Outsider art and why the mainstream always wants a piece of it
With seven shows and a major conference in Melbourne, self-taught artists are in the spotlight again. So why is ‘outsider art’ still a label overwhelmingly used by art world insiders?
Jack Napthine’s Untitled 2013. Photograph: Jack Napthine/Art Unlimited, Geelong
Wednesday 1 October 2014 05.09 BSTLast modified on Monday 9 May 201601.04 BST
The art of Jack Napthine is a powerful mix of boldly outlined locks, light bulbs and snatches of text; Julian Martin’s thick pastels give a dense velvety texture to his drawings; and Terry Williams’ soft sculptures of fridges, helicopters and video cameras are flamboyant and witty.
They’re all talented artists whose art is shown and collected in Australia and beyond and whose creations are currently part of Everyday Imagining: New Perspectives on Outsider Art at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne. But a few decades ago, their careers would have been unthinkable. In all likelihood, they would have spent their lives in institutions for the intellectually impaired.
Outsider art was a term coined in 1972 by British art historian Roger Cardinal. It was a roughly equivalent but more inclusive coinage for art brut (raw art), a 1940s label by Jean Dubuffet for work by inmates of insane asylums, which the French artist described as “unscathed by artistic culture … and the conventions of classical or fashionable art”.
Today, as well as including artists with disabilities or mental illness, the term is increasingly applied to others on the margins of art and society: the homeless, ethnic minorities, migrants, folk artists, the self-taught. Outsider art is hot – art fairs dedicated to the work of the marginalised draw large crowds and big bucks. The flagship exhibition of Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale was entitled The Encyclopedic Palace after the work of self-taught Italian outsider artist Marino Auriti.
But while examples of creativity unscathed by artistic fashion can be exhilarating and inspiring for artists and collectors, it’s a salient feature of most outsider art that the people applying the label are invariably on the inside – gallerists, academics, psychologists and artists who are art-school or university trained.
There has long been a fear of including the self-taught in the world of high art, says James Brett, founder of the Museum of Everything, a peripatetic collection of unclassifiable and undiscovered art that has taken up residence at London’s Tate Modern as well as Selfridges department store.
Brett is one of the speakers at Contemporary Outsider Art: the Global Context, a conference taking place in Melbourne from 23 to 26 October. “Being called an outsider artist is a badge of pride if you’ve been labelled as marginal elsewhere,” he says. There are many more art-makers than those who society labels artists, he adds. “Insider” art, with all its rules and gatekeepers, is only a small subset of a much larger world of creativity.
Andrew Blythe’s Untitled 2012. Photograph: Andrew Blythe/Tim Melville Gallery, Auckland
It’s an attitude that Joanna Bosse, curator of the show at the Ian Potter Museum, agrees with. She believes it’s time to dump some major preconceptions and concentrate on the work.
“While accepting there is this category called outsider art with a historical precedent and lineage, I wanted to look deeper at how we come to the work,” she says. “Do we come with preconceptions about what the artists are trying to say?”
Napthine, the foster son of Victorian Liberal premier Denis Napthine, is one of five Australian artists that make up the show (alongside two New Zealanders, Martin Thompson and Andrew Blythe). Bosse picks out a drawing of a male nude by Lisa Reid, who has also exhibited at the Outsider Art Fair in New York. Seen from above, the man’s body hair is rendered as lozenge-shaped blocks of black, his dyed blond head hair a surprising contrast.
Reid is among the 100 or so artists who work out of Arts Project Australia (APA), a gallery and studio space in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote (Napthine and Kellie Greaves, another exhibitor, work out of Art Unlimited in Geelong, another studio for practising artists with disabilities).
APA has grown in scope and ambition since Myra Hilgendorf, the mother of a disabled but artistically gifted daughter, founded the organisation in 1974 to provide high-quality art and framing materials and to exhibit the works of the “mentally retarded” (to use the term of the time) in regular galleries.
Today, its studio regulars have the same rights and opportunities as non-disabled artists and, says Brett, APA is one of the world’s top five centres for outsider art. The gallery manager and curator Sim Luttin says that while not all of its artists exhibit, those that do show their work receive payment following guidelines set out by the National Association for the Visual Arts. Crucially, they also gain a sense of self-worth that manifests in different ways. “When an artist sees his or her work professionally presented and when people comment, some say they’re thrilled, but even those who don’t speak show it – they might just stand taller.”
APA’s publicity material prioritises artists’ work over their biographies. “Some artists don’t want to focus on their disability,” says Luttin. “You wouldn’t write [for a biography of an “insider’ artist] ‘he’s been an alcoholic for 30 years.’”
Julian Martin’s Untitled 2011. Photograph: Julian Martin/Arts Project Australia, Melbourne
Brett, who has featured several APA artists in his Museum of Everything, agrees. “I’m attracted to the material, not the biography,” he says. “Disability’s a term; it’s about levels of ability. Everybody has mental health issues, everyone’s on the [autistic] spectrum, you could say that creativity is a version of dysfunction.”
APA’s 40th anniversary and the conference (which it is jointly hosting) have inspired seven overlapping outsider art exhibitions in Melbourne throughout September, October and November. These include Albert Tucker and the Mystery of HD at Heide Museum of Modern Art, featuring paintings by self-taught rural artist HD Dearing, “discovered” by established Australian artist Albert Tucker in the 1940s. The Alcaston Gallery is showing work by Western Australian artists with disabilities; the Dax Centre and the Social Studio are exhibiting art by people with mental illnesses; and work by former refugees is being shown in outdoor spaces throughout the city.
These shows demonstrate that outsider art is a broad church. Is there a particular aesthetic? “The works can’t be conventional,” says art historian and curator Dr Anthony White, from the University of Melbourne. “The idea of spontaneity doesn’t match the reality; the wild man theory doesn’t account for sophistication and calculation.”
With the growing interest in outsider art comes the seeming contradiction of “mainstream” outsider artists, especially in the US, where monographs and high prices have created cults among collectors. “The market requires superstars,” notes White. The scene and the term “outsider art can be problematic, he adds, but it gets to the heart of how we think about culture and creativity. “As soon as you say it’s outside, it could be in.”
- Everyday Imagining; New Perspective on Outsider Artis at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne until 18 January 2015