The Pallant House Gallery's 'Dubuffet: Transitions' (as covered last time) was a mere part of this three-in-one “season of exhibitions,” also including 'Outside In' - a group show of contemporary outsider art and 'Pat Douthwaite: The Uncompromising Image.' (None of which are still on now, needless to say.)
”Unpredictable, Impulsive and Spontaneous”
Riddle me this, show curator, can you really put the outside in? Can outsider art actually fit in a gallery? It's a question you could even ask literally, when so many of the most memorable examples have been immersive environments, such as Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Ideal or Simon Rodia's Watts Tower. (According to Wikipedia, never slow to coin a term, these are “visionary environments.”)
Or, on another tack, can you generalise about it enough to meaningfully create an exhibition around it? It sounds a task like herding cats. Dubuffet himself said “there is no more an art of the mad than there is for those with bad knees.” But worse, if the point of it is to be outside, if that's where you go in search of the uncategorisable, why then try to neatly box it?
All the “from the” and the “ins” which lace the phraseology here, they can start to raise hackles. In the gallery magazine (no. 28, Oct' 12- Feb '13) Marc Steene eloquently extols outsider art's virtues and suggests it was the pressures of the art market which drove him to a breakdown. But here we are not just in a conventional gallery show but one that's even a competition! (What was it Dubuffet said about art “where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere”?)
Nevertheless, if we don't want to see outsider art as a genre it can be a convenient umbrella term. Don't look for a coherent movement, with agendas and manifestos, but tendencies and (perhaps just as importantly) contradictions. Art movements are pretty much that anyway, when seen up close. The show finds three broad headings for it's artists, so let's take them in turn.
We start with 'Intuition', and one of the first pieces we come across is Jacob Rock's 'Spiky Dog' (above) assembled from “what I found by the roadside.” Rock has described him as “a primitive dog... like the part of me that functions on it's own outside of any control – unpredictable, erratic, impulsive and spontaneous.” Another of his works (not in this show) is tellingly titled 'Letting Fearsome Things Fly.'
It's easy to get carried away before such an imaginative work and imagine the outsider artist as some uber-bohemian, his bridges to conformity long since burnt, with him left free to plant his elbows on the table and paint just what he wants. Yet the phrase that sticks is “like the part of me.” The way it's built from non-organic material, in a kind of animism, suggests some kind of totem. Someone who was so free a spirit, would they need to create an artwork to channel that? Artists don't tend to make what's there already.
Nevertheless, Rock does perhaps epitomise one pole of outsider art. Many of the other pieces here are diagrammatic, almost cartographic, featuring cut-away elements and a heavy use of text. They seem not wild and exuberant but obsessive. Take for example Ronald Henry's 'The United Kingdom from the White House' (below).
Henry reproduces the world on a micro-scale, as if making a power object in the hope that will control it, the map-maker seeking to rearrange the territory by delineating it. Art here is a way to organise the world in your mind. It's the way children tend to draw, and perhaps for a similar reason. Conversely, Rock took things from the world and rearranged them. His art aims not to make sense of the world but impose his will – to build a mechanical dog which will ride roughshod across it.
Obsession (Madness in the Method)
In a huge contrast from the bright and often jolly colours of the first room, we next come to the often heavy pen and ink work that hangs from the walls of 'Introspection.' Kate Bradbury's 'Where Has All the Birdsong Gone?' delineates a great line of birds in obsessive detail, with not half an inch of open space. (The image above is but a section of the long parade.) What initially appear as squiggly hatching on the brickwork turns out to be individual handwritten words, as if you could keep drilling down and just come across more and more content, past the point a more balanced brain would quit.
The shock effect of outsider art is sometimes held as being it's amateurishness, like cultured gallery-goers sensitising their palletes then suddenly being threatened with a blunt implement. But check out that pen on Bradbury – it could scarcely be any sharper, this is a highly accomplished work. There is clearly something else afoot...
The effect comes not so much from the dark and grotesque imagery itself, but more the obsessiveness with which it's conveyed. It can make such pieces disturbing on quite a root level. If such a work has any connection to the cartographic works of earlier, it's as maps which impose their meaning while withholding their key - an order contrary to our own which rears as inexplicable to us, the place where the nightmares come out.
Dubuffet may accuse me of having bad knees, but this does seem a recurrent style in outsider art. My memories of the 'Beyond Reason' exhibition of asylum art, shown at the Hayward back in '97, are of works ceaselessly crossing between the two poles represented by Bradbury and Henry – as if aspirations and fears were constantly overwriting one another on a single piece of paper.
Though in the case of the Prinzhorn artists they merely drew with what they had to hand, there may be something in the medium of pen-and-ink which lends itself to this style – it's scratchiness so at odds with the aesthetic indulgence of a fat, colourful brush stroke. If so, an interesting contrast to Bradbury might be Jasna Nikolic's 'Concerning Intrusive Thoughts and Delusions' (below). The vivid colours vie creatively against the overlaid images; and while the dominant central figure holds together what would otherwise be a sprawling composition, his face is inscrutably impassive.
Reduction of Big to Small
The final room, 'Insight,' focuses on those whose art is produced by a “significant life issue.” Of course this runs the risk of indulging the therapy-culture notion that suffering produces art like some mechanistic impression made in the psyche, and that “letting it out” is somehow enough to solve social problems. Mental health problems may well often be caused by social factors. That doesn't make them some kind of escape from, or solution to them.
With some of these life stories so bleak, at times it feels harsh to evaluate the works as an art critic. Yet nevertheless it has to be said 'outsiderness' does not necessarily exclude cliché, and some pieces are shrillishly polemical.
Insight is however on abundant display in perhaps my favourite work of all, Tess Springall's assemblage 'Memories of Being Sectioned' (two views below) a model of a psychiatric institution she was sent to. With guards made from keys and inmates fuses, it's savage wit both epitomises and critiques the assumptions of the earlier cartographic works. It's rigidity and reductiveness defy us to accept it's message, almost compel us to claim that it's picture cannot be complete, that such institutions are not as soulless and mechanistic as suggested here. It's effectiveness comes not any hectoring cries but from it's bold flatness.
(Springall's own experiences may not have been as negative as the work might suggest. She speaks thankfully of art therapy classes which helped put her on the mend, which inevitably enough “I am sad to say no longer exists in this area, due to lack of funding.” Still, at least the bankers got their bonuses.)
'Pat Douthwaite: The Uncompromising Image'
Of the room devoted to Scottish artist Pat Douthwaite, one wall is devoted to iconic and often grotesque animal images. There's little or none of the backgrounds or environments normally used to contextualise them, the branches or tufts of grass. The facing wall is populated by people, but there's little to actually tell them apart. Check out for example the cold-eyed fish head on 'Mary Queen of Scots' (1974, above). Douthwaite's bold but loose outlines look almost more framing than Dubuffet's, despite his being formally employed as frames. They snake louchly around the edge of the paper.
You're never quite sure how seriously you should be taking these works, but fear to write them off as cartoons. There's black humour and savagery in some volatile mixture. In 'Homage to Brian Jones' (1969, below, a personal favourite) he's dandified, yet simultaneously callow-cheeked and hollow-eyed. You're not even sure it's a portrait from before or after his death.
How to explain Douthwaite's lack of acclaim? The answer seems to be... wait for it... that she was something of an outsider. Guy People, in a feature on her in the gallery magazine (as above), suggests that it wasn't only her images that were uncompromising. Like her subject Mary she could be quite contrary, selling works only to demand them back again and generally making the cantankerous Edward Burra seem a greasy-palmed careerist. If so, and her personality was the only bar to her popularity, hopefully there'll now be no bar to more posthumous shows such as this.
More works by some of these artists (and others of their ilk) are on the Outside In website.
Coming soon! How about more out-of-date art exhibitions? Of course this blog may well constitute a piece of outsider art in itself...