Friday 29 March 2013


Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
(Yes, another art exhibition that's come and gone. Would you expect anything else around here?)

”Our culture is like a garment... that no longer fits us. This culture is like a dead language that no longer has anything in common with the language of the street. It is increasingly alien to our lives.”

Art in the Raw

Jean Dubuffet is a smart choice on the Pallant House gallery's part. Like Edward Burra who graced these walls before him he's an important figure who's been neglected by British galleries in recent times. (By their reckoning, for nearly fifty years!) But more importantly he was arguably the rock that started the rolling, outsider art's Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McClaren rolled into one. He coined the term Art Brut (“raw art”) in 1945, as he sought an antidote to classicist orthodoxies outside the art world. He waxed lyrical over art which was “completely pure, raw... invented in all it's phases by the artist, from his impulses alone.”

All of which, needless to say, is a hopeless romanticism. Dubuffet was using the mentally ill in the way Gauguin used Tahitian islanders or Picasso African art – fetishistically, expecting somebody else to busy themselves with building your escape capsule, envisaging a group of noble savages who had somehow escaped all of society's conditioning. It's labelling the other according to your needs.

Except worse. The wish to reframe insanity as some kind of super-lucidity, a kind of contemporary sequel to shamanism, seems a lot to load on people who weren't coping that well with life in the first place. It's like when a rich person comments the homeless are free of ties. The correct rejoinder is “how the hell would you know?”

Yet let's not be too hasty. Unlike Gauguin or Picasso Dubuffet was no mere plunderer, he was as interested in collecting and displaying examples of Art Brut as he was in it influencing his own art. And he was as interested in art by children or the otherwise untrained as he was by the insane - it was merely the last group that won all the notoriety.

Plus, more widely, Modernism had a history of being right for all the wrong reasons. Art Brut did prove a handy method of slipping the seemingly pervasive rules of Classicism, which at that point seemed so naturalised, of getting back to making marks on paper. Though Dubuffet was influenced by and associated with the Surrealists, in this sense Art Brut was as much a proto-punk movement.

The show starts with a quote from the man describing his two tendencies - “to exaggerate the marks of invention, and the other, the opposite, which leads me to eliminate all human presence... and drink from the source of absence.”

The Source of Absence

...which is followed, naturally enough by an example of each tendency. “The source of absence” is represented by one of his Texturologie paintings 'Texturologie IX (Jain)' (1957). (The illo above is actually of 'Texturologie VIII (Dec)', but is probably enough to give you an idea.) Dubuffet painted this series flat on the floor, often scattering sand on the canvas, attacking the surface with sandpaper and other abrasive substances, or scoring it with a fork. The results look as though they could have almost been made by some random process, even by being left out in the elements. The question they ask us is – why bother to paint things, when you can make suggestive marks which work just as well, if not better?

They're like Ernst's frottage and grattage works pushed along a step, with the apparent absence of an image creating a mystery in the mind of the viewer. The point isn't so much that eventually you do decipher some hidden image, like in a join-the-dots game. What makes the viewing compelling isn't the image you make out, so much as the prevailing sense you're just on the cusp of descerning it. In today's bid for Pseud's Corner I'm going to suggest these paintings work more like meditational aids; your eye lingers, just as when you watch clouds pass in the sky.

They remind me of all the times I've blithely quoted Norbert Lynton's line about Picasso being close to the roots of art. You look at this work and start to feel that Picasso was really reclining in the penthouse of art while Dubuffet laboured in the basement, scratching obsessively on the walls with a compass end. This is art at it's most hands-on, most inky-fingered.

Mapping the Ghost Society

The following works belong to a loose series dubbed the Paris Circle, made as Dubuffet returned to live in the French capital. These couldn't be more unlike the celebration of the 'gay' Paris in Impressionism, a parade of peacocks, it's streets teeming but possessed of some underlying order.

'Affluence (Attendance)' (March 1961, above) seems deliberately poised to leave you unsure whether this is a crowd scene or just a page of doodles, a jumble of faces. Each face is (as the indicia puts it) “lit in streaky whites and pinks”, while the torsos are filled in with darker hues, their separating black outlines left barely visible. This throws the faces into the foreground, as if they float on some murky sea. Each is seen either straight on or as a perfect profile. And even when the figures face each other, such as in the upper left, it's hard to figure out whether they are actually engaging one another or just happen to be lined up together on a canvas.

It's so reminiscent of the drawing exercise where you fill a sheet of paper with cartoon heads, each one a separate character caught in as few lines as possible, that this cannot be accidental. Dubuffet said himself: “I do not see in what way the face of a man should be a less interesting landscape than any other. A man, the physical person of a man, is a little world, like any other country, with its towns, and suburbs.”

The sense of that ambiguity being deliberate, as if the faces themselves are not sure whether they are linked or not, is taken up by a subsequent painting – 'Vire-Volte (Spinning Around)' (May 1961, above), which hits you like the onset of a fever. This time the figures are in a definite street scene, but it doesn't appear to be doing them much good. They're split into two by a central barrier that seems more undulating river than neat, straight road. Yet even within their own sides they line up awkwardly, stuck together and yet simultaneously isolated. (I would semi-seriously link this painting to the celebrated French distaste for queueing!)

Their bold white outlines at first make the background appear flat, yet rather than reassuringly solid it's a morphing surface of shades and hues - like a bruised skin. The signs in the background are parodies of shop names, saying things like 'Knick-Knacks' or 'Ghost Society.'

Notably in the introductory quote Dubuffet contrasted the dead language of culture with the streets, and here he is clearly putting forward Art Brut as a more contemporary method of expressing the alienating urban experience. The naïve, child-like style of the work reacts potently with the grotesque subject matter. It induces a reaction similar to when you see art by children who have been in a war zone; shootings and bombings depicted in the deadpan, innocent style usually reserved for picnics and birthdays. Yet here it is not the friction of style against content that causes that reaction - rather, it is how spookily easily the two fit together. The division of the painting into zones, the isolated, heavily outlined figures... it's like the direct eye of children's art saw the harsh truth all along, which the soothing classical conventions of our culture tried to shelter us from.

'The Irish Jig (Le Gigue Irlandaise' (Sept 1961, above) is another sequel to 'Affluence', albeit one that takes things in quite a different direction. It's almost like a time-lapse photo taken after the earlier painting, with the faces reduced to morphing, cellular forms – form fading away before your eyes. The faces are still semi-visible through cartoon motifs, dots within circles as eyes, stretched sausages as mouths. But what most jumps at you is the change in palette, the murky browns, bruised purples and off-whites left behind for a riot of bold primary colours. (That these three pictures could have been created within a matter of months seems extraordinary.)

A Mad Desire To Impose Order

It's this work which provides the link to the Hourloupe series, which Dubuffet worked on through the rest of the Sixties and dominates the rest of the exhibition. The word, though invented, seems rooted in “hourler” (to shout), “hurler“ (to howl), “loup” (wolf) and last but not least “l'entourloupe” (to make a fool of).

These sprang from doodles Dubuffet absently made while on the phone. After the cellular jigsaw puzzle of 'Irish Jig', the individual elements become larger, more amorphous and more complex, just as the colour scheme reduces to red, blue and black, often in the form of stripes. These are them fitted into the outline of an overall shape, such as in 'Solario' (1961, up top) or 'Site Inhabited By Objects' (1961, above).

Dubuffet’s intention seems to have been to challenge the apparent solidity of objects; what appears to be a teacup sitting stoutly on the shelf, or even the head of another human being, is actually only a morphing swirl of atoms on which we impose our prejudices and associations. He commented how he “intended to challenge the objective nature of being. The notion of being is presented here as relative rather than irrefutable: it is merely a projection of our minds, a whim of our thinking.”

Though I like not one single thing about any of these works, which look to me like nothing other than crazy paving on bad drugs, it's those regular, stick-of-rock stripes that really rankle. The volatility of the earlier works is held in thrall by those bold outlines, imprisoned by those stripes as evenly spaced as the bars of a dungeon. After the savage figures and suggestive forms of earlier, it's like swapping the wild woods for an English country garden.

In a reversal of the standard dictum of Modernism, the works look wrong in all the wrong ways - not shamanic and visionary but obsessive-compulsive, a mad desire to impose order. (With their questioning of objects they seemingly resemble Cubism. But this is superficial, for they're just one-faced likenesses.)

Yet at the same time with their bright colours they seem fashionably Sixties, almost 'pop' in effect. (At this time Dubuffet also took to using contemporary disposable materials such as polystyrene for sculpture.) Given the changes in art around that time, principally the growth of pop, there's the taint of opportunism about this new direction. The result is a strange, queasy mixture of the calculated and the disturbing – they're psychotically jolly.

The Hourloupes probably work best used as elements of design, such as in the twin posters Dubuffet made for his Tate and ICA shows in 1966 (above). Though the text is hand-drawn and lent a charming wonkiness, the straight letter forms still give the morphing cells something to rebel against. (Dubuffet would seem to have excelled in design. The show includes other posters, catalogues and even invitation cards he designed – all simple yet striking.)

The exhibition, in short, suckered me in with a few fantastic introductory works then proved a let-down with almost every subsequent room. In one way I feel like I'd finally got to hear the Stones, but heard a compilation chiefly devoted to the Eighties and Nineties. But perhaps there's an upside to that. I came out of the Burra show feeling I'd had my knowledge and appreciation of him expanded, but as a consequence wouldn't need to see another Burra show for a while. I came out of this feeling I'd had my interest in Dubuffet piqued rather than sated. Like his Texturologie paintings, not only is his mystery, his allure, still out there but I feel it more keenly than before. Dubuffet is still raw to me.

This Dubuffet exhibition was part of a group of shows at the Pallant House Under the umbrella title 'Outside In', all dedicated to various forms of Outsider Art. To hear about the others go here...

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