The Museum of Everything
Installation View M.O.E (credits: Christoffer Rudquist)
In its broadest sense, Outsider Art encompasses extraordinary artwork that is created by people with little or no training. The term has been current since Roger Cardinal coined it in 1972, and its prototype was the Art Brut (‘raw’ or unrefined art) created by people on the edge of mainstream society that was aggressively promoted by Jean Dubuffet just after the Second World War. Dubuffet’s collection is housed in the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne.
Art Brut has undoubtedly established its own canon of masterpieces (Wölfli, Aloise, Scottie, Semankova, Lesage, Lonné etc.), and this could be said to constitute the Gold Standard of the genre, on which many other collections, such as abcd in Paris, are largely based.
As Dubuffet himself predicted, the exposure and commercialisation of Art Brut has turned what was once a desert island into a tourist attraction, and now that a new generation of Outsiders are being discovered and promoted during their lifetime, there are serious questions as to how much longer Outsider Art can continue to be ‘outside’ culture, as he claimed Art Brut was. One symptom of this cultural digestion is that many of the works are displayed in respectable galleries or museums, and this is arguably in contradiction with the original anti-cultural position it was supposed to occupy. This applies even to Dubuffet’s own collection in its present and final resting-place, which despite its subterranean atmosphere has all the status and apparatus of a museum.
James Brett is the owner of a comprehensive, impressive collection of Outsider Art–some of it last seen in the Inner Worlds Outside Show at the Whitechapel in 2006. Now he has presented his collection, or a major part of it, in a new and extraordinary setting called The Museum of Everything.
Near Primrose Hill in London, the museum is at first sight a ramshackle, labyrinthine ex-industrial building with rough walls and informal lighting. But this apparently chaotic space has actually been quite carefully set out. The works are often arranged according to tacit affinities: for example, a huge wall is devoted to paintings with a missionary or redemptive message, so that it seems like a pictorial Speaker’s Corner. Other works are tucked away in nooks and secret caverns. This striking variety of settings mirrors the bewildering changes in feel of the works themselves: some (such as Monsiel, Gill or Carlo) are small-scale and compact; others (such as Ramirez, Darger or Aloise) are larger, if still concentrated in their impact.
Untitled by Carlo Zinelli (credits: Christoffer Rudquist)
Take, for example, this image by Carlo Zinelli. In many ways Zinelli appeared to be a typical “psychotic artist”: having managed to survive in the outside world, until the age of forty, he experienced a series of psychological crises during his military service and was institutionalised for the rest of his life. There he behaved like a classic schizophrenic, withdrawn and unresponsive to others, his speech consisting of fragments of song and garbled speech.
Thanks to a studio set up by the Scottish artist Michael Noble in 1957, Zinelli launched into a prolific series of paintings that have the same secretive quality to them. Even without knowing his story, one an see an enigmatic shadow-play (not without touches of malicious humour: see the woman’s figure at lower right), interspersed with carefully calligraphed rows of letters, often in fours, that are like a kind of graphic stuttering. It’s as if the artist presents us with hints and fragments of a world he once knew but is no longer willing or able to take part in.
Guo Fengyi (credits: Christoffer Rudquist)
Guo Fengyi’s huge scrolls, on the other hand, are dazzling and expansive exercises in hyper-calligraphy. Here too there is a story of illness, but this time followed by a process of self-healing, based on Qui Gong traditions that are outside a Western frame of reference. Her drawing is incredibly detailed and subtle, and it isn’t hard to imagine that making them might have induced a trance-like state. Despite their connection to tradition, these luminous force-fields don’t follow any orthodox iconography and seem to emerge from an area ‘outside’ the normal range of experience.
Going round the Museum, which has far too anarchic a feel to deserve that title, is an overwhelming and disorienting experience: but that reflects the inherent qualities of the work on show. One exciting feature is that comments by fellow artists (from Nick Cave to Peter Blake) accompany the exhibits, and these are often far more vivid and poetic than the usual background material. The whole environment is animated by an excitement and freshness that echoes the work: no wonder thousands of visitors have already come to sample it. Plans for future displays at the Museum after Christmas are still uncertain, but the intention is to provide an exciting new space for unusual work.
More Works on Display at the Museum of Everything:
Leopard Family, 1943, by Morris Hirshfield
Untitled (male bust) by Shields Langdon Jones
King Tut Treasure by Rev B F Perkins
Self Portrait in the Ark, 1974, by Willem Van Genk
David Maclagan is a writer, artist, lecturer and retired art therapist, living in W Yorks. He has published numerous articles on Outsider Art, art and imagination and psychological aesthetics (the title of a book published in 2001 by Jessica Kingsley). His latest book Outsider Art: from the margins to the marketplace has just been published by Reaktion Books.