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MK - Lady with Hole, 2009 Image from Wellcome Collection

MK – Lady with Hole, 2009
Image from Wellcome Collection

Art Brut: is visual creation at its purest – a spontaneous psychic flow from brain to surface

Outsider Art: has been used increasingly loosely and can often now refer to any artist who is untrained or with disabilities or suffering social exclusion, whatever the nature of their work

source: Raw Vision Definitions

Outsider Art, or the more aptly-named Art Brut (raw art), has always been the genre which fascinates me the most. Its methods and theories are born of the same basis as my own values regarding art production and criticism. Its outputs never fail to fascinate me, conveying in often cryptic form inherent emotions and opinions through a direct outpouring of expression. The genre seems to be having something of a renaissance recently, with the intense Koestler Trust ‘prison art’ shows at the Southbank, the very in-vogue Hayward Gallery hosting the Museum of Everything at their current Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition and of course Souzou; Outsider Art in Japan, which finished at the Wellcome Collection on Sunday. Outsider Art hasn’t been this fashionable since Basquiat in the 80s. Good. Lovely. But although almost every facet of it strikes a chord with me, I’ve also always been a tad dubious about the label and its use, or misuse, in the separation of art and artists.

Even in an exhibition about art from a culture I know very little about, I can see stylistic riffs running throughout many of the works which would probably help to classify them as ‘outsider’. One such example is that of smallness and intricate detail which can often, but not always, be linked to introversion and a lack of confidence. I can use the case of a student at Artbox as an example of my experience of this: 3 years ago Chris, on encouragement to put material to paper, would almost always begin a detailed and creative scene in the furthest corner of the paper, using up often only about 4cm2 of an A4 page. It was 2 years before we realised the significance of that technique, as Chris gradually opened himself up to us and to his own artistic expression; he can currently be found sweeping brushstrokes across A1 sheets blindfolded whilst listening to music. Transformation. Many people don’t emerge from the cocoon in the way Chris did; for some, the lack of confidence and fear of opening up continues to manifest through their works. Norimitsu Kokubo’s intensely detailed city scenes, Yumiko Kawai’s intricate embroidery and Shota Katsube’s army of tiny twist-tie figures are all examples of this style. A preoccupation with size also features in other works such as ‘Mother’ by Takako Shibata; a poignantly ever increasing and subsequently disappearing-off-the-page portrait of the artist’s absent mother.

Takako Shibata - Mother Image from Getty Images via The Independent.com

Takako Shibata – Mother
Image from Getty Images via The Independent.com

Shota Katsube - Untitled, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection

Shota Katsube – Untitled, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection

Norimitsu Kokubo -  The Economically Booming City of Tianjin Image from Wellcome Collection

Norimitsu Kokubo – The Economically Booming City of Tianjin
Image from Wellcome Collection

Outsider Art is sometimes defined as being produced by those who create spontaneously, without the influence of the establishment and art culture and without a commission. This is almost only ever partly true. Prison artists for example have often been very much informed by culture and are aware of the established market. But you can see the general idea ie. they’re not fresh meat straight out of St Martin’s, sitting in a South London studio tearing their hair out in a dramatically melancholic search for the inspiration to win this year’s Turner Prize. Outsider Artists are usually those who have come to the practice through somewhat ‘anti-social’ means; they are often incarcerated in a prison or mental health institute, but by no means always. Art therapy would fall under the ‘Outsider’ classification, but in art therapy the artists can be from any walk of life and in any situation, eg.divorce, depression, rather than necessarily prison-based or mentally ill. So if the scope can include Art Therapy and definition is therefore not reliant on any specific life situations, it follows that inclusion in the Outsider Art category must be more focused on the means of production.

Art Brut, Outsider Art, Souzou – Raw Art. Art by means of immediate and direct expression, an outpouring, art from the soul. I see what the categorists are trying to do through this definition, but although part of me agrees, another part doesn’t. In some cases it is possible to distinguish fairly easily between types of people, situation and production style, eg. the difference in work and means between a graduate art student trying to pay the bills and a lifer in prison extracting some cathartic relief from art production, but what about in an instance such as between Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh? One a manically depressed recluse who cut off his own ear in a fit of rage (allegedly), the other considered to be, although perhaps not entirely straight-laced, a fairly well-balanced traditional artistè. Despite fitting most of the criteria for an ‘Outsider Artist’ van Gogh is not generally included in this grouping and was also producing art for recognition, for money, as was Basquiat in the 80s even though he was classed as Outsider.  In parallel with this, many artists in the Souzou exhibition contradict the classification by creating works influenced by cultural tradition or are known for their work and have sold pieces. Through social and charitable initiatives such as Artbox or Centerpieces (I’m lucky to own a fabulous ‘outsider art’ piece by Rich Zyzanski) this is actually more and more common, and not at all a bad thing. Does this then diminish from their ability to produce a direct expressive outpouring through artistic production? I don’t think so. Surely these rigid boundaries of definition cannot meaningfully apply to all artists without diminishing their individuality? Our very human obsession with labels and boxes leads us to the point where we ignore the essential grey area, the blurring of the boundaries and as such, the system files in error. Is it about time to de-compartmentalise art or should we step up the factioning to create a more meticulous framework? Either way by its very nature one size does not fit all when it comes to Art Brut.

Yumiko Kawai - Circles, 2009 Image from Social Welfare Corporation Yamanami Atelier

Yumiko Kawai – Circles, 2009
Image from Social Welfare Corporation Yamanami Atelier

Nobuji Higa - Naked Woman 10, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection

Nobuji Higa – Naked Woman 10, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryoko Koda - Untitled, 90-00 Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryoko Koda – Untitled, 90-00
Image from Wellcome Collection

Takashi Shuji - Telephone and Water Jug and Roller, 2010 Image from Wellcome Collection

Takashi Shuji – Telephone and Water Jug and Roller, 2010
Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryosuke Otsuji - Okinawan Lion, 2010 Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryosuke Otsuji – Okinawan Lion, 2010
Image from Wellcome Collection

Escape(ism) – HM Prison Send

Art therapy. What comes to mind? Mentally ill patients scribbling dark images a la horror films, or prisoners passing the time locked away from the world. You’re not entirely wrong, but aside from the cliches, you’re missing a major element of art therapy. It’s benefit reaches far beyond the niche sections of society. Just as each and every person could profit emotionally from a session with a psychotherapist (everybody’s childhood fucked them up), so could we all gain insight into our subconscious selves through the medium of art creation. Not purely a method of analysis, it also provides an escape, a focus on positivity. A means to feel achievement. ‘Free’, this year’s exhibition at the Southbank Centre by the Koestler Trust, demonstrates just how powerfully art can change people, their lives and often the lives of those surrounding them.

The Koestler Trust celebrates its 50th year in 2012, and has been curated this time by Sarah Lucas. With its first show in 1962 at Foyles bookshop the charity became a pioneer of what is still often ironically classed as ‘outsider art’. Some prisoners have access to art classes and facilities, usually as a result of collected privileges. Some acquire materials and produce works In their cells, with prison officers often the ones to spot the pieces and suggest they submit. Over 8000 pieces are received by the trust each year to be exhibited in the Koestler exhibition and entered for the awards which tie in with it. Of these, 190 were chosen this year. 190 pieces of work which hold so much soul and story that you leave the exhibition emotionally exhausted, opinionally reformatted and valuably educated.

The Pain I Cause – Anon, HM Prison Full Sutton

For many, especially those who have no experience of ‘outsider art’, the show will hold surprises. Talent they thought wouldn’t be present, or insight they didn’t believe existed. This did not surprise me. Since exploring art therapy, art by the mentally ill and prisoner art in my university dissertation I was already privy to the infinite talent in these spheres (as well as being fully aware that artistic soul transcends all social stigma or circumstance). What did surprise me, as it does every time I come into contact with these works, is the way in which whole sections of our society are lost. Dismissed. If you fit into a category, particularly a negative one, you are defined by it. Each and every one of us perpetuates this judgmental fallacy in some way, bred by aeons of societal divide. Government and the media goad us to fear each other, to be angry at one another. Focusing on benefit scammers, squatters; all a deliberate (and seemingly successful) attempt to divide us into manageable groups. United we are powerful, divided we are childish fists pounding on an iron fortress. It all stems, as do many ills, from a lack of understanding. Speaking about ‘prisoners’ will conjure images of aggressive murderers, violent rapists, paedophiles etc. But take one person. Give them their individuality back. Hear their story, their thoughts and feelings. Really listen, without defensively turning away and I believe those generalised judgements would fall away. Sadly most people don’t get to have contact with people classed as ‘outsiders’ and therefore can’t develop a framework for discovering how and why people make the mistakes they do.

One visit to the Koestler exhibition, or an art therapy group for the mentally ill and judgements seem irrelevant. The work speaks for itself. Often sad, always a labour of emotion and sometimes stunningly technical, the pieces are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Take Mirror Included; its bold confrontation of the self. Although portraits abound in the exhibition (interesting that for people categorised as being anti-social, many focus on the depiction of others), very few are self-portraits. This is perhaps unsurprising if you consider that prison is designed to degrade and strip away self-confidence. Even if the starkly scrutinising eye required for a self-portrait is understandably hard for a prisoner to embrace, the works as a whole are often extremely self-reflective. In a refreshing contrast to those contrived artworks created by well-known artists for collectors and galleries and waiting to be critiqued by the few who believe they are the authority on ‘good art’, the pieces here are raw material. The irony is that as we cage them like animals, they can produce works which often exude more humanity than I have come across amongst those who consider themselves to be overtly ‘civilised’. Symbols of freedom abound, as do depictions of the outside world; wings, nature, home, as well as poignant representations of life on the inside.

Mirror Included – Anon, HM Prison Ford

A large proportion of the works are created from recycled products. Art materials are scarce in prison and choice is limited. Traditionally, matchsticks and soap would be popular and easy to get hold of, and is still the case. As you might expect, conditions and access are less restricted nowadays and as such inmates no longer have to use spent matches, which in different sizes would have given a very different effect to those we see nowadays. The pieces made from matchsticks in this show use brand new uniform matches, which detracts nothing from their collective beauty. The skill involved and time invested is astounding, and the medium is sometimes so well disguised it is hard to believe. In pieces such as the spectacular Violin Case and Bow, coffee is used to stain the wood to give it an aged effect, or to create patterns and tones. Among the abundance of used materials recycled to produce some of these artworks are: tree bark, newspaper, clothing, soap, string, wood, wire, metal, and books.

Violin Case and Bow – HM Prison Pentonville

Invaluable organisations such as the Koestler Trust provide a means to reconnect us to the sections of society we too often forget. But just as importantly, it allows the inmates themselves to establish a positive link with the both outside world and with the inner parts of themselves they may not have explored before. The fantastic tour guides who took us around the exhibition (I highly recommend taking the tour on a Tuesday/Thursday at 6.30pm) were a Koestler Trust worker and and ex-offender taking part in the mentoring scheme Koestler run for prisoners after release. Aside from their insightful analysis, they also explained some of the stories behind the artists themselves. Some had been able to attend the exhibition opening and those who hadn’t were astounded with the positive feedback sent in on comment cards. Some had even enrolled in art college on their release, using their portfolio built up in prison to outweight their resume. Although often tinged with sadness, the show is overwhelmingly positive and the benefits wide-reaching. The most depressing thing about it is that the genre and organisations involved with it are still not as prominent and recognised by the art world as they thoroughly deserve to be.

Dark Urban ‘Psycho Pot’ – HM Prison Pentonville

Lost in Colour – HM Young Offender Institution Thorn Cross

Stag Head – HM Prison Whatton

Ustrasana – HM Young Offender Institution Stoke Heath

Little Girl – HM Prison Kilmarnock

Telephone – HM Prison Pentonville

Fish – HM Prison Glenochil

Bright Eyes – HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Holloway

The Koestler Trust 2012 exhibition ‘Free’ is on at the Southbank Centre until 25th November 10am – 11pm. Fantastic guided tours led by ex-offender interns are available Tuesdays and Thursdays 6.30pm and Saturdays 3pm. See the website for more information.

All photographs (c) KateW Photography