25 September 2012
'Free' marks the 50th anniversary of the Koestler Trust. It is showing at the Southbank Centre until 25 November. Nicole Fordham Hodges experienced this intense, wide-ranging exhibition.
I feel compelled to look around several times. I find myself overwhelmed by the quantity and range of this artwork, which includes craft, sculpture, painting, writing and music. Not all of these mostly anonymous artists have committed a crime. Some are from secure childrens' homes, high security psychiatric hospitals or are detained in immigration removal centres. They have their lack of freedom in common. They are outside mainstream society and in that sense are literally Outsider Artists.
Sarah Lucas has designed the exhibition space to echo prison life: breeze blocks, some paintings mounted on wires coming out of toilets. I find this unnecessary: the artwork speaks clearly for itself, painting an eloquent, subtle and at times comic picture of life in detention.
Lucas' choice and arrangement of artwork, however, is inspired. It works almost on an unconscious level. Lucas writes: “Most of the works are not abstract but my approach to selecting was. Colour, texture and so on... I needed to choose works that can help each other, even upset each other.”
Craft is a traditional prison pursuit. Here it speaks of time and poise: the intricately modelled 'The Papacy' in matchstick and mixed media; the birdbox made by the anonymous inmate of HM Prison Peterborough with its exquisite pencil shavings roof. Do those 'doing time' have more time to be real?
The platinum award winner for photography 'Meditation in Detention' (Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre) shows a perfectly poised meditating man, hands crossed and symmetrical behind prison bars.
These aren't depressing, violent, screwed-up pieces. They have a quality of taut intensity, often with an element of otherworldliness. They remind me immediately of my own years of confinement to my house due to illness.
Butting up alongside observations and representations of the nitty-gritty of prison life are repeating motifs of escape and transcendence: birds, wings, angels. 'Wasted!' (HM Prison Channings Wood) won a silver award for mixed media. It shows the beautiful abandoned innocent curve of a sleeping boy's arm, with a feather wing sprouting amongst a collage of rubbish: torn paper and tin cans. The artist writes: “If anything, I always try to convey some beauty in all my pictures.”
There is much beauty in this exhibition and very little self-pity. Some artwork has a film of nostalgia. In 'Flowers for Mummy' (painting in oils) the face of the young girl picking flowers is faded, smudged as if she's a memory.
In the textile category 'My Journey Memory Bag' ( HM Prison Foston Hall) is a large canvas bag lined with deeply personal, hand-written poems. It displays so much at once, as if the artist has placed all their treasure in one hand-crafted basket. Is this pure generosity, or a need to express oneself bursting out in a confined space? The sculptures also hold so much: a small, angry, comical, haunted gargoyle of a fish; a slightly mouldy-looking ceramic orange tight in a wire cage.
'Just a Chair' (Kibble Safe Centre Secure Children's Home) is a melting, gold-coloured sculpture: a wonky chair which pools like liquid onto the floor. This is my favourite. It contains an astonishing amount of emotion: uncertainty, insecurity, yearning?
The young people's portraiture is an explosion of talent. Like the unforgettable 'Boy' (Atkinson Secure Unit Devon) coming out at us intense eyed and gap-toothed in blocks of primary colours.
Though some pieces show the 'raw' talent associated with Outsider art, others display a knowing intelligence, playing consciously on prison cliches. 'Release' (HM Prison Shepton Mallet), winner of the William Arthur Rudd scholarship for painting, is an allegory of a prisoner's release into the outside world. It is rich with visual puns: a prisoner 'hung out to dry', sheep in wolves clothing, leopards failing to change their spots.
This is an astonishingly rich exhibition, which bursts out of its exhibition space - an affirmation both of the human spirit and of the essential power of art.
Free: Art by offenders, secure patients and detainees is on in show in the Spirit Level of the Royal Festival Hall until 25 November
Curator Sarah Lucas talks to Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery, about the exhibition in the Blue Room, Spirit Level on Monday 15 October at
Go to the Southbank Centre website for more details