Writer, critic and curator Sue Steward first came to Outsider Art through an exhibition of Haitian art where she met John Maizels, the publisher/editor of a magazine called Raw Vision. He explained how this art form stood outside the walls of the mainstream and that works were by self-taught people without art education, often with mental illnesses, and always wholly intuitive and lacking interest in the art market. Frame and Reference asked Sue (herself a former editor of Raw Vision) for a historical overview of a multifaceted dynamic genre.
“Outsider Art” is a genre tag, an umbrella holding a rich, unrelated diversity which is summed up in the subtitle of Raw Vision‘s cover: Outsider, Brut, Folk, Naïve, Intuitive, Visionary. Today the tag is cool and popular, particularly amongst art students who often imitate work they’ve seen in exhibitions, magazines, and youtube films. In the US and Europe, “Outsider Art” is familiar within the art world but in the UK, it’s still an awkward, often ignored member of the art family. People still tell me: “My 4-year old could do that.”
The idea of Outsider Art began in the 1920s and 30s when the Surrealist painter Jean Dubuffet and his friends Max Ernst, André Breton and Picasso, became smitten with the paintings, drawings and sculptures of patients in Swiss and Austrian mental institutions. The liberal psychoanalysts and doctors of the day encouraged patients by giving them pencils and paper and saw their intense, uncontrolled outpourings of imagination and dreams. In 1948, Dubuffet created the label “Art Brut” (Raw Art) for “works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses.” In 1972, the art history professor at the University of Kent, Canterbury, Roger Cardinal, created something more English: “Outsider Art” while preparing a book on the subject.
Weighty discussions have always surrounded this genre and academics raise questions as to its meaning, symbolism and relevance. After nearly a century, a web of supportive organizations has followed in the tracks of the early 20th-century clinics. A psychiatric hospital in Switzerland saw a former teacher and governess, Aloise Corbaz, who became a friend of Dubuffet and became ill, created highly sexualized drawings adorned with symbolic elements; blank, ovoid eyes coloured blue signify a disguise of sexuality, she explained. The schizophrenic artist, Adolf Wolfli, moved to an institution in 1895 and stayed all his life. His ghastly family background led to sexual obsessions which he gradually expressed in the volatile chaos of his patterns and colours, and mysterious musical scores in his own language. Today, many avant garde composers perform skewed translations of those works.
The other early and well-known mental institution is the Gugging Artists’ House outside Vienna, a place where patients live and work or drop in. Dubuffet, Klee and Max Ernst followed the inmates’ work and reveal influences in their own works. Johann Hauser was, from the beginning, a popular artist. His brutal background led to shifting depressions and manic art-making. His marvellous sense of colour, made with pencils but looking like paint, builds patterns in repetitive streaks and curves. Women are a constant presence, their nakedness and exposed genitals, surprisingly, abstract.
Places where people with mental illnesses can feel safe and work are growing constantly around the world. The director of the Museum of Everything, James Brett, focussed on them for one of his museum events, revealing the incredible richness and mysterious meanings that only they, the artists, understand, often directed by voices and dreams. California’s Downs Syndrome artist, the late Judith Scott, was trapped for years in an asylum until her sister discovered and released her, and introduced her into the Creative Growth Art Center. There, she unlocked her creativity and worked with creating sculptural bundles containing secrets deep inside the layers of fibres, string and wool. They now travel the world’s galleries and museums, still holding their secrets.
The background to the UK’s Outsider Art history began with London’s Surrealists at Gallery One. The curator and poet, Victor Musgrave and George Melly were linked to the Paris scene and Dubuffet’s Art Brut. An illiterate Glaswegian, Scottie Wilson became a regular visitor, initially doodling with pen nibs and inks, but developing a unique style with intense striated patterns, dimensional and swirling forms, colour combinations building psychedelic flowers and fishes and grotesque mask-like characters he called “Greedies.” He was described as “the forefront of 20th century Outsider Art,” collected by Picasso and Dubuffet and exhibited in Paris, London and New York. After Musgrave died in 1984, his partner Monika Kinley built up the Outsider Archive which contains some of the most magnificent, complex, perverse, controversial works now filling the world’s fairs and auctions, websites and publications.
Pearl Alcock, a former dress shop owner in Brixton, shared with many other artists an effortless intuition for colour. Flashes of reds and turquoises swirl and curl in rhythmic patterns, sometimes accompanied by figures inspired by dreams. When I interviewed her for the Observer Magazine in 2000, she was sitting in her chair surrounded by a lively palette of paints; a few years later, George Melly’s widow held a sale of his art collection and that painting was hanging on the wall. I bought it.
Another Londoner, Albert Louden, is one of the UK’s most internationally placed artists. In the 1960s and 70s, he was a driver, a Marxist activist and a painter at home working on canvases, unlike many Outsiders who use found surfaces of wood, card or fabric. Victor Musgrave fell for his work and curated a solo show at the Serpentine Gallery and later New York. Albert’s singular painting style involves strangely cartoon-like figures; tiny, androgynous humanoids which sometimes lie along the curves of the bigger characters’ lips and arms, bulbous men and dominating women, all in colours with the feel of Matisse and atmosphere of Surrealism. Because of his exhibitions and knowledge of mainstream art, he was ostracized by the Outsider hierarchy and handed back his invisible badge –– and laughed.
Two UK artists with similarly unsuited backgrounds are the Irish Traveller Damian and the Roma gypsy, Delaine LeBas, who both studied at the RCA. Damian’s intense paintings of family faces and names, Irish codes and politics are woven in brilliant colour masses while his embroideries include David Bowie stitched on his jackets. Delaine’s paintings carry symbolic details of her gypsy family lives, and both tie their work to their cultural backgrounds. In 2011, they exhibited as part of the international Roma artists’ community at the 54th Venice Biennale in the first Roma Pavilion.
Of all the UK-based Outsiders, Madge Gill is categorized as a visionary. The East Londoner worked by day and spent nights in communion with her spirit medium Myrninerest who directed Madge’s prolific black-and-coloured ink drawings. Gorgeously dressed young women, with Clara-Bow lips (marking the early Hollywood films) and ornately detailed clothes, all depict the post-War 1920s and remind us of the enthusiasm for Spiritualism after so many deaths.
New York has been a hub for decades with Paris, Lausanne and Vienna close behind. Raw Vision’s listings pages include some surprising countries – from Holland to Haiti, Japan, Lebanon, former Soviet countries and many American cities. In pre-digital days, passionate researchers like John Maizels travelled to remote, unexpected places to winkle them out. James Brett, another super-eclectic, world forager occupied Selfridges basement in 2000 and created a vast gallery housing lesser known artists alongside the familiars. In 2013, he shifted to the Venice Biennale and in Palazzo di Everything he focussed on Italy’s most famous self-taught artist, Carlo Zinelli. A man traumatized by World War II, his works are radiant, scattered with glowing blue patches amongst the black-outlined animals, human figures and partly comprehensible writing.
The American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), built next to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) New York, has been a glorious space for classic folk art items and works by Outsiders but is currently threatened with demolition, to make way for more MOMA and leaving the Outsider world scattered. An entire floor was dedicated to the Chicago artist Henry Darger, the hermit whose secret world housed a vast collection of paintings and 15 volumes of hand-books documenting the stories in his double-sided paintings and the title: 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. War Storm recalls his study of climatology and Child Slaves reveal their suffering and torture and their childish pleasures. His process involved photocopying, then tracing colour photographs of little girls in magazines, then painting them. Their androgyny and sexual references suggest his own sexual deviation and have raised many debates around it, but there is no denial of his brilliant artistic skills and imagination. Many references are currently visible with non-Outsider artists which include Grayson Perry’s Darger-esque figures on his ceramic vases.
Religion plays a big part in the art of poor American artists who frequently involve religious characters, bible quotes and vignettes. The late Reverend Howard Finster was an enthusiastic evangelical preacher who built an installation-like Paradise Garden. Working with bright enamel paint on found wood and metal, he depicted celebrities, religious characters and political scenes, immersing them amongst his sermon quotes. His cut-out angels represent an almost secular aspect shared by many.
African-American artists in the poor, deep South, reveal different approaches with ancestral links to Africa alongside shared religious dedication. The former Alabama slave Bill Traylor worked the plantation after his ‘freedom’ but moved at 84 to Montgomery city and began drawing for his last nine years of life. Every day, he sat on the street watching passers-by, drawing with coloured pencils on any materials found or given, and his work is magical. Heavily influenced by African imagery in the silhouetted birds, dogs, insects and the dynamic humans going about their daily lives. A drawing recently reached $250,000 at auction.
The American South is a story in itself. Portraits of family members, friends and neighbours and even American celebrities are most frequent subjects and frequent but religion is almost always present. Mose Tolliver took up painting after his legs were destroyed at work and like many, he painted on found wood and card with household paints, and the characters’ faces all retaining flat dimensions. For Mary T. Smith, a solitary deaf woman passionate about her Christian faith, she began painting and sculpting in her large garden, after years of sadness. She got joy from installing complex paintings of her family and adorning them with biblical writings. Jimmy Lee Sudduth stands apart here: growing up with a herbalist mother, he chose dried and ground plants and berries for their colours to paint and tinted the mud he used as ground base for his paintings, classic method used centuries ago. His subjects, surrounded the human characters with flowers and plants.
Gardens and yards are plentiful locations for many Southern Outsider Artists but in Pakistan, the untrained sculptor, Nek Chand worked to extremes. A roads inspector for Le Corbusier’s massive development of the new city of Chandigargh, Chand carried cement and discarded stuff into a jungle clearing, on his bike. He collected broken colourful bangles, pottery and other recycled parts to build and decorate the concrete statues for his future community. Builders carrying hobs, women water-carriers and singers, giant birds, camels and tigers, all arrived in his extraordinary magical world. Inevitably, it was discovered and threatened with demolition by the council for years but the building kept going, introducing complex buildings, terraces and water-falls. Raw Vision’s board established the Nek Chand Foundation and is trying to convince UNESCO of its preciousness.
Within Outsider Art there is a small category of Outsider Photography and its most popular, controversial and beautiful creator is the late Morton Bartlett. A hermetic Chicagoan with a ‘normal’ working life, he secretly moulded plaster dolls, beautiful toy figures (mostly girls) which he dressed in tiny costumes he made, photographed them in different poses and stored them away. He kept the small prints in his apartment. This, in itself, raises questions for some – but not others. The New York curator and dealer, Marion Harris discovered the collection and produced a short film Untitled (Saucy), 1950-60, its atmospheric soundtrack composed by the inimitable John Zorn, collector of Bartlett’s photographs. He describes the images as: “A mixture of innocence and danger,” a description applying to many Outsider Artists.
READ MORE ON FRAME AND REFERENCE: Pallant House Gallery’s Executive Director and Founder of Outside In responds to Sue Steward’s feature and questions the label Outsider Art and its cultural significance in the 21st century. HERE
Raw Vision magazine is celebrating its 25th anniversary with an exhibition at La Halle Saint Pierre, Paris until 22 August 2014.