Rodney Dickson in his studio
Rodney Dickson in his studio
Last night I started to plot a map of New York showing all the galleries representing Outsider artists, that I want to visit in my last week here. Wish me luck!
Yes, it’s an unusual name for a blog, so I thought I’d explain where it came from.
On the first night I arrived here in New York, on my Travel Scholarship, I was invited to the premiere of Eternity Has No Door Of Escape, a fascinating film by Director Arthur Borgins, which charts the history of Outsider Art:
Outsider art challenges established art historical categories and artistic movements. A translation of the French “art brut”, a term coined by Jean Dubuffet in the aftermath of the Second World War, this label was applied to works produced by artists suffering from mental illness, practitioners of Spiritism, and self-taught visionaries. It compels us to question our aesthetic and cultural norms, and the place attributed to madness in our society. This documentary retraces the tumultuous history of art brut and introduces us to some of its pivotal figures Jean Dubuffet, André Breton, Hans Prinzhorn, Harald Szeemann… based on analyses, interviews, and a treasure trove of rare archival footage, often previously unreleased. It allows us to encounter leading experts in the field, and the key places and institutions where its history unfolded and continues to unfold, in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. This documentary is also an invitation to lose ourselves in a maze of universes beyond logic and reason, in the works of Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, August Natterer… Art brut is too often overlooked by art history. This documentary allows us to make the acquaintance of this enigmatic, disquieting stranger, and to raise questions about the mysteries of artistic creation.
The film was a trip through most, but not all, of the significant historic moments that have helped to position this type of work in the contemporary art world today. There is a definite European, particularly French, focus which was both welcomed and informative.
Following the viewing, there was a Q & A session with New York based art dealer, curator and author Jane Kallir, Harvard’s Raphael Koenig and the film’s Director Arthur Borgins. It was during this discussion that an audience member asked the panel about how useful the term Outsider Art was in categorising this type of art work. Taking a deep breath, Chair of the discussion Koenig described this inevitable part of the Q & A as term warfare. Jane Kallir added that “this discussion has been going on for years and I suppose this is still the art that doesn’t know its name.’
Of course, she was right. This debate has gone on for years with terms like Art Brut, Visionary Art, Outsider Art, Non-Academic Art, Self-Taught Art….all being used to describe this type of work and it’s artists’ various iterations. Each name seems loaded, not in a way that the artists feel comfortable or happy with, but rather to encapsulate what the art market or the dealers need – a catch-all phrase that brings together a critical mass of diverse work that is now unified in the international Outsider Art Fairs in Paris and New York – which incidentally is the starting point for my trip.
From all that I’ve read and seen, I still feel that none of these terms actually fully encompass the work. An alternative view of Outsider Art is ‘You know it when you see it’, which I admit isn’t a satisfactory theoretical or scientific way to categorise artwork.
Later this week I’m meeting with Becca Hoffman, the Director of the Outsider Art Fairs, to get her take on the name and contemporary definition of Outsider Art. I’ll report back after our conversation.
It seems like a lifetime ago since in 2017 I was given a Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship. Now, it’s 2018 and I’m sitting writing this in a hotel in New York and I can’t quite believe it.
When you apply to the Churchill Trust it’s with a specific project in mind. For me it was a real opportunity to investigate an area of the art world that I’d been interested in for a long time – Outsider Art. Some call it Art Brut, others call in Visionary Art…it’s a discussion we’ll have later.
For a long time the two paths of my life, art and mental health, have run parallel to each other, crossing now and again, but really existing in isolation. For several years I’d been working in the arts while also working in suicide prevention. It was really only when I worked on a photographic exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool that I started to think seriously about bringing the two worlds together.
The same year I left the Walker Art Gallery where I’d been running the John Moores Painting Prize, I made a documentary with the BBC and also complete my Art History and Curating Masters – see what I mean about the two worlds running parallel!
The Trust gave me a grant that allowed me to visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, Kyoto and Shiga investigating Outsider Art practice. I’ll be sharing my experiences here. My first stop is a pilgrimage to the old studio of my favourite painter…Agnes Martin.
Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton