Friday, 26 April 2013

CONTEMPORARY ART – IS IT ALL JUST A GREAT BIG STEAMING PILE OF CRAP?



A detour round Tate Britain, taking in Jess Flood-Paddock and Jake Chapman, the better to ask the questions which everybody else does

Now, despite what that Daily Mail style header might suggest, I am not some traditionalist type who would suppress everything that happened after Landseer and who regards those Impressionists as dangerously modern and quite possibly foreign.

But as I was watching the recent repeats of Robert Hughes' 'Shock of the New' series, I noticed he seemed as keen to find end-points for Modernist movements as beginnings. Indeed, sometimes it feels like Modernism inhabited a bit of a bubble. From Impressionism to Fluxus... the 1870s to the 1960s... it rode a wave of technological and social change. Radical and innovative art seemed not a fringe, not even a response to but a component of a wider trend.

Once that era was over, what were we left with but a series of spent gestures now divorced from their meaning? Arriving after Modernism's last supper, we were inevitably left with nothing but the dirty dishes. Art became beached in Post-modern purposelessness.

Take for example Jess Flood-Paddock's 'Mindless, Mindless', (up top) in which a bunch of over-sized bicycle seats are artfully arranged on a section of Tate Britain floor. This, we are given to believe, is a comment on the recent riots. Bicycle seats often get nicked, something which Flood-Paddock has used to  (and I quote) “explore the exchange value of objects and, more specifically, their emotional value” in a work which is “concerned with the rhetoric of over simplification and misrepresentation.”

It is of course a great big steaming pile of crap.

Even if I were convinced that bicycle seats were an insightful emblem of the riots (which I'm not), there's no way you'd make that connection simply by looking at them. Works like this seem to think they're being conceptual when they're actually being ineffective. The work isn't a package for the idea so much as an oblique general pointer towards it, like getting street directions from a shaky drunk. You need to read the sign just to know what you're supposed to be pontificating about.

With Lis Rhodes' recent 'Light Music' (as covered here), you had to experience the work to get it. Here it's all happening backwards. You feel the artist wrote a proposal promising a cutting-edge challenging piece about a hot social issue. She knew her audience and what they'd go for.

But that audience isn't even the audience, it's not you or me. Of course the whole caboodle is aimed at the ones with the real purchasing power - the curators. You can so easily imagine them getting all excited...the urban riots! ...the ones that happened a few short miles from this gallery! ...how now, darling! ...how edgy! The work itself and it's relation to us punters is secondary at best. The sales pitch was successful, the commission was won. On to the next one. This isn't art as social comment. It's art as blag.

I emerged from the room speculating that if there's more riots, and if they break in the gallery and make off with those stupid oversize seats... that would be an artistic statement worth making.

When you see such sheer unadulterated crap it would be easy to go on to dismiss all contemporary art, to claim everything that came after Modernism was mere post-modern claptrap, a sea of signs signifying nothing. But that would be as easy as it would be blind. For it to be true, you'd have to buy into that most post of all Post-modernism's doctrines – that history ended, and all we can do now is repeat and revive. (Clue – if absolutely everybody in the world is standing still, history has ended. If you see anybody still moving about, it's most likely still going on.)

With hindsight, it might seem like Modernism had it easy. But I doubt it felt like that at the time. And just as each Modernist movement broke with the past, rained on yesterday's parade and devised new ways to engage with the contemporary, so should we.


And sometimes, every now and again, people even do. Take for example Jake Chapman's 'Chapman Family Collection' (2002, above). Stumbling across this room elsewhere in Tate Britain, I was pleased to see a display of some splendid-looking African fetishes. True, I was also a little confused as to what they were doing there, and wondering if I'd passed through some secret passage to the British Museum.

You can look at them for some time before you notice. One is clutching what is surely a carved bag of fries. Another has a familiar-looking curvy 'M' inscribed on his shield. The clownish face on that one there, haven't you seen it before? Then it's all around you. A few may be decoys, but most make reference to McDonalds at some point or another.

The cool thing, in direct inversion to all that in-the-know Flood-Paddock crap, is that you have to notice this for yourself. The title and indicia keep up the fiction this is some genuine African collection. In fact, as I was later to discover, when this was first shown at the White Cube gallery, a deadpan press release enthused over these recent ethnographic finds from Camgib, Seirf and Ekoc. (Try them backwards.)

In a way, this is post-modern. The African art, that seemed so authentic to Picasso and his Modernist brethren, is now often expressly made with the collector market in mind. Woodcarvers labour in sweatshops, trying to guess what the Western eye would most want to see. Meanwhile, our fetishes have become the toys and figures we collect with our burgers, or the action figures which have replaced books on bookshelves.

But rather than suggesting that if us gallery-goers get it we must be smart, so are surely above all that, Chapman cunningly implicates us in the process. We enthuse over the figures first, then notice the trick. We're not flattered but ribbed, perhaps even challenged. It's art for our era that still questions our era. To borrow a description I heard somewhere it “explores the exchange value of objects and, more specifically, their emotional value” in a work which is “concerned with the rhetoric of over simplification and misrepresentation.”

The answer, then, to our initial question is – most of the time, yes. That's why I keep turning up to Modernist exhibitions like a man out of time. But not always. Sometimes, even today, art can still have some bite to it.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

PERE UBU/ SWANS/ BO NINGEN/ COLOUR OUT OF SPACE/ MY BLOODY VALENTINE (...YEP, MORE OF THAT GIG-GOING)

PERE UBU
The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 13th April


Even more than Julian Cope, Pere Ubu are the walking, talking definition of a cult act. David Thomas, front man, arch-contrarian and only surviving original member, has described them as “the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock 'n' roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio.”

Named after a notorious proto-surrealist play, they function as a kind of missing link between the bohemian art-rock side of American punk (think Patti Smith or Television) and the Dadadistic, playfully destructive anti-music of British post-punk (think Josef K or Scritti Politti). They even embodied this link by moving from their native Cleveland to London, the better to hook up with Rough Trade records. Thomas now resides as one of the fair citizens of Hove, and was last seen on these shores providing a woozy film noir soundtrack to 'Carnival of Souls'.

Their sound is described by their promoter as “a disorienting mix of midwestern groove rock, 'found' sound, analog synthesizers, falling-apart song structures and careening vocals.” Their one constant is that listed last. Thomas' cartoony, whinneying vocals are perhaps the band's signature sound, simultaneously zany and macabre. Their first album, 'Modern Dance', surely remains one of the finest and most original albums released.


Though they don't place much reliance on back catalogue, and though they cover a fair amount of musical ground, that's pretty much their sound tonight. The keyboards are matched by a theramin player, who at one point brings out a toy plastic ray gun. A clarinettist turns up unexpectedly, adding what are quite often exquisite melodies.

The very first thing Thomas tells us is that we have in fact been dreaming these past years, with only the band to represent the real world. Which is kind of fitting. They are to rock music like that dream where you go back to your old school, and it all seems so familiar and yet not. They're simultaneously a parody of how rock music should sound and an escape route from it. They do the wrong things so wrongly that everything becomes right again.

Thomas is sharp-witted but prickly, and something during the encore flips his mood. He stops one song early, announcing he doesn't feel like playing it, then abandons singing the next one mid-way. Mumbling a taciturn goodbye, he stalks off. An awkward end to what was otherwise a great set.

Not from Brighton, but from New York slightly later...


SWANS
Concorde 2, Brighton, Tues 2nd April


They are always different, they are always the same.”

As any music obsessive knows, John Peel said that about the mighty Fall. But he could easily have meant Swans. They always hold true to their path, while never ever standing still.

Last time I saw them, about two-and-a-half years ago, they were on the back of their first reunion album 'My Father Will Guide Me On a Rope to the Sky.' Their style was more ceremonial, with occasional outbreaks of... yes, really... actual songs, more reminiscent of main man Michael Gira's solo incarnation as Angels of Light. Exhilarated by the experience, I likened it to being clubbed to death inside a cathedral.

This time, accompanying new release 'The Seer' they seem to have decided all that was a little lightweight. It's much more a return to the unrelenting sonic brutalism of their early years. Pounding in it's onslaught, deafeningly loud, it's music as a means to whack punters in the solar plexus without that time-consuming business of first having to walk up to them. Last time I even speculated that years of musically exorcising demons had left Gira 'happier now.' This time he was much like when I first saw Swans back in the Eighties. I was seriously considering the possibility that he was having some kind of psychotic episode on stage, which everyone else was mistaking for a show.


However there's none of the patented descending chords of times past, guaranteed to leave you feel like you were being buried alive by riffs. Instead things shift between pounding metronomic beats, with the bassist at one point literally thumping the strings with his fist, and lengthy drone-outs – pitched somewhere between ethereal and edgy.

Swans had their roots in New York's No Wave scene, which as Simon Reynolds commented employed standard rock instruments but in the most non-standard way. This is never truer than with the steel guitar, which sounds alternately like a theramin, an oscillator and an instrument of torture... in fact, pretty much anything except for a steel guitar. The second drummer/ percussionist is the one who actually smuggles in the undercurrents of melody, bringing in tubular bells or even trumpets which merge with the resonances from the guitars.

Yet No Wave was a musical short, sharp shock. Only two bands really came out of it of any longevity. Sonic Youth burst head-first from the top. Even during their most wig-out free-noise outbursts there was always the sense that these were aesthetes assaulting their fretboards; noise, yes, but noise as a contribution to an ongoing history of noise. Swans, conversely were born in the breach – kicking and screaming their way out of the bottom of the scene. And yet, in interviews, Gira is often as erudite and articulate as any Sonic Youther. All of which is there in the music if you know where to look.

The band are especially adept at cornering, one section of music segueing quite seamlessly into the next. Which gives them the power of duration; tracks feel compellingly metronomic, building the intensity up to fever pitch, while never actually getting repetitive enough to sacrifice your interest. Their other great weapon is a stalking tempo, a seething unhurriedness that makes the music less the temper tantrum of teen angst and more a journey to the dark side. It's like that horror movie trope when you hear the clack of the stalker's shoes, walking yet inexorably gaining on his running victim. They played for well over two hours, tracks getting time to stew, handing misery on to man by deepening like a coastal shelf.

Swans gigs are perhaps not for the faint of heart. But the valiant will find themselves richly rewarded. Really, the time I pass up a chance to see this band in action – check me for a pulse. Swans and Pere Ubu within one week...now that's shaking sixes!


BO NINGEN
The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 28th March


Mention psychedelic music and people tend to think of blissed-out pastoralism, the soundtrack for long-haired sons of stockbrokers to recline in meadows. You know, the stuff punk swept away.

Which may not be entirely fair. Firstly, while it mostly struggles to become anything more than aural joss sticks, there can be good pastoral psychedelic as well as bad. I bow to no arbiter of taste in my appreciation of Caravan.

But more to the point, what about the other stuff? The brown acid stuff, the psychedelia that led to long-haired sons of stockbrokers losing their minds and being unable to take up the family business. Bo Ningen, for example, are a young band who trade in what's quite definitely psychedelic rock. Think Jimi Hendrix multiplied by Sonic Youth.

I thought that might make a recipe for a good live band...

...and I was proved right.

It's remarkable how much they look like they must have beamed in from 1972, though the most robust teleporter might strain to shift all that hair. All Japanese by birth and Londoners by origin, they kick off by announcing they're back from a tour of Japan. Is that meta, or just confusing?

The singer... who in police parlance I now know to be called Taipan, has a habit of throwing shapes with his hands, something which might seem familiar to any reader of 'Dr. Strange' comics. Which actually seems quite a good metaphor for the music. While the rest of the band throw up a wall of sound, the second guitarist plays not rhythms but creates musical shapes. The sonic equivalent of when perspective lines come out at you.

My one complaint would be the brevity of it all. Okay, they're more rocky than spacey, than someone like Acid Mothers Temple, their tracks bounce rather than glide along so there's not the same need for duration. And proceedings finished, as these things should, with a crazy wig-out. But it all still came in at under an hour. With two albums under their belt, they can't be that short of material.

More! But next time, more of the more.

From their previous visit to Brighton (missed by me), at the Green Door Store...


COLOUR OUT OF SPACE WARM-UP
West Hill Hall, Brighton, Sat 6th April


Another warm-up for the celebrated experimental and improvised music festival, currently pencilled in for a return in November. (hurrah!) This time the emphasis was on sound poets and vocal improvisers promising “accidental objects” and “surprise correlations.”

The headline was a kind of supergroup from that world, featuring Jaap Blonk, Phil Minton, Luke Poot and scene organiser Dylan Nyoukis. People often seem to assume this type of music is extremely challenging and in deadly earnest, met only by respectfully baffled audiences and EU Arts grants. And yet there's so much humour, something particularly evident with the sound poetry. Blonk (above) has spoken of his “penchent for activities in a Dada vein,” after “several unsuccessful jobs in offices and other well-run systems.”

Though I enjoyed the main act, perhaps this isn't the scene for supergroups and I leaned more to the main support Dogeeseseegod, with their gutteral wails, deranged cries and use of found objects – if 'Blue Peter' had formed a band, and they'd all been psychiatric patients. I was laughing out loud almost the whole way through. (but not quite as much as when I just clicked on their MySpace link and saw the advert for “other similar acts including Nickleback.”)

There were several more acts, but I had an overdue appointment with my sofa and some sleep. Maybe next time.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE
Hammersmith Apollo, London, Mon 12th March


I've left it too late to write something properly about this gig, to be honest. Of course the band are legendary, and of course it's fantastic that I got a chance to see them again. Whenever I finally get round to my Top 50 albums series of posts, I'm giving nothing away by saying 'Loveless' will take it's place among them. The image of their now-ritualised free-noise set closer, with the majority of the seated ranks with their hands over their ears while still nodding along, will stay with me a long time.

...but I wasn't sure about the sound. Okay, a typical track is like a duet between a pop song and a passanger jet taking off – hardly the easiest set of sounds to mix. Even so, all too often the melodic elements were so far back I realised I was hearing them more through memory than the PA. There was a keyboard player on stage who I'm not sure I heard at all.

One of the comments from this web-link says “they've been having problems with mixing”, so perhaps I shouldn't blame the venue. Anyone seen them anywhere else, who can comment?

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

IT'S DING DONG DAY! (HURRAH!)



What I said about this recently, I stand by every word of it. Most likely, we'd have still had some form of Thatcherism without Thatcher, we just wouldn't have called it Thatcherism. But that doesn't mean that, for those of us who lived through the Eighties, today isn't something to celebrate.

Whether someone else would have done it is in many ways akin to arguing “if I didn't sell heroin to schoolkids, someone else would.” Or arms to dictators... no, wait, that was her son. Thatcher should still be held responsible for her appalling actions. Under the guise of extending “individual freedom”, her policies exacerbated the class divide to the point where the wealth gap is wider than ever and social mobility is virtually a thing of the past. Once it was the case on Albion's shore that you could fall ill, get old or lose your job without having to worry about the consequences too much. No longer.

She talked about “rolling back the frontiers of the state”, but these were oddly mapped frontiers where an NHS hospital was an example of state control while a group of riot cops attacking a picket line was not. Her 'deregulation' of finance-capital, continued by her mimicking successors, led to the worst recession in post-war history - the one we're now living through. And while the emphasis should be on her political legacy, if we're being pulled into describing her as a person she was a loathsome, racist, homophobic, self-righteous bully.

But more to the point, I'm joining in precisely because so many people have told me not to. All the wrong people have said it's the wrong thing to do – making it the right thing to do by definition. Simples, really.

Over at Mike Taylor's place, in the comments section someone called Jdege insists “her opponents didn’t have rational arguments.” Of course this individual is either trolling or being imbecilic. (It scarcely matters which). But such comments act as an outlier for right-wing opinion, in the same way the Daily Mail's insistence Thatcher's state-funeral-in-all-but-name is part of a leftist plot because it's not an actual state funeral (apart from all the ways in which it is).

It's a bit like the war on Iraq. Before the war, I was told numerous times there was no point going on about this now, as war hadn't even begun. As soon as it started, the same people told me now was not the time to criticise, not now we were at war.

It's a bit like strikes. The right won't come out and say they're flat-out against them. Instead they always insist “now is not the time for strikes”, staying strangely quiet on the subject of when that mysterious time might actually arrive.

When they say “this is not the time” the invisible corollary is “and it never will be. At least not if we get our way.”

As Professor Nicholas Till argued in a recent letter to the Guardian, this is “evidence, if evidence were needed, that the neoliberal capitalist ideology that she forced upon Britain has now been accepted as the official ideology of the British state. The message it sends so clearly is that neoliberal capitalism transcends politics: it is the natural and 'correct' state of affairs.”

A similar trick was pulled in America after Reagan popped it. Though even more than Reagan, Thatcher proved to be a divisive figure even within her own party. After she'd been ousted, for the first time in her life she provided a useful service by constantly criticising the current leadership. (As the old saying goes, “with enemies like this, who needs friends?”)

Cameron's initial tactic was to draw a line under Thatcher and portray himself more as a successor to Blair. (His 'social inclusion' stance dubbed 'hug a hoodie' by cynics. Or by anybody else, for that matter.) All of which makes it even more vital for them to try and perform this sancification. All that unfortunate truth business must be buried under the notion that she's a symbol of national unity.

I was against her policies then and I'm against them now. To those who claim we're crowing over the death of an old woman, I say wait until the next old woman dies of a stroke and see if we react the same way. To those who accuse us of “bad taste,” Thatcher denied welfare payments for strking miners' funerals. That's not exactly in the best possible taste.

How do I feel about the death of Margaret Thatcher? I feel this...


Inevitably, Blair was one of those most loudly insisting no-one should dare criticise her. Is it too early to start picking our song for him? Is there anywhere in 'Wizard of Oz' where they burst into something like 'Shut Up, You Sanctimonious Lying Little Shit'?

Friday, 12 April 2013

THATCHER THE UN-GREAT (PARTY BY ALL MEANS, BUT DON'T START TAKING HER ON HER OWN TERMS...)



”The books are filled with the names of Kings...
Each page a victory

At whose expense the victory ball?

Every ten years a great man
Who paid the piper?”
- Brecht, 'A Worker Reads History'

Never hate your enemies. It clouds your judgement.”
- Al Pacino in 'Godfather III'

It is of course ridiculous to say that we should focus on Margaret Thatcher’s “strong leadership,” as if that was automatically a good thing. Mike Taylor has already said all that, so I don’t have to.

It is of course ridiculous to organise what David Cameron called “all but” a State funeral, then complain that her critics are cruelly attempting to drag politics into a private event. Andrew Rilstone has already said all that, so I don’t have to.

And it is of course completely telling that they would spend what may turn out to be eight million quid on such an event, at precisely the point where they’re cutting the pay and benefits of the poorest people because they say they can’t afford it. And that the Daily Mail would then complain that it wasn’t ostentatious enough.

I suppose I could say that, but it seems pretty obvious and anyway I sort of have.

Let’s take another tack. What would Thatcher herself say if she could see all this happening? From up in her cloud/down in that pit (delete according to personal prejudices)?

I think she would be delighted. I think she fed on the wrath of her foes, like a car that’s fuelled by pollution. After all, she coined the term “the enemy within.” Our gloating over her going would have been music to her ears. Wrinkles in her blue-rinse would have been expressions like “Margaret who?”, “wasn’t she the one before John Major?” or “was there ever an easy way to tell her from Virginia Bottomley?”

Except of course that wouldn’t look great on a banner. And I wouldn’t deny that her dark shadow had an influence on the British political landscape. But, for example, someone suggested on the Trade Union board at my work that our history might have been different had Thatcher been converted to socialism instead of free market capitalism. And I wonder if our side aren't starting to inflate her image too...
When 'The Wicked Witch is Dead' was chosen as the theme song of the opposition, it wasn't intended as a serious political statement like the Communist Manifesto. It's clearly a cross between a gag and a provocation, and in that way is more like 'The Road To Serfdom'. But it's notable what happens in 'Wizard of Oz'; as soon as the wicked witch pops it, her former followers escape from her spell and all is immediately right again. 
It's comforting to think had Thatcher stayed a chemist none of the sewage we wade through now would have been unleashed. But it's wrong. Neoliberal economics did not begin in Britain or even America, but in mid-Seventies Chile when a leftist government was overthrown in a US-backed coup and the free market doctrines of Milton Friedman imposed.
Since then it's spread around the world, with organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund existing precisely to propagate it. The “private competition” that now riddles worm-like through our Post Office and NHS services is enabled not by the Tory right, but by the EU which they ostensibly loathe. Many of these changes have structural causes, the move from Fordist to post-Fordist production or changes in communication which enabled globalisation.
India underwent a massive transformation from a protectionist to a free-market, ‘globalised’ economy without them having a Thatcher figure to speak of. In America they talk of 'Reaganism' despite Reagan being more figurehead than politician. When we talk about the post-war consensus we don't talk about 'Atleeism' because Atlee wasn't iconic in that way. That didn't stop the post-war consensus happening or us continuing to talk about it.
Many years ago, Brecht cautioned us that history was “not made by great men” (qouted above). The Gang of Four went and wrote a song about it (embedded below). The surfer, standing high, may look like he’s in command of that wave. But really he’s just riding it.

There will of course always be “great” men and women trying to tell us it’s all down to them, and we should orient our lives around them.

It’s only true if we hold them up.


Monday, 8 April 2013

...AND HERE'S ME WITHOUT A BOTTLE OF BUBBLY TO OPEN



It's most likely going to seem incomprehensible to someone so much as five years younger than me, but I really couldn't put into words the depth of contempt in which I held the mad old bat. When today's mainstream parties differ only in how deep they're considering cutting disabled people's benefits, that's because we all still stink from the stuff she shat. I still have my Pop Group T-shirt (as above), and wish only the weather was warm enough for me  to be sporting it. (The British weather being one of the few things she didn't screw up, but only because it was already bad before she got there.)

Luckily, Elvis' song says it all so I don't have to.


Choice quotes so far...

There is no such thing as Margaret Thatcher”
- Society
How long now before ATOS healthcare declare her fit for work?
- Anon

I may not agree with covering all the lands in a second darkness but greatly respect Sauron's political achievements and personal strength.”

Friday, 5 April 2013

'ART FROM THE MARGINS'

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...