Overwhelmed

Firstly, I’d like to apologise for being so quiet, but basically I’ve been completely and utterly overwhelmed. I’m not sure how I anticipated I would feel after almost 3 weeks in New York researching a subject that’s preoccupied me for years, but the cumulative effect of this experience so far has been both fantastic and yes, overwhelming.

Today I’m having a ‘letting it all sink in’ day. Other Winston Churchill Fellows, with the benefit of experience, told me that I’d need days like this to absorb the experience and to make sense of everything that I’ve heard and seen.

After last weekend spent walking over 40 New York City miles sightseeing with the gorgeous Benjamin (17), my youngest boy, and my ever-brilliant sister, Helen, I had a whole series of visits, meetings and follow-up conversations this week.

On Monday I met with Becca Hoffman, the Director of the Outsider Art Fair both in Paris and here in New York. My first weekend here was spent at the Fair, which Becca tells me, was double the size of the Paris event, which I can quite believe. Now in its 25th year, this year’s Fair was spread across one floor of the Metropolitan Pavilion, there were almost 80 booths, with most selling artworks.

Of course, my conversation with Becca came around to the term “Outsider Art’. We both agreed that we don’t think it’s either the right term or indeed a useful label, but until there is an alternative that can be collectively agreed upon, the Outsider Art Fair will still, well, be called the Outsider Art Fair.

I was interested to hear that the Fair is run pretty much in the same way as every other fair. There is a definite commercial aspect, with a vetting process for those coveted booths and the price for each stand is again, probably a similar cost as it is for every other fair. I was relieved in a way to hear that. I was afraid that allowances were being made and that a patronising virtual pat on the [Outsider] artist’s head was coming…but it wasn’t the case. This is a commercial operation carried out with respect and a great critical eye.

Later that evening I met with Arthur Fournier, an independent dealer of books, serials, manuscripts, and archives, specialising in primary source materials related to the transformative cultural movements of the late 20th century; modern conflicts, disruptive technologies, music and the visual arts. We first met at the film screening on the opening night of the Fair and we agreed to follow-up. I was interested in his thoughts on bodies of work that are discovered posthumously, as this seems to be an aspect of Outsider Art that keeps surfacing in my conversations.

We talk about my research and Arthur tells me that he was currently trying to place an archive of amazing Outsider Art research. We talk about the importance of keeping archived material together as a source of knowledge for future generations with different reasons to revisit the work.

As for work that may be discovered after an artist passes away, we agreed that, as in all fields, this can be an absolute nightmare of litigation. By the very nature of Outsider Art practice, the work is often kept secret, a private retreat, rather than work intended for public consumption. Arthur tells me that in his experience of working with archives, there’s always a rightful owner or custodian if the lawyers look hard enough. Another factor is of course that how such works are viewed, like most artwork, will change over time, and the significance and value, both financially and otherwise, can change enormously.

Arthur brings a different perspective again. We talk about the philosophical aspect of ‘Outsider Art’. I told him that I think the term makes me feel uncomfortable because it focuses on the individual rather than the formal qualities of the artwork. I’m relieved to hear that he agrees.

The following day I attended an event at the Tenement Museum to discuss Ai Wei Wei’s latest work in the public realm here in New York. Ai’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors project includes over 300 works and installations, at least one of which sits quietly in the shadow of one of the Trump Towers.

 

IMG_5385.jpgThe discussion is powerful and moving and there is consensus that art has the power to express and move us even at the darkest of moments, when migrant communities both here in the US and across the globe are surrounded by a virtual wall of hate-filled rhetoric.

…and it’s only THURSDAY.

Why I’m Here in New York

I can’t believe it’s almost a year since I wrote this blog post for the Huffington Post describing the areas of Outsider Art that I’m hoping to look at during my time in the US and Japan.

Things have developed since then, but the basic premise is still the same.

A Letter From Winston Churchill

15/03/2017 10:40 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 10:40 GMT

It seemed to take forever for the letter to arrive, but when it did it was worth the wait: “Dear Angela, I am delighted to let you know that you have been awarded a 2017 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Very many congratulations. 2017-03-13-1489417885-6761645-IMG_9371.JPG

 

Those words mark the start of an exciting adventure! The letter went on to invite me to attend a seminar just a few weeks later, during which I would meet the other successful recipients along with Churchill Fellows who had completed their travels this past year.

Weeks before, as I sat waiting to be called into my final Churchill interview, I met one of my fellow applicants who was also waiting to be called in. Despite our nerves, we started talking about our projects and right there and then. I remember thinking ‘If I don’t get my project funding I really hope she does’. Her project was to travel to the USA to research culturally appropriate services for black women with multiple complex needs. You can imagine the smile on my face when I walked into the seminar for successful applicants to see her familiar face as I walked in. It was her – Geraldine Esdailee.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust states that it funds individuals from the UK to “Travel to learn – return to inspire. We fund British citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries, and return with innovative ideas for the benefit of people across the UK”. This year has awarded 150 Travelling Fellowships across the UK totalling £1.4 million. The Fellows will be travelling to 49 countries between them, across six continents, where they will carry out a wide range of projects, designed to benefit their communities and professions in the UK. The average length of a Fellowship is six weeks, but I will probably be away for closer to eight.

My project will bring together my experience of working both in mental health and the Arts as I visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Tokyo to look at Outsider Art practice. The definition of Outsider Art is often subject to debate as discussed by Priscilla Frank in What Is The Meaning Of Outsider Art? The Genre With A Story, Not A Style. First used in 1972 by Roger Cardinal as the title of his book, Outsider Art was an exact translation of the term ‘Art Brut’ used to describe artwork produced by untrained artists since 1948.

2017-03-13-1489418187-2406934-ScreenShot20170313at12.03.55.png

 

Some have argued that the term Outsider Art is itself exclusive and not inclusive, serving as a divisive term rather than a useful label. Outsider Art is often viewed as work produced not only by formally untrained artists, but also by those who often face physical or mental health challenges.

As you can imagine, it would be impossible to thoroughly investigate all Outsider Art in just 7 weeks, so the scope of my work will specifically look at Outsider Artists with mental health challenges, exploring 5 specific aspects;

1. Is the label Outsider Art useful? Does it help us to navigate the complex intersections between health and creativity, work and wellbeing, mainstream and marginality?

2. How is Outsider Art best curated? Should convention mean diagnosis/biographical details are included on labels and interpretation?

3. What are the ethical and moral considerations of exhibiting Outsider Art, especially in a commercial setting, managing finances, the expectations of the artist and the gallery?

4. What are the clinical and therapeutic implications of Outsider Art? What is the source of the tension between formal art therapy and facilitating Outsider Art. Should we in the UK adopt a non-interventionist approach?

5. Should Outsider Art be more closely aligned with public health services in the UK as it is in Japan? How/should we make this happen?

…and so my journey begins, almost 10 months before my first plane takes off in January 2018. It will be almost a year filled with forging links in the places I’ll visit; talking to artists, curators and mental health professionals working in the field in the UK and making sure I can share what I witness in the USA and Japan when I return.

 

“Losing Juliet Changed Me and My Paintings Forever”

Yesterday I went on a quite extraordinary studio visit to an artist that I’ve followed for a long time. It was extraordinary for several reasons, but mainly because the artist Rodney Dickson and I have got more in common than we’d both like to admit.
Visiting New York to research Outsider Art practice, my exploration so far has led me to believe that not only is the term unhelpful, but those artists who’ve experienced traumatic, and I mean truly traumatic, events, should come into a special category of their own.
Rodney has talked very movingly on film about losing his wife of 35 years, Juliet, who took her life almost 2 years ago, in 2016. Juliet took her life in their shared studio and living space after suffering from a severe and enduring episode of depression.
Our lives have crossed paths several times without either of us really realising it. Originally from Ireland, Rodney studied in Liverpool, entering the John Moores Painting Prize, the Prize I used to run. Rodney is one of the relatively few artists to receive a commendation, in the 1987 show.
During a splendid lunch (probably the best I’ve been offered by any artist during a studio visit I have to say!) our conversation turns from painting to our shared experience of being bereaved by suicide. Rodney has questions for me…lots of them!

5a6942511d000039006acbdb

Rodney Dickson in his studio

Surrounded by his paintings, for the next 3 hours we talk about every aspect of our unwelcome shared experience. We talk about how it felt to not be left a suicide note. We talk about how it felt to be the person to find our loved one. We talk about our flashbacks, those lucid, 3D visions that drop in front of our eyes at the most inopportune moments. We talk about everything in a way that you can never really fully share with people who haven’t walked your path. Although over a decade separates our experiences, we agree on many things; that neither of us would be sitting having this conversation without the love, support and understanding of those around us; that we accept that we’ll never really have the answers that we crave and especially that talking helps.
It’s when we discuss the transformative effect of our traumatic experiences that we both agree that once the worst thing has happened, it gives you a fearlessness, such that enabled me to make a BBC film about our shared experience, and then travel half way across the world alone.
For Rodney, he has developed the courage to not only pick up his paintbrushes again, but to embrace some significant changes in his painting style. “The day after Juliet died I decided that I wasn’t going to paint anymore. There was no point. Eventually, after almost 9 months, I decided that I did actually want to paint again. It’s who I am. The first time I stood in the studio ready to paint, my head began to throb with an intensity I’d never experienced before. It was like my brain had short-circuited. Everything had built up and it was too much to take. Over time, I stood in front of my paintings again, and, after that, the almost unbearable intensity started to reduce and, eventually, I could paint again, just as had before.”

5a69436b1d000017006acbdd

Artist Rodney Dickson
When you lose someone you love it becomes a line, a marker, in your history. Our life experiences are split in two. There’s everything that happened before you lost that person, and then there’s everything that’s happened since. When we move across the studio to look at Rodney’s work, that marker in his life is immediately evident in his practice. Rodney’s paintings defy gravity with their heavy layers of oil paint, sometimes applied to the board straight from the tube. The once dark and heavy palette is now light and somehow more fragile. The surfaces are just as densely painted. The weight of the impasto and the texture created are mesmerising and as soon as I entered the studio I can smell the paint.
Once, every inch of the painting surface was covered in paint. Now some areas are left bare, revealing the raw surface of the board, exposing a vulnerability, rather than building a shield of paint armour in front of the viewer – a metaphor for what this experience does to you. It leaves you exposed, staring at parts of yourself you never knew existed, in a landscape that you don’t recognise. Slowly, like Rodney’s paintings, you regroup, build a different you with the same components, just put together in a different way, a new way.

5a6944191600002800138bfe

Painting by Rodney Dickson
Our mutual willingness to be open and honest about our shared experience, and our love of painting, evolved in an afternoon of intense and deep conversation.
Rodney walks me to the subway. It’s easy to get lost in this part of Brooklyn, and I’ve never visited this neighbourhood before. As we say goodbye, I think we both know that although this was the first time we’d met, it was an afternoon that neither of us will forget anytime soon.

5a6945591600002600138c00

The Artist’s Palette

Why ‘The Art That Doesn’t Know Its Name’?

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.

jan19b-

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.’

IMG_4906

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.

 

Walking In Agnes Martin’s Shoes

Agnes Martin is an artist who has always held a strange fascination for me and as I write this I’m sitting in a coffee shop opposite her old studio at 3 Coenties Slip, New York. I could actually cry at any second. Although I’ve wanted to sit in this exact spot for many years, I never expected to feel so emotional when it actually happened. Maybe I was a bit naive. I’ll admit that I’ve actually google street-viewed this exact spot so many times that my search history probably indicates me as obsessive.

5a6259391e000016005add8b

Agnes Martin’s Studio today 3-5 Coenties Slip, New York
Really, it was my fascination with her grid paintings that first sparked my interest in so-called Outsider Art and those who make work that falls into this diverse category. I always knew that there was something about Agnes that no one seemed to be talking about, and it was during my research for my Masters in Art History and Curating, that I decided to write my dissertation about Martin’s work. I was fortunate that Frances Morris, now Director of Tate Modern, shared my fascination and was researching Martin at the same time I was. Mine was dissertation research, but Frances’ was for the Agnes Martin retrospective at Tate. Frances’ knew that it was hard, almost impossible, to find the information I needed, and in one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever been shown, she gave me access to her research – a shelf in her office with everything that you could ever wish for. I was like a child in an Agnes Martin sweet shop!

5a6258d81e00003e005add89

SILVER PRINT, 18 X 17 IN. GIFT OF D. FREDERICK BAKER FROM THE BAKER/PISANO COLLECTION, 2012.1.50
Agnes Martin by Diane Arbus (1966)
It was during this time that I read about Martin’s diagnosis of Schizophrenia for the first time. Everything dropped into place. The missing episodes in her biography. The periods spent in hospital. The way Martin talked about the ‘inspiration’ that sent paintings to her as fully formed images, the size of postage stamps which she re-drafted onto canvas. The mystery about why she left New York so abruptly in 1967. Decades later Martin said, “I left New York because every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting. It took me several years to find out that the cause was an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
Sometimes curators fall into the trap of pathologising art work once they discover that an artist has a mental health diagnosis. They believe that the paintings have been produced because of the diagnosis as opposed to the mental health issue playing some part, but not all parts. In a way, it’s a good thing that Agnes kept her Schizophrenia secret from all but a few of her close friends. That way, her work has been protected for many years from this pathologising, and I hope it stay that way. Agnes Martin did not produce her work because of her Schizophrenia, but I do wonder whether her work provided some kind of coping mechanism, or had a therapeutic effect. When you look at Martin’s paintings, the canvas is so controlled that it may have provided her with a level of control that fell outside of Martin’s everyday exprience as someone hearing command voices that she didn’t feel in control of.
Yesterday I visited the New York Outsider Art Fair. Many pieces of the work shown by the over 80 participating galleries was made by artists with a mental health diagnosis and I was really relieved to see that the agents and gallerists behaved more or less in exactly the same way as they have in every other art fair I’ve ever attended. They were definitely interested in sales and definitely looking over my shoulder to see if anyone interesting was coming through the door after me. I was worried that the same pathologising that Martin sometimes suffers, would be apparent here and that the work would be talked about in hushed, patronising tones, but nothing could be further from the truth. Red dots appeared more often than I’ve seen in other Fairs and probably a similar number of artists were there too, speaking for themselves and enthusiastically describing their artworks.

Treatment for Schizophrenia was still archaic in 1957 and Martin’s diagnosis must have seemed heavy with the weight of the stigma of the day. As I sit here looking up at the studio she was brought back to after her hospitalisation and ECT treatment at Bellevue Hospital, I wonder how she found the emotional strength and tenacity to pick up a paintbrush again.

There is something so moving about walking up this street where she would have walked after she was released from hospital and that she walked down for the last time when she decided to leave The Slip for the last time. I suppose when we breathe the same air they did, it somehow brings us closer to them. I don’t think I’ll forget this afternoon for a long time.

…and so the journey begins.

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.