Outsider Art trends

WGSN.com, May 3 2006

WGSN explores Outsider Art and delves into the minds of those singular individuals who defy any type of categorisation yet continue to provide inspiration for mainstream artists and designers alike.

The Modernist debate is reheating thanks to numerous exhibitions in London, all reviewing its emphasis on social utopias and mass produced, machine-made art and design. Yet Outsider Art is one of the lesser-known aspects of Modernism. Seeing a resurge in interest, could Outsider Art offer a multifaceted, indefinable aesthetic well-suited to the beginning of a new millennium?

Seeing a resurge in interest, could Outsider Art offer a multifaceted aesthetic well-suited to the beginning of a new millennium?

Take Henry Darger for example, the reclusive Chicago janitor whose illustrations are to be the subject of an exhibition at the Maison Rouge in Paris starting in June, titled Sound and Fury. Only discovered in 1972, Darger’s work is that of an outsider – both socially and artistically

Darger spent 50 years working on the exhaustively titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, a 15,000-page epic narrative, begun in 1911, about life in a kingdom ruled by a general who has seven pretty and valiant young daughters.

Having survived a tumultuous childhood in an institution for “feeble-minded children”, Darger spent his private time illustrating the novel, beginning in the 1920s. He used illustrations found in children’s books, advertisements, children’s clothing catalogues and magazines, tracing them on carbon paper and then painting them with watercolours.

Darger continues to influence the work of the new generations, including art “bad boys”, such as the Chapman brothers, and British pottery artist . Check out The Andy Warhol Museum’s comparative show of Darger and Perry, for some uncanny similarities.

And then there’s the Plancher de Jeannot, a series of carved wooden floorboards exhibited as part of an Art Brut exhibition in Paris in 2005, that caused something of an uproar when they were put on public display.

A rural farmer, Jeannot (surname not disclosed) was a schizophrenic who lived with his sister in their family home in France.

Voices in his head told him to open fire on his neighbours with a shotgun, he had his mother interred under the stairs along with a ball of wool, knitting needles and a bottle of wine and, during 1967-71, he carved a tragic tirade with a drill into the oak floorboards of his house, mentioning Hitler, Catholic popes and an infernal machine that controls humans. Jeannot eventually starved to death.

The work raises painful questions about whether madness can be artistic.

Are we all Outsiders?

But not all Outsider Art is created by the insane or the unassuming. So what is Outsider Art then? Often referred to as Art Brut, or naive art, it’s by no means a new phenomenon. Early Modernists looked to Africa and tribal artists, attempting to capture archetypal styles and shapes that have a deeper, unconscious and universal meaning.

Pablo Picasso’s approach to Cubism signalled a new form of image-making that involved almost pure abstraction and detachment from “reality”.

Picasso was also an avid collector of Outsider Art, particularly interested in the paintings of Scottish artist, Scottie Wilson, who one day felt compelled to draw after picking up a particularly fascinating pen in his junk store.

And what of Henri Rousseau? The French painter famously executed his exotic jungle paintings without ever leaving Paris. He spent his entire career trying to break the inner sanctum of the Surrealist movement, and although he died still a relative outsider, Picasso admired him for his naive, uninformed style.

And what about renowned Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudí? Is he something of an Outsider artist too, then, for daring to step outside of convention and create iconoclastic landmarks that bear no resemblance to the period’s prevailing architectural movements?

Outsider Art can often have religious overtones, referring to unique personal and spiritual hierarchies, as well as a heavy use of text and basic pen-and-ink drawings, or the use of everyday, found materials.

French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term in around 1948 and he still offers the most quotable definition of an art form he felt showed genuine expression and was unable to be assimilated – “strangled” by the mainstream:

“Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions.”

Today, there are even Outsider Art festivals, and it can often be used as a catch-all term for anything that falls outside of the mainstream. Numerous websites highlight the talents of the untrained and uninitiated with the mainstream art world. Even British serial hostage-taker and armed robber Charles Bronson has an art agent (see www.outsiderart.co.uk) and a website called www.Bronsonmania.com.

And lest we forget the work of Congo the chimpanzee, three of whose “abstract” paintings recently reached a staggering £12,000 at auction. Does this instinctive and (seemingly) autonomous painter typify the definition of a true Outsider artist?

From Dada into Surrealism

It was the Surrealists, as well as the Dadaists, who started to look at automatic writing and automatism, as well as primitive and naive art. With London’s Victoria & Albert Museum planning a large Surrealism exhibition for spring 2007, the movement is bound to see a resurgence in interest.

Their interest in automatism (drawing and writing) was driven by a search for unconscious spontaneity, disregarding aesthetic values, achieved by entering into a trance-like state.

Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille at the Hayward Gallery in London, looks at Bataille, a librarian and former priest who worked closely with the Surrealist movement’s founder Andre Breton.

His aim was to found a new religion (Acephale) and he was also a prolific writer. His work was unashamedly socially deviant and transgressive, and he believed in an overall formlessness.

WGSN comment

So why this resurgence of interest in Outsider Art – essentially an art of madness? Some might argue that we’re a world of individuals; that we live in “schizophrenic” times; that originality is dead.

Others still question whether works such as Jeannot’s floorboards are art at all. Last word on that has to be left with the daddy of Dada, Marcel Duchamp: “There is only one ‘Art’. After that there is only the question of quality.”


Inner Worlds Outside
Whitechapel Art Gallery

Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille Hayward Gallery

Sound and Fury, the works of Henry Darger
Maison Rouge

Tate’s Outsider collection, UK www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/outsiderart/

Raw Arts Festival
This annual festival is taking place in Valencia, and invites anyone with enough work to fill a hanging space, to come along and exhibit at the show.

Musgrave/Kinley Collection of Outsider Art, Irish Museum of Modern Art

Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Raw Vision
International magazine of Outsider art, Art Brut and contemporary folk art.

Museum of Bad Art (MOBA)
Alleges to be the world’s only museum dedicated to the “collection, preservation and celebration” of bad art.

Dreamtime: Aboriginal Art from the Ebes Collection, Arken
More than 100 works of art, created by famous aboriginal artists in Australia’s remote regions.

Henry Darger/Grayson Perry, The Andy Warhol Museum

Mind’s Eye, The Museum of London
Exhibiton of 25 paintings and 14 creative writings from offenders in Wandsworth Prison, London.

Folk Archive: Aberystwyth Arts Centre June 3-July 15 2006, The Lowry July 22-September 17 2006

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Grayson Perry as Claire, courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery