Outside In – Art On The Edge






I was in two minds as to whether I should even write about the Outside In: South East exhibition in Hastings. It’s an exhibition of “Outsider Art”. In their own words, “a selection of works by artists living in the South East, who have chosen to align themselves with the Outside In Project”. A project which is “for artists who find it difficult to access the art world, whether due to disability, mental health, social circumstance, chronic ill-health or art process”. Its goal is to create “a level playing field where access is possible for all who create”, where these marginalised individuals have “a right to a public platform and the opportunity to exhibit and sell their work”.


Their very correct, careful wording makes me uneasy on so many levels. Firstly, it seemed that my writing about it had the potential to go massively and spectacularly wrong, that I might – entirely unintentionally – say something enormously offensive about such a group of artists. Even in the first line of this, I’ve written “I was in two minds…” Is that a terrible phrase to use, when writing about a group of people that contains individuals with mental health issues? Is it schizophrenic-ist? Bi-polar-ist? Hyper-mania-ist? It’s so very, very easy to offend, these days. I once called a (soon-to-be-ex)-boyfriend “emotionally retarded” (ok, I shouted it, while I was getting all my stuff and throwing boxes and slamming car doors and suchlike). I am certain that, if I uttered the phrase in public today, someone would take loud and publicly-shaming umbrage at that. It seems like dangerous ground, to me.


Secondly, in my opinion, good art is good art and bad art is bad art. A (see how carefully I’m choosing my words here) neuro-typical, physically-able shit artist is unlikely to find much of a “platform” for his (Or her! Or her!) work. Why should a neuro-atypical, physically-less-able shit artist be given a platform, then?


Thirdly, disability and mental health issues and all those other things are not absolutes; they lie on a spectrum. Most of us will experience some form of mental illness at some point in our lives, for example. I’ve seen friends and family struggle with depression, whether post-natal, event-triggered, or clinical; alcoholism; self-harming; drug abuse; chronic illness; age-related dementia. Some of it treatable, if not curable; some of it hard wired and permanent. And since there are different levels of associated functional ability, where do you draw the line and say someone is a “regular” amateur artist, versus an “outsider”?


Fourthly, is the term “outsider” even useful? Is there a risk of glamorising what is, for most sufferers – not to mention their careers and families and friends and supporters – just awful, excruciating, debilitating, relentless illness?



Fifthly, where does the phrase “one must suffer for ones art” come from? Are not a huge number of extremely mainstream “creatives” on the spectrum somewhere? And take a look at history; Tolouse-Lautrec, Hieronymus Bosch, Edvard Munch? Van Gough sold only one painting in his lifetime and (purportedly) cut off his own ear and shot himself, sustaining injuries from which he would not recover, so he would definitely fit the category of Outsider Artist, if the phrase had been in use then. But it only really appeared as a separate category in the 1920’s, when interest in the art of asylum inmates began to grow, with the phrase “outsider art” coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for “art brut”, a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of “official culture”.


Sixthly, an awful lot of outsider art appears to have gone mainstream, just recently. One might say, it’s “having a moment”. Nek Chand’s works are currently being exhibited at the Museum of Everything at the Hayward Gallery. Miroslav Tichy’s photos of women, illicitly taken with a homemade camera, are part of Curiosity And The Pleasure Of Knowing (which I wrote about here). Earlier in the week I had been at the Jerwood On The Stade (because Hastings Museum And Art Gallery, where the Outside In exhibition is showing, is closed, utterly and impenetrably closed, on Mondays, something its website neglects to mention, and having spent an hour driving there, I didn’t want to drive straight back home again) to see The Chapman Brother’s “Exquisite Corpse” etchings, based on a game, developed by the Surrealists from the traditional parlour game of Consequences, called Le Cadavre Exquis.


The etchings feature skulls, eyeballs on stalks, grotesque animal heads, liquids dripping and spurting from wounds, orifices, nipples and shower-heads, writhing intestines, claw-like hands and feet. Around the edges of the figures tiny spiders hang from threads and flies crawl. Insects’ wings and branching roots appear in the place of limbs.



You’re not telling me these are works of those “being of sound body and mind”?




The Saatchi Gallery’s New Order: British Art Today is no different. Although it has had very mixed reviews in the press, writing for The Telegraph, Richard Dorment says this:


“Stepping into the show is like walking into a sanatorium where every inmate is walking in ever-decreasing circles, tapping the tips of their fingers together and quietly talking to him or herself. You feel that most of these artists share a higher-than-average reading on the obsessive/compulsive spectrum; that they are driven by acute anxiety; and that they’d be making art whether anyone saw it, liked it, bought it, or not.”






And with works such as Wendy Meyer’s dolls (above) on display there, it’s not hard to see what he means. But isn’t Richard Dorment’s description of this show – at one of the most mainstream and accessible of all London’s art galleries – exactly the kind of thing you would expect to hear said of Outsider Art?


And seventhly…ok, I don’t have a seventhly. But you can see my problem, here, right?


In the end, I decided, just go.


Just go and see it.




But, oh. It was… Extraordinary. Really. Breath. Stoppingly. Extraordinary. I almost can’t begin to enumerate the way in which this exhibition surprised me. The colours; I hadn’t expected so much (though by no means all) of it to be so immensely colourful and uplifting. These artists, surely, are not people who feel tremendously uplifted much of the time? The breadth; everything from sculpture, through painting, via digital art, drawing, embroidery, felt tip, even. The quality; most of this was seriously good, stuff I would happily have on my own walls.


Ok, some of it wasn’t good. But I thought quite a lot of what is currently on show at Saatchi’s New Order wasn’t very good either.


And, the stories. The stories.


So much contemporary art is presented as a mystery wrapped in a sodding enigma, the artist standing aloof, the attitude that, if you don’t understand it, it is YOU who is lacking. I’d love to sit Damien Hirst down somewhere uncomfortable and poke him repeatedly until he came up with a good reason for his work “A thousand years”, really, I would.


But here, each exhibit has its explanation, either by the artist or someone close to them. They don’t – thank god – act as a categorisation of that particular artist’s “outsider-ness” by which I mean, don’t explain them as suffering mental health issues vs learning difficulties vs physical disability (though it is true that in many cases, the nature of the explanation does give a strong hint as to what their particular “affliction” might be). But they explain the nature of, or the inspiration behind, the art. And – and this was the opposite of what I would have expected – in doing so, this does not traduce the artwork to a piece of “output”, a “result” of a session, or sessions of “art therapy”. Instead, it makes the artwork come alive, makes it visceral, gives it a power. To look at the art, then look at the description, then look back at the art and see it with new eyes, new soul, because you are seeing it through someone else’s, that’s really something special, intimate, emotional. Viewing the exhibition became something physical, something raw, something bloody.




“I like to be happy – drawing, painting and art make me happy. I like painting best. In this picture I used chalks and charcoal. I like looking at books and paintings. This picture is a face that I found in a book. I also like painting flowers. I used to have flowers in my front garden at home. My dad used to water them. I love the colours of flowers.”







“‘Twist’ represents the uphill struggle I have with getting myself and my work out into the outside world having had M.E. and agoraphobia for the last 25 years. The ‘doors’ are the opportunities that are put in front of me but are beyond my reach. It is painted in my ‘predetermined randomness’ system, using personal words to dictate the positions of colours on a related 3D grid, with each colour representing a different letter”





“This sculpture is really smart and beautiful. I have put make up on, brushed my hair and styled it. I am looking forward to going out to a party. I screwed up newspaper into little balls, put them into a pile and glued them to a balloon which is on a stick. The glasses are made from white drinking straws. I added cardboard for the neck and glued it to a wooden base.”







“Throughout his time living in long stay institutions and supported independent care environments, Albert has maintained a steady output of artwork….Sian Duly, friend and supporter says “it has taken over 70 years for Albert to be given a label he is proud of. When people are asked to describe Albert, the first thing they say is “he is an artist”…Albert has the autonomy with his art that he has been unable to achieve in any other area of his life…he is free and encouraged to express himself.””





“This painting is of a 92 year old Ethiopian runner. I can’t remember his name but I felt inspired to paint him because of his achievements and because I thought he had an interesting face. I use many layers of oil paint, applied with knives and sometimes scraped through with a fork – a bit of a meal of a painting. I love working this way when the paint is thick and chunky with lots of colours. I sometimes throw dried china tea onto a wet layer and then work over it again to give it more texture. I like to think of my paintings of this nature as a feast for the eyes as well as a feast for the spirit. Maybe that’s the same thing. What the hell do I know!”







“My head is full of all the words I should have said, the words I cannot say, and the ones I wish I could take back. But I can’t say any of them, they stay with me, they stick in my throat. They gag me.”





I found it incredibly, profoundly humbling. Don’t get me wrong, not in a “poor them, I am so lucky to be happy and healthy and whole” kind of a way, which would be a pretty narcissistic and shallow response.


I mean humbling in a “I still don’t have all the answers to all the reasons I was uneasy about this, at least, not in a way I can articulate. But here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter because IT ISN’T ABOUT ME” kind of way. This isn’t art produced for my benefit. It’s not a product, it’s a process. A process that already-vulnerable, real people have opted to share, lay on the line, hold up for others’ judgement. This is extraordinarily brave art. This is art that offers a glimmer of otherwise throttled hope, a voice, a medium, a window on and a respite, however brief, from incessancy.


Here’s the piece that resonated most strongly with me. It’s a window panel, by Aradne, called “Leave Me Alone”.







She describes it thus:


“The concept behind this embroidery is the need we all have at times to want to have solitude to think our own thoughts and work out our problems on our own without being crowded out by people and life in general.”


And what is the point of art, if not that?


And its undeniable beauty and texture and craftsmanship and resonance made me simultaneously want to reach out and touch it, get a hold on it, and at the same time, flinch and walk quickly away.


And it made me acutely aware that I have a choice to get a hold on it, or to walk quickly away.


Aradne doesn’t.




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