Sunday, 17 February 2013

Art Brutness

One of the great things about keeping a highly self-indulgent, non-thematic and barely-read personal blog - as I used to - is that you can actually trace the seeds of various ideas if you care to dig deep enough.  Given that you'll tend to only comment on the things that have had the biggest impact on you in any given week, it's inevitable that some of those concerns will start to bubble up into the "creative work" (if you can forgive that expression).   So while I was digging back through my old entries, I found this one from 2008 about an Outsider Art Exhibition a friend and I went to at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  Clearly whilst I had my moral issues with the exhibition, those questions planted seeds in my mind and later became the inspiration for the "Private Museum of Peter Gandalf" short story which appeared in "The Alarmist" a couple of weeks ago.

The circle was pretty much completed when I eventually saw a young art student hopping on to a Northern Line train bouyantly, on a morning when I was heading off to my day job after about three hours sleep.  She seemed so self-confident, energetic and optimistic that if somebody had given me the power to swap places at that point, I actually might have done - despite having once been an energetic and optimistic BA student myself, and knowing that it almost never leads to an instant life in the limelight.  None of this makes me Peter Gandalf, obviously, and I'd hope that doesn't need to be emphasised, but if you throw enough images at your brain, eventually it starts to draw some peculiar conclusions.

So anyway, here's what I thought. (And yep, it's very self-indulgent to reproduce this, but then it's very self-indulgent to keep a blog about your poetry and writing too).  

My friend Jon visited from Wales this weekend, and in lieu of anything better to do in a rather somnambulant arts and entertainment scene in London at present, we decided to catch a train down to the present Outsider Art (or Art Brut) exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Outsider art fascinates me for one over-riding reason: Taken at its most raw meaning - the creation of art as some kind of primary instinct, ignorant of audiences or the possibility of getting any - it seems strangely comforting. That all over the globe men and women are creating sculptures in their sheds and huge, teetering structures of junk that only their visitors or family are ever likely to see, suggests that there's something much more primal about art (even modern art) than anyone usually acknowledges. It takes us back to the concept I mentioned some entries ago - art and literature are not primarily the activities of the wealthy, it's just those tend to be the people that take risks and therefore get ahead. A man from a miner's family in the Deep South is generally much less likely to jump from his day job to spend full time working on his sculpture of "found" motorway hubcaps in the hope that a major New York gallery will exhibit them. Economics has more bearing on what or who becomes known than anyone usually cares to admit.

Rather unfortunately, however, the exhibition I attended seemed to celebrate the more freakish exponents of the genre (if indeed it is a genre). Much of the art seemed scarily totemistic. Sharp jags, teeth, splinters and shard-like shapes dominated elaborate doodles on canvas. Ghostly faces peered out questioningly from collapsing mosaics. I turned to Jon and said: "If you found a derelict village and one of the houses had endless paintings like these stacked up in it, you'd run for dear life in case the person responsible came to get you as well". He could only agree. There was work in the gallery that genuinely gave me a jittery feeling. These seemed to be tribal markers rather than expressions of belief or intent (apart from the ones more geared around religious mania). Fear, true enough, is better than no response at all (which is what ninety per cent of all art manages to achieve for me) but the purpose behind it to me seemed occasionally lost.

Most interesting was the work of Henry Darger and his paintings of The Vivian Girls. Eight thousand of these paintings were found in his flat by his landlord after he died, and all seemed to chronicle the adventures of cherubic children in some underworld. One particularly vivid piece sees them escaping from a concentration camp (you can read more here:

Darger was apparently deemed "frail minded" during his life, and regularly spoke to himself in several different voices and rummaged through dustbins. Nobody had any suspicions that he was creating art in his spare time during his lifetime, least of all in such a ridiculous quantity. I myself am divided as to whether there's any actual worth in what he created or it was essentially just a fantasy world he chose to create as a comfort. And of course, even the latter opinion brings up more complex arguments about self-indulgence and what art should do for the artist as well as the viewer.

My favourite piece in the gallery by far was a rather Alasdair Gray styled effort entitled "Londinium", essentially a futuristic psychological map of the city which was dizzying in its detail. Sadly, I've forgotten the name of the artist responsiblce - if anyone can shed any light, I'd be grateful.

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