aesthetic value to the work of outsiders.
These, he says, “created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."
It’s easy to see how the outsider has become a convenient cipher for everything we want the art world to be. Uncensored, meaningful, a compulsive activity hammered out in blood, sweat and tears. Australian collector Peter Fay, whose collection formed the basis of a 2009 exhibition of self-taught and outsider art at the Callan Park Gallery in Sydney, attributes the works’ popularity to the “raw honesty, bravado and take-no-prisoners purity that all artists aspire to but seldom reach.” Texas-born artist Thomas Burleson who depicts elaborate contraptions with thickets of pipes and densely packed abstract compositions was, according to New York dealer Luise Ross, who handles Burleson’s work, “compelled to make his art…and reflects a very singular vision.” North Carolina artist George Widener, who makes drawings packed with complex future-date calculations is “autistic savant” says Arts and Antiques magazine. Roger Manley, curator of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, describes Renaldo Kuhler’s watercolours as “the coolest self-taught artist’s work since Henry Darger’s.”
Aren’t all artists outsiders? Outsider Art is often unashamedly autobiographical, shocking or compiled in an obsessive compulsive manner. For all artists, making work is a compulsion, sometimes an obsession, often it offers salvation. All artists provide a skewed perspective on the familiar. But while intelligent, articulate artists can choose to stand in the outsider camp, or not, the institutionalised are labelled as outsiders unwillingly or unintentionally.
But what is the difference between artists from an art institution and those from a psychiatric institution? One is discriminatory, the other necessarily inclusive, but teaching yourself through doing is what all artists do. To some extent, the distinction between the schooled and the unschooled has become less meaningful as contemporary artists lose interest in draughtsmanship and focus instead on conceptual, performance-based and digital art. On the other hand, as formal boundaries between inside and outside are shown to be untenable, there is perhaps more desire than ever to cling to outdated distinction.
Given that most of the work is made in the day centre or on the ward, under the guiding eye of a trained therapist, with limited resources, there’s no reason why these works should be any less derivative than mainstream artists constrained by the preferences and partialities of the society they find themselves in. For every holed-up hoarder, making masterpieces from broken bits of plates plastered to the ceiling, there are thousands of art therapy patients diligently daubing poster paint on paper in pretty patterns. It’s easier to praise the resourcefulness of the few than acknowledge the mediocrity of the many. By no means all of the institutionalised are artists and not all outsider artists are institutionalised.
The experience of the mentally ill is undoubtedly fascinating, but only when communicated in a surprising, beautiful or funny way. Those who are well enough to talk well about their work, for example, flourish under public scrutiny. Performance artist Bobby Baker played the role of a psychotherapist in comedy show How to Live (2004), where she posed an eleven-step recovery plan to her patient, a frozen pea. Five years later Baker’s pastel-hued picture diaries documenting an eleven-year stint in day centres and psychiatric wards popped up at The Wellcome Collection. Middle-aged, truthful and tragic – audiences loved her first, then they loved her work.
The experiences of Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, even Sylvia Plath (whose tender drawings went on show in London’s Mayor Gallery in 2011) – rehashed in their own work and the therapy room, rewritten by broadsheets and TV talkshows – are perturbing but palatable and the public loves them in spite of, or because of, their fragility. We love outsiders, but we like charismatic ones even more. Not all outsider artists would fit so neatly on the pedestal of publicity.
Being outside of the mainstream has never hurt an artist’s reputation. Cocteau, Magritte, Max Ernst and most of the Surrealists proved that ‘outsider’ art can easily drift into the realms of high fashion. But the prices now being commanded certainly seem like a new phenomenon. In May this year, for example, the Ricco/Maresca gallery is rumoured to have sold a 90-by-36 inch graphite work on brown paper by the late artist Martin Ramirez who spent most of his life in mental hospitals in California, for more than $400,000. It’s hardly surprising: the self-taught nobody who rises to prominence is the American’s favourite story.
The glut of outsider art shows springing up suggests perhaps a growing crossover between the outsider and contemporary art worlds. The Museum of Everything’s first exhibition of some 200 works by outsiders included commentaries from David Byrne, Ed Ruscha and the French artist Annette Messenger. The fourth popped up in Selfridge’s department store. It’s easy to make outsider artists the poster boys and girls for edginess and authenticity – it’s just another art world exercise in rebranding. In many ways the outsider art pool is the marketeer’s dream: the work is varied enough to ride the wave of any passing trend, but indisputably sincere.
The growing popularity of outsider art has been a great enabler for art therapy advocates. Perhaps most obvious is the case of Mindful in 2011 – a contemporary art show on the theme of mental illness that raised funds for Mind’s creative therapies initiative. Curated by Stuart Semple – himself a beneficiary of the therapeutic powers of art – the exhibition featured big-name artists with an unorthodox bent, like Sebastian Horsley, the Chapman brothers and Tracey Emin. Housed underground at the Old Vic Tunnels near Waterloo Station, the show effectively challenged art therapy’s playschool reputation. And Janus-like, it looked both ways: at the mental issues grappled with by established ‘mainstream’ artists, and at art as a beneficial experience (both making and viewing) for those similarly suffering.
Art agency Outside In provides a platform for artists unable to access the art world because of mental illness, disability, or social circumstance. The agency’s annual exhibition at Pallant House gallery (open until 3 February) features work from 80 artists, whittled down from 1,300 entries. One imagines that like Outside In’s online gallery, the show will be peppered with personal statements. One reads simply: “I am in a psychiatric unit, I have never done art before but I enjoy it now and try to learn.” In this context the work doesn’t have to speak for itself.
So is this charity or is this art? Creative Future, a registered charity that helps disabled and marginalised artists to engage with mainstream art markets, is behind the touring exhibition Tight Modern, a collection of 50 miniature prints from 50 artists. At the Brighton event, Tight Modern’s second outing, only one of the works had sold. By channelling both the average output of art-therapy programs and the best examples of outsider art into the same market, do we run the risk of stamping everything down into the mainstream mire? No doubt some of the work these organisations advocate (Arron Kuiper/Ian Sherman) has found the significant attention it deserves but might not otherwise have found. But is it the case that any one of the exhibited artists, once supplied with a good enough story, marketing and mentoring, could be just as successful.
The best outsider art needs no sales pitch. Victorian examples are rare, strange and beautiful and have greater value because of this. One prominent example is that of Achilles G. Rizzoli, a (formally trained) draftsman in a San Francisco architecture firm who inked drawings of Beaux-Arts buildings – imaginary monuments to his mother that were never built. Another was the sale, at the New York Outsider Art Fair, of a 140 page scrapbook cobbled together from early-1900s invoice from a mental hospital in Nevada, each sheet covered in drawings of eagles, saw blades, chairs, wide-eyed men and women, garden plans, and circus menageries on offer for $12,000 a page.
Also in New York, the Approaching Abstraction exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum drew on the stylistic qualities of the work, rather than the troubled lives of the artists. Here we see the random patterns, systemic codes and symbols employed by many self-taught artists, including the graffiti-esque works of Dan Miller, where letters and words are repeatedly overdrawn, in a record of the artist’s obsession with objects like light bulbs, electrical sockets, food and the names of cities and people.
Outsider or not, all creative activity is a symptom of the need to design and define ourselves and the space we occupy in whatever means we can. Even when we buy production line flat packs and machine-made homeware to fill our ready-made houses, our choice of surroundings says a lot about who we want to be and how we wish to be perceived. While most of us assimilate status objects, furnish our lives with pre-loaded commodities, create and modify within the rigid compass of the social and cultural norm, less self-conscious artists adapt their external surroundings at will. In the same way children impose their imagined words on any environment they find themselves in.
While art collectors dress their designer homes with status-cementing contemporary art, outsiders amass a collection of marbles, make mole-like tunnels underground, painstakingly construct elaborate scenes using squirrels. Like all truthful work, it is purely a symptom, a cure, a record. Not freedom, but a different kind of entanglement. Surely, if anything, outsider art proves how ordinary making art is. Take away the blurb, and it will continue, as it always has.
Image credit: Annie Morgan