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16 December 2006

Inner Worlds Outside

Colin Hambrook went to the Whitechapel Gallery, London to see the latest outing of Outsider Art, December 2006

In the foreground three young girls play, unawares, whilst a steam train moved towards them. The girls wear yellow and purple frocks, bows and plaits typical of girls from the 1950

Henry Darger: Untitled (Train, tracks and girls) c. 1950-60

Inner Worlds Outside, at the Whitechapel Gallery, is an overwhelming exhibition in many senses of the word. Firstly, there is the sheer volume of images to take in; and secondly the complexity of issues the curators of the show were grappling with. The intention is to show the impact of little known Outsider artists on some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century.

Certainly there is an array of work from artists like Klee, Picabia and Miro, which illustrate an attraction to the irrational. How much kinship or affection they had for the work of artists placed under the banner of Outsider Art or Art Brut, is not so clear. Many of these individuals came through prison or mental hospital, or had life histories that disabled them from society. And what comes through their work, above all, is the compulsion to create and to keep on creating. What they express is a mix of strangeness and lyricism.

Although they didn't go through a college art education Outsider artists like Gill, Darger, Penfold, Wolfli, and Wilson were influenced by tradition. It was possibly information absorbed, rather than learnt, but still they were clearly influenced by the strictures of classical composition. It is in their subject matter - strange and often perverse narratives - that they diversified and created something new and challenging.

There is a complex history and an ongoing series of debates, which has led to the work of these artists finding a place for their art on the walls of eminent galleries like the Whitechapel. One question it left me with is what is the current state of play? Barriers have been pushed aside and fashions change faster than ever. Is the work of a contemporary artist like Chris Hipkiss, for instance, considered to be Outsider Art because it was made in a decade when the painterly, abstract was in vogue rather than his epic, narrative drawing?

The Art World is fickle and manipulative in the way it manufactures artists. Jean Basquiat's life was a terrible tale of abuse by the Fine Art establishment in New York, at least according to the way his story has been chronicled. It turns the notion on its head, but if he hadn't have found fame and fortune in the way that he did, it is likely he would never have been considered an Outsider Artist.

Is the notion of Outsider Art is almost irrelevant? People create because they have to create. What is important, is the legacy left by collections like the Prinzhorn, which document something of the lives of those labelled and institutionalised. There is a quote from Kafka's diaries which sums up a sense I have of my own artistic efforts - and of many of those represented in this exhibition: Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate … but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees amongst the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others: after all he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.

Go to the Guardian website to read Adrian Searle's review.