'Outside In': on now at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, West Sussex until November 8, 2009.
Outside In strips off the emperor's new clothes that art historians, curators and collectors have traditionally used to maintain power over who can and who can’t be an artist.
It refers to the tradition of Outsider Art going back to the inception of Art Brut by Dubuffet.
Using those principles the show gives the lie to the kind of art-speak more often used to place visual art in context. So much contemporary visual art is meaningless to the majority of people because of the terms laid down by the art establishment.
Although much of the work is made with reference to art history, 'Outside In' questions why you have to have an academic knowledge, in order to call your work 'art'. Human beings have been making marks in order to give life meaning and purpose since prehistoric times. Creative expression belongs to all. It’s about the unique vision that arises from the act of giving in to the creative impulse.
'Outside In' is an attempt to validate the work of artists who would never normally have the opportunity of putting their work on show. The exhibition is not without contradiction – but its greatest strength is that it embraces those contradictions rather than trying to disguise them.
As such it is a far more honest and vibrant exhibition than the comparable Inner Worlds Outside that took place at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 2006. The narratives within the 148 works on show sing with stories reflecting a gamut of human experience. Everything from pieces of social history, to personal spiritual belief, abuse, atrocity, transcendence to just plain simple stories about individual likes and dislikes.
Many of the artists’ statements that appear alongside the selections reflect the contradictions within the show. Some artists refute being described as marginalised or disabled, in the same breath as saying there is no way they could have got their work seen in a public gallery or that they have a disability.
Some of the work is by emerging artists within the disability arts circuit, who you could argue are not marginalised. The 800-plus entries for the competition were selected by an online process whereby judges independently gave each work a mark from nought to ten according to whether the artist statement reflected the definition of Outsider Art; how much personal experience of marginalisation or disability was evident in the work; and artistic merit.
In the couple of hours I had to see the show I got through about a half of it. I fixed on a few individual works. One of the most poignant for me, personally, was David Beale’s print, titled ‘The Industrial Therapy Unit’. These units were very common in mental hospitals up and down the country in the 70's and 80's.
They sprang originally from the ideas of Franz Kallmann, grandfather of Behaviourism and the architect of Hitler's medical model justification for the genocide of the so-called mentally ill. Unfortunately for Kallmann he was Jewish. He escaped into the arms of Rockefeller who gave him free reign as one of the founders of the Behaviourist School of Psychiatry. David’s neatly executed, intimate print shows a group of women, huddled around tables, in a dirty green, grey and blue pastel room.
They sit packing boxes with goods, for commercial distribution, for which they were paid a tiny stipend. It was typical of the kind of work meted out in those places, deemed to cure mental illness. Mostly the women’s faces are blank, but some are in conversation. David’s statement reflects his own time in such a unit, ironically remembered with some nostalgia.
Some of the works are very studied and have direct links to the history of painting. Others are either from self-taught artists, or artists who have started a creative journey whilst in hospital or prison. I loved Gary Williams' piece of anti-art. His 3 x 4 foot untitled installation on the gallery ceiling, uses an assortment of materials, including like playing cards to create a mandala-like pattern.
I was drawn to quite a few of the works created with meditative or spiritual ideas in mind. Neal Pearces’ spiral bound ‘Book 12 of the Infinite Codex’ relates directly to the tao de ching. His precisely placed, systematic little drawings look at first glance like the hexagrams from out of the Chinese Book of Changes, until you realise that each one is a semi-abstract symmetrical figure.
Another beautiful drawing made using ink, marker pen, food colourant and watercolour is Ian Pyper’s 'Atom Man (Migration Phase 11)'. This ethereal figure has elements of the systematic patterning used by Scottie Wilson (whose work is also being shown in Pallant House to give 'Outside In' some historical context) and the drawings of shamen from northern Europe.
However, the influences are imbued with a unique personal sense of meaning. They are in direct contrast to the tourist collectors’ approach to appropriating symbolism that you see in the work of an artist like Alan Davie.
In terms of Disability Art, there are some great pieces that directly reflect experience of impairment from a social model perspective. Sue Burbidge’s beautiful 'Seahorse Cabinet' reminded me of Tony Heaton’s 'Split'.
The central concept within the work is about finding a unique aesthetic using damaged and diseased oak; as a way of celebrating difference.
Liz Crow's film installation 'Frida Khalo’s Corset', is also on show. It is a reflective statement about Khalo’s identity embodied in the simple act of wrapping herself in bandages; each layer carrying a line of poetry. ‘My blood oozes a tale of others’ fears’ she intones, illustrating how the artist's acceptance of herself was a challenge to society.
Inner Worlds’ Outside attempted to illustrate how much of an influence outsider artists have had on various art movements from the Cubists and Expressionists through to Pop Art and the Fluxus movement.
Overall, it was a worthy attempt to give validation to the principles set down by Dubuffet. The curation of 'Outside In', however, moves on from the art historical approach and provides a platform to see and value the artists’ work on its own terms.
It asks you to make your own judgements about how these works affect you, the viewer, on an emotional level. As such it is an admirable attempt to present an aesthetic that comes directly from these artists’ lived experience.
Ian Pyper and US outsider artist Jesse Reno are showing from the 16 September 2009 at the Rougette Gallery in Rockland, Maine, US.