Outside In Journeys to Sotheby’s

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To celebrate Outside In’s impending NPO status as an independent charity, after 10 years under the stewardship of Pallant House Gallery, an exhibition entitled ‘Journeys’ at Sotheby’s in London, 11-19 January, marked the organisation’s story thus far. Review by Colin Cameron.

Sculpture of a dog using found materials

Exhaust Dog, Jacob Rock, 2011.

Journeys displayed 34 astonishing works by a range of artists who have been involved with Outside In for various lengths of time since its beginnings in 2006. Founded at Pallant House in Chichester, West Sussex, by director Marc Steene, Outside In has provided a platform for ‘those who define themselves as facing barriers to the art world due to health, disability, social circumstances or isolation’. This seems an important point to emphasise in a review for DAO, because while a good number of the artists with work displayed are disabled people – people with experience of emotional impairment or learning difficulties or physical impairment in a disabling society – this wasn’t Disability Art. It was Outsider Art.

It may be an unfashionable view at DAO these days, but I agree with Paddy Masefield in his book Strength (2006) where he defined Disability Art as ‘Art by disabled people for disabled people that speaks the truth about the disability experience’. Disability Arts has its roots in disability politics and has been an important part of a movement striving, among other things, to establish new narratives around disability based on rights and respect. Disability Arts isn’t just about art, nor is it just about trying to persuade the non-disabled that we’re as good as they are or can produce work as good as theirs. Instead Disability Arts has been about disputing the relevance of the worldview of the non-disabled when it comes to thinking about disability, about clarifying the oppression inherent in this worldview and about affirming our rights to be different. Its roots in disability politics give it a broader remit in terms of addressing barriers to participation as equals in everyday community life.

Machine Embroidery of a gathering of animals

Aradne – The Gathering

Outsider Art may or may not say anything about disability – any experience of impairment undoubtedly shapes the way we look at things – but this isn’t its main point, and wasn’t the point of the work displayed here at Sotheby’s. Outside In doesn’t have a remit to address inaccessible employment or segregated housing or who we’re allowed or expected to be, it exists as a platform for those who, for whatever reason stated above, experience barriers to the art world. It is about creating opportunities for self-taught artists – artists outside the universities and colleges and who might be unlikely ever to get an opportunity to become part of these – to help them gain a voice and to create opportunities for their work to be seen by wider audiences in established settings. It provides talent development programmes and training and has helped hundreds of creative talents to enter the art market place.

To my mind, whereas perhaps organisations like DAO have become too fixated on developing and supporting ‘quality’ work and eschewing community arts practice, it seems like Outside In throws down a challenge in terms of the meaning of quality. The work here isn’t community arts, it has emerged spontaneously as the work of creative individuals from all sorts of backgrounds and has not been organised. Yet, I don’t think that Outside In would attempt to distance itself from the spirit of community arts. One of the points that comes across is that work worth paying attention to can come from anywhere, and often from places the arts establishment would never think of looking.

As Dr Thomas Roske of the European Outsider Arts Association comments in the Journeys prospectus:

Arts professionals are still unable to look at arts without being guided by artists’ CVs and backgrounds and are mostly led by what is the latest international artistic fashion. We should cherish the multiplicity of artistic languages around us, especially from those outside the mainstream… Their art provides the opportunity to see the world through their eyes which would otherwise seem to be so distant from ours.

Ink drawing of a rural scene

Central Tree, Spinning Hats, Phillip J Baird, 2010. 60 x 75cm

The work exhibited in Journeys is bold, startling, naïve, shocking, breathtaking: crafted in intricate detail (Aradne’s machine embroidery ‘The Gathering’ or Phil Baird’s gel pen on watercolour paper ‘Central Tree/Spinning Hats’); beautiful and menacing (Jacob Rock’s ‘Exhaust Dog’, described as ‘an assemblage of found objects’); profound (Peter Cutts’ ‘The Wonderful World of Flying Creatures’, pen and paint on canvas); or joyful (Michelle Roberts’ ‘Crufts Dog Show’, brush pen on canvas). As self-taught artists those exhibited here, in all their diversity, don’t appear to give a damn about what they should be doing, what’s fashionable, what’s acceptable. They are driven to create by their inner desires and compulsions. Speaking about ‘A Thousand Words’ (oil paint on canvas), a fantastically disturbing collision of tiny, tiny letters and words in green and black, Carlo Keshishian says:

Creating has always been a pleasurable process to say the least. I glean a lot from this process in terms of answering questions that I have and sustaining a sense of wonder simultaneously. I use the working process to find answers and often I find answers to questions I am not asking.

This enquiring, experimental, ‘let’s wait and see what emerges’ spirit is echoed by Ben Wilson, describing his wood sculpture ‘Sculpture 2’:

‘I don’t impose the idea on the work I allow the idea to evolve out of the place I’m working in.’

I enjoyed a good conversation with Ben at Sotheby’s entrance where he was lying on his front, surrounded by brushes and other equipment, working from a mobile phone image to paint a miniature depiction of his son and cat onto a piece of chewing gum that looked like it had been stuck to the pavement for a very long time.

Pen an paint artwork of flying creatures

Peter Cutts, The Wonderful World of flying Creatures

It strikes me that this work has been produced primarily because the artists have enjoyed producing it and have simply wanted to, rather than because they were obliged to in order to fulfil some modular requirement or to satisfy the requirements of some external authority. Manuel Bonifacio says “My work comes from my heart and what I see.”  Aradne says “I have always made things from childhood… I can’t do precise work that’s perfect. In fact, I don’t like perfect things.” James Gladwell says “I enjoy doing it. I keep my mind going. If I didn’t I’d be bored.”

There is no reason why these works should have been created, yet the world is a better place because they have been. Viktor Frankl (not an artist featured here, someone else altogether) talked about creativity as one of the ways by which we make meaning in our lives and live authentically, and my impression is that there’s a lot of that going on here. These paintings, sculptures, collages, drawings, assemblages, lino cuts, photographic prints, have emerged not just as responses to the paradoxical challenge involved in the strangeness of finding ourselves here (alive), or in the requirement posed to each of us to come up with some sort of answer as to what to do about it all, but they offer propositions themselves, they require those of us who have come to look to go away again and, in turn, to look at things differently.

Artwork made up of lots of minute words overlaid

Carlo Keshishian A Thousand Words

Speaking with Marc Steene about the exhibition after I had viewed it, I learned that its launch, which had been opened by Jarvis Cocker had been attended by around 400 people from the arts scene. Certainly while I was there, for what was programmed as its last hour, the space seemed pretty busy still with a flow of visitors. Marc said that it had been like that for most of the time it had been open.

Outside In is about creating a fairer art world. As the exhibition prospectus says, it represents society’s most marginalised perspectives and points of view in order to challenge the accepted constructs of the art world of how art is made and by whom. I am struck by the range of artists’ comments about how they came into contact with Outside In: through a friend, through a teacher, through a leaflet, through a gallery. There seems to be a lot of fondness for the organisation and a real sense that this is a journey being taken together.

Steene remarked about the impact of the event:

“Our Outside In: Journeys at Sotheby’s this January was a great success. Being at the heart of the commercial art world and in such a prestigious art institution gave important validation and exposure to the work of our artists, and many were able to sell works. The press coverage the exhibition received – including The Guardian and The Art Newspaper, and publications in France, South Africa and Singapore – helped make more people aware of us.”

Outside In’s next major event is hosting the European Outsider Art Association Conference 4-6 May at Pallant House Gallery. Tickets are now on sale.