Friday, May 26, 2006

INNER WORLDS OUTSIDE (Whitechapel Gallery)

Inner Worlds Outside is not simply yet another exercise in looking at art in an art gallery. It is also an attempt at re-assessment, to re-classify 'outsider art', to integrate it into the 'tradition of modern art'. In this the exhibition is (unsurprisingly) only partially successful: it is going to take an awfully long time (if it will ever be possible?) to overturn the mountains of verbiage, and the slick and cynical industry, which have built up around the 'outsider artist' as an idiot-savant unblemished by mainstream culture and the machinations of the art-world. One has to ask to what end is this integration being made? To inject outsider art with the dubious vaccines of modernism and cultural cachet, no doubt.

Here, at least (unlike the present Hayward show), the works are uncluttered by too much extraneous academic wank; they are roughly arranged thematically, including such categories as Imaginary Landscapes and Fantastic Cities, The Allure of Language, and The Erotic Body, and allowed to speak for themselves, although they speak mostly in tongues, in languages unknown, delirious, and sometimes rabid (William Kurelek's The Nightmare, Sans famille by Francis Marshall, Von Stropp's Oestrum, and three bondage drawings by an anonymous 1930s sadist are particularly terrifying) .

Although many visual and stylistic parallels might be drawn between the works of the 'outsider' and the 'professional artist' there are equally just as many differences. The most noticeable difference being that when the modern artist indulges himself in some free-form self-expression he is usually no match for the real outsider. By a direct comparison which is possible here with the work of the insane, his work is often tight and laboured. Only the Surrealists and the artists whom they 'discovered' (Scottie Wilson, Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern, Augustin Lesage, et al), all of whom are represented in Inner Worlds Outside, come close to achieving the vital outpouring of the unconscious which transforms a simple drawing or painting into something poetic. Such works must never be confused with a fantasy art rooted in escapism: most outsider artists are not day-dreamers or sunday painter hobbyists- their visions are violently poetic, and deadly serious.

A rare opportunity of seeing Henry Darger's delightful 'Vivian girls' is not to be scoffed at- in fact makes this an unmissable show; for these doe-eyed little girls, displayed in all their polymorphously perverse glory, bear tiny penises, and are exposed to all the perils of a Sadeian hell. (Although, sadly, Darger's bloodiest 'Vivian girls' painting-drawings are not shown here.)

Kubin's necro-cunnilingual Kuss (1903); Rops' Self-Inflating Woman, her orifices ravaged by a poly-phallic bird-demon; and Adolf Schudel's Krötenteich im Vollmonde are truly haunting images, and also rarely seen in London. Bellmer, despite his subject matter and instinctive secrecy, was never an outsider artist, and yet his tiny collage-drawing, Marseille, sits very comfortably here among the work of such genuine madmen as Aloïse and Wölfli; and so too do works by Surrealists Eileen Agar (her golden Skull and [Sea] Shells is stunning), Ernst, Masson, Penrose, Mesens, Miró and Matta.

By placing together outsiders and professionals it is not so much hoped that this exhibition may explode the myths surrounding the outsider artist as inadvertently knock the pro artist off his high-culture pedestal, by showing that poetry may be, and is made by all.

Inner Worlds Outside is at
Whitechapel Gallery, London
28 April - 25 June 2006.

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