It offers a taste for what is to come: glimpses into the obscure, self-contained and often private worlds of the artists exhibited here. We continue past plastic models of alien buildings that seem to defy gravity, and several rooms of imaginary cities of the future drawn in often exquisite detail. Shuffling on, we start to find obscure diagrams inspired by aliens, time travel, robots and, apparently, female genitalia.
Upstairs, the exhibition diverges into photographs: Lee Godie’s self-portraits in a photo booth, Morton Bartlett’s disturbingly sexualised portraits of the lifelike child-dolls he made, and Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s intimate portraits of his wife. Then we’re back among the painted numbers and diagrams of UFOs again – a sculpture based around auras, and another of flying skateboards that apparently create a new language. A robot made of rubbish, a room of “alternative physics”, and we reach the end. What ties it all together? In the unfocused prose, relentless strokes, and occasional allusions in the descriptions to mental asylums, we begin to unravel the thread of mental illness.
…Each piece instead offers a glimpse into a different world…
The truth is that this is another “Outsider Art” exhibition, the art of the savant or the schizophrenic, with its recognisable traits of obsessiveness and delusion. I don’t feel I can talk about the art in terms of its quality, therefore – much of it was created by very private individuals who would have been surprised to be called artists at all. Each piece instead offers a glimpse into a different world, each a rigid system of numbers, geometry, interests or beliefs. This is art as a recording, like cave-paintings, and the artists’ urgency to document is both powerful and sad.
I will instead address the aims of the curators, the surrogate-artists of Outsider Art exhibitions, as well as the challenges faced in showcasing art defined by mental illness. The problem that the curators face can be encapsulated by Widener’s painted number-grids: the curators portray his work as an alternative way of seeing, and want it judged on its own terms. However, what distinguishes this from other abstracts is the fact he made it for our future robot overlords, and thus they are forced to furnish us with a few details, while ignoring the story of his incredible life.
…showcasing art from Japanese mental asylums…
The stylistic problem of Outsider Art is that the allure is in its narratives: Marcel Storr’s beautifully back-projected architectural drawings take on another dimension when we learn they were plans to reconstruct Paris after a nuclear bomb. The recent Wellcome exhibition showcasing art from Japanese mental asylums, which also features numbers, dolls and imaginary cityscapes, would have amounted to little without the descriptions. The ethical challenge of Outsider Art is to drive off the scent of the “spectacle”, as in the days when the public paid to visit Bedlam.
In erring on the safe side, then, the curators describe the artists displayed as “eccentric”. This strikes me as somewhat disingenuous when applied to people who, for example, spent most of their lives in a mental asylum, or wandering from hostel to hostel with a bag of scribbled number-systems. Eccentric also seems an odd word to apply to, say, A. G. Rizzoli’s distinctly phallic building plan adorned with children’s statues, his paean to seeing a toddler naked and the “oddly intrinsic, throbbing ordeal” that followed. Most disturbingly, they are curating not art but life-stories, and all the pain and strength therein.
…I wasn’t inspired by the art…
The curators’ fondest hope is that the artists’ “visionary” ways of seeing will inspire us. For me, diagrams such as Paul Laffoley’s design for a gun to shoot prayers at a time-machine messiah were no more inspiring than those people shouting things at you when you step out of the tube. The utopian worlds of Rizzoli, Widener and William Scott have little to fire the imagination: there are almost fascist preoccupations with purging history, the intermingling of religion and state, the fetishisation of youth, and an emphasis on family and what Sontag saw in fascist art as “the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community”. Across one of Widener’s cityscapes, one finds the words, “all are welcome in the future – probably”.
In the end, then, while walking through the Alternative Guide to the Universe you find that many of the artworks produce a similar response in you. You read through James Carter’s challenge to quantum physics only to discover he believes the earth doubles in size every eighteen minutes, or read through Laffoley’s analysis of Goethe only to get to the inevitable aliens, and it feels like when talking to a stranger you suddenly glimpse a lurking mania. I wasn’t inspired by the art, but the stories my research produced. In concealing any reference to Outsider Art, the curators still fail to resolve its central tension: to display artists alongside heavy narratives is to rob their art of its power to speak, but to display it without disclosing their struggles is to rob their art of its triumph.
Main image: Untitled by Marcel Storr, c.1978, a post-nuclear holocaust Paris