THE term “outsider art” is an imperfect translation of the phrase art brut—meaning raw or uncontaminated art—coined by Jean Dubuffet, a French artist, in the 1940s. It refers to art created by people who are untrained, unaware of any potential audience for their work, and on the margins of society, often due to mental health problems. A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is dedicated to outsider art from Japan. It is an unusual experience. Artistically inconsistent and loosely organised, the common thread is the mental illness suffered by the 46 artists featured.
These so-called outsider artists have all been diagnosed with cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders. They live in, or attend, specialist care facilities where they work with art facilitators. The 300 works on display contain their dreams, phobias and projections, but also their idiosyncratic interpretations of the world around them and the important people in their lives. Like much of the Wellcome Collection’s distinctive programming (it has held recent exhibitions on death, dirt and brains) it is unconventional, yet stimulating and significant.
Takako Shibata’s 12 graphic drawings, which show her mother’s face getting bigger as her body gradually disappears, speak volumes about the effect her absence has had on Ms Shibata’s life. Masao Obata’s red-crayon creations on pieces of cardboard depict wedding-like scenes of couples (pictured below), betraying his lifelong yearning for a significant other. A video shot before he died poignantly shows his wish fulfilment: dressed in red tracksuit trousers, a tucked-in red top and a chunky red belt (red is clearly his signature colour) he energetically colours in a couple portrait. He seems sweet and lonely yet focused. “When are you happiest?” the interviewer asks him. “When I’m working,” he says without averting his gaze from his drawing.
Marie Suzuki’s pieces—disturbing and nightmarish portrayals of sex, genitalia and procreation—are accomplished works using the simplest of tools: coloured pens. One image shows a womb inhabited by a red devil-baby, another shows a blind-folded woman with misshapen breasts surrounded by malevolent eyes, hands and knives. Beneath her, a sea of breasts and a suckling, eyeless infant lie in wait. It is a terrifying vision, the overpowering sense of torture, oppression and doom suggests Ms Suzuki may have been abused as a child. But we aren’t told.
The curators’ approach is purposely non-biographical. Aside from a few captions and videos of some artists at work, visitors are left to imagine, ponder and conjecture. It is challenging but ultimately rewarding, quashing a natural urge to categorise and explain something away. One wall caption says that Takao Uenishi’s intriguing combinations of objects, such as a whale, a reindeer, an octopus, a fish, a geisha and a flower arranged like a mathematical equation, are “fathomable only to him”. Another says that Takahiro Shimoda’s humorous pyjamas, on which he has painted his favourite foods (fried chickens and salmon roe), represent “a vibrant vision of self”. The mystery of these pieces is palpable but unexplained.
Far less cryptic is the obsessive quality conveyed by many of the works. Shota Katsube’s colourful army of 300 small figurines bearing daggers, swords and spears is, on closer inspection, made out of twisted fastenings used to close rubbish bags (pictured right). It’s a quotidian tour de force on a domestic scale. Repetition and ritualistic behaviour is also apparent in Takuyo Gamo’s ornate still lifes of fish, plants and cats that in fact contain hundreds of geometric shapes; and in Keisuke Ishino’s 3D paper dolls inspired by anime cartoons. A video shows how the young Mr Ishino can easily create several of these complex constructions, held together by cellophane, per day. The repetitive actions appear to soothe him and he seems blithely unaware that his creations are beautiful. There is a purity and joy about his work.
The exhibition urges visitors not to assume every drawing or object is the isolated output of the artist’s inner psyche. These artists relate to materials, language and people in a way that is universal and recognisable. They are not removed from the world; many are keenly aware of their surroundings and the culture they have grown up in, says the short exhibition guide. Ryosuke Otsuji’s clay statues of Okinawan lions (pictured top), historically used to ward off bad spirits, show an awareness of Japanese traditions, for example, and Norimitsu Kokubo’s dense cartographies are a creative amalgamation of real places he has learned about online and in newspapers, but never visited. These imagined cityscapes can also be viewed as social commentary. Tall buildings, cars, buses, helicopters, people, trains, and Ferris wheels are cramped together and superimposed—modern life appears frenzied and almost inhuman, but also exciting and fantastical.
These artworks are, ostensibly, the vital expressions of troubled people. But by the end of the exhibition the term “outsider art” feels imperfect, because many of the works are as accomplished as those by established practitioners. The unique worldviews, complex emotions and eerie imaginings they convey are every bit as captivating.
"Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan" is at the Wellcome Collection until June 30th 2013
Appeared on economist.com, 8 April 2013