Thursday, September 24, 2009

A note from the Head of Painting at the University of South Australia

Outside Margins

When I was asked to consider writing an opening address for this Global Highbeam Visual Arts Exhibition, I couldn’t resist – despite the discomfort I usually feel in public speaking. Very quickly, a theme of marginalisation emerged. It seemed appropriate, because Arts Access has admirably defined itself as a vehicle and bastion in support of artists with disability. The struggle against marginalisation demands highlighting. It is something so obviously important, and something we can all relate to.
Artists can be marginalised by many things, and for those with a disability this problem is of course amplified. Consider for example, racism, sexism, ageism, poverty, etc... And what about isolation?

For many of my formative years, I lived in London. I knew no visual artists. The art scene seemed an elitist and impenetrable world. I didn’t even want to use the words ‘art’ or ‘artist’. Perhaps this attitude represented a lack of confidence. Without access and encouragement, it was many years before I felt that I had something to share and say to others.

In this exhibition, all of the artists have something to say.

The most artistic acquaintances I knew in those days were Rock and Roll musicians! And it occurs to me that Rock and Roll itself was marginalised in relation to ‘Serious Music’. To a minority, perhaps it still is. The inventors and forerunners of American Rock and Roll were the black Blues men and women of the early twentieth century. It is worth noting that many of the most famous and inventive Blues artists were blind. Vocations were limited if you were blind, black and poor. Initially, racism restricted the audiences … the Blues was considered too ‘primitive’ for sensitive white ears. That changed. Today their genius is universally recognised. Rock and Roll might be outside of ‘serious music’ but it has achieved a diverse vision and popular voice.

I believe there is a lesson in this…

At first, the term ‘Outsider art’ seems inadequate… and especially here, to describe such a diverse and sophisticated exhibition.
Where did the idea of ‘Outsider Art’ come from? The British writer Roger Cardinal coined the term in the early 1970s.The artist and collector Jean Dubuffet used ‘Art Brut’ or Raw Art in the post war period. Dubuffet wanted to affirm art by the self taught, by intuitives and outsiders. Always the artistic anarchist, he quickly came to see ‘official art’, as he called it, as stifling and contrived by comparison. In the 1940s, when Dubuffet’s collection reached thousands of pieces, he offered it to the French people, through their government, on condition that a building could be provided as a museum. The French government said No! But Switzerland said Yes! Dubuffet’s collection formed the basis of the now huge and internationally renowned Art Brut Collection in Lausanne.

The ‘Outsider’ tag seems to have stuck. In fact, it would seem to have
been reclaimed as a badge of distinction.

The word ‘Outsider’ suggests something outside of a boundary -a boundary that defines what is inside and what is not. In reality, I do not believe that art has such boundaries. These days, ‘Outsider Art’ has become a generic term - incorporating not only artists with mental, intellectual or physical disabilities, but also embracing folk artists, ‘intuitives’, naïve and other visionary artists - across cultures. Outsider art is certainly not peripheral. It is genuinely multicultural. The margin, in fact, has become a reservoir that ‘mainstream’ art has drawn for inspiration - to re-invent, to redefine and challenge itself… and even to contradict.

The reason that many ‘mainstream’ artists and art theorists admire Outsider art is because there is usually a kind of purity… of motivation. Many Outsider artists make art regardless of a marketplace, or compulsively, because they can’t help it, or because they must, because it’s therapeutic or self satisfying, or simply because it’s fun.

The idea of the ‘Mainstream’ itself is problematic. So-called ‘Official art’ – the self conscious expression of the sensitive and culturally aware ‘Individual’ is often subject to exploitation and distortion for materialistic, nationalistic and ethnocentric purposes. Mainstream implies that art is a centralised thing, definable by certain characteristics – a recognisable set of rules that could represent an ideal for cultural activity. The truth is that Idealism is not a recipe for originality…

For example, formal drawing skill can be achieved with practice, persistence and time. By refining eye/ hand coordination, a traditional artist can produce an image that is comparable to a photograph.
…But people are not machines. It is our responses to accident and acceptance of the unpredictable that can define our humanity much more than mechanical perfection. What kind of skill can it be, that challenges our presumptions?

Take Jackson Pollock – Pollock succeeded in redefining painting practice by using his whole body. Drips and accidents become integral to his technique. In traditional painting, technique is centred on the hand – In Pollock’s work, body, shoulder and elbow gestures signify an unprecedented quality in the history of painting:

Originality comes from difference.

Idealism, however, can sometimes lead to totalitarianism.
Many of the great pre-war artists represented in the present day
Outsider collections in Europe were murdered by Nazi idealists.
Inspired by the spontaneity and vibrancy of these ‘Outsiders’, many
German Expressionist artists of the time suffered similar fates –
Others were labeled ‘degenerate’ by association and were forced into poverty or exile.

One of the German Expressionists, who lived to see fame and fortune as one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century, was Paul Klee. In 1920, after visiting the now famous Prinzhorn collection of Outsider art in Heidelberg, a German art historian wrote how ‘Klee-like’ some of the works were. Recent research has revealed that Klee himself had visited the Prinzhorn collection in 1906!
History can now see Klee’s genius in a clearer light… and I’m sure he would approve.

Invariably, the most important artists are those whose work
consciously or innocently challenges the rules. It seems to me, that
Many artists of the past who are now admired for the sublime beauty of their work, and their audacious originality were considered Outsiders in their time.

The most well known example is Van Gogh - a difficult, abject and lonely artist, rejected even by his peers… In his lifetime he never sold a single painting. Even his contemporary Cezanne – the inspiration to cubism - whose paintings at the time were seen as crude insults to the conventions of painting, considered Van Gogh’s work to be the product of ‘a madman’… Today, a single Van Gogh painting can sell for a hundreds of million dollars!

Take heart and persevere! In our time, artists with disabilities are achieving fame and respect in their own lifetimes.

No one would question the importance of the well known Australian artist Mike Parr. Parr lost his arm as a child. He works in many media – drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, film, performance and installation. Some may recall the harrowing performance in which the artist had his lips stitched together - in sympathy with the people in Australia’s detention camps. This astonishing action symbolised the radical suppression of any dissenting voice. I don’t think Parr could be considered an outsider. Is he disabled? The term seems meaningless!

The American painter and pioneer of photo realism – Chuck Close was already a highly successful artist when an accident left him in a wheelchair, with limited use of his hands – almost 30 years ago. Close absolutely rejects the proposition that a severe physical handicap has been an impediment to his creativity. Indeed, most critics would affirm that Close has produced his best work during this time. Is he an Outsider?

Another powerful example is Judith Scott. Scott, who died at a relatively young age in 2005, had Down Syndrome. In her time she achieved remarkable respect - universally. The renowned sculptor Louise Bourgeois was an admirer. Despite an intellectual disability, Scott made a profound impact as one of the most significant textile artists to emerge on the global art scene.

Today, Outsider art is taken very seriously around the world. It is big business. Specialist galleries, museums and serious collectors are popping up everywhere - France and Germany, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Britain, US and Canada to name a few.

Works from Lausanne’s Art Brut and Heidelberg’s Prinzhorn Collections are constantly touring the world… This year New York has hosted its 17th International Outsider Art Fair. The European Outsider Art Fair was in Vienna in May. Why not an International Outsider Art Fair in Australia?... in Adelaide? These art fairs are now seen as major events in the International Art Calendar.
I advise everyone to start collecting now!

None of the artists in this exhibition should be underestimated. They are unique and original talents. Here you will find artworks that are sophisticated in another way… delights that can come as unexpected visions that challenge us with a totally different notion of skill. Or we could be confronted with work that taps the childhood innocence that Picasso dreamed of achieving - art that is intense with the difficulty and concentration of its creation - or where simple gestures and complex forms explode with colourful and spontaneous energy. And most importantly, artwork that is pure exuberant Fun!

How fortunate we are to have Arts Access here in Adelaide - an organization that turns the margins into the centre.

Enjoy this extraordinary show!
Rock and Roll!!

Paul Hoban, February, 2008 - copyright Paul Hoban - used with permission