Arts: The flight of the Outsiders

Britain's only permanent public collection of Outsider art has left the country for lack of support.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A VALUABLE collection of Outsider art has been lost to Britain. The collection, which has been housed in Lambeth since 1981, has finally proved too much of a burden to its curator, Monika Kinley. Although attempts were made to find a home in this country for the 750 works, the archive has now moved to Dublin.

Outsider art as a distinct genre began to gain public recognition in the late Seventies. In 1979, the Hayward Gallery hosted an exhibition called "Outsiders". Curated by the writer, artist and gallerist Victor Musgrave, it introduced what he called an "art without precedent" - pictures and sculptures by people with no formal art training, many living on society's margins, some driven to make art by psychic forces, some mentally ill and reclusive. If the works shared a common quality it was compulsion - one sensed that they were made made by people who simply had to create.

"The critics couldn't stand it," recalls Kinley, who was Musgrave's partner and collaborator. "They condemned it as being the work of mad people." But the show not only packed in the public, it went on to provide the core of Kinley and Musgrave's Outsider Collection and Archive, kept at their home in south London and available to view by appointment. A small trickle of devotees grew into a stream of international visitors.

Musgrave died in 1984, and late last year Kinley decided to wind up the collection. "People were ringing the bell without appointments," she says, "and I thought, Bloody hell, here I am, an education service, forever photocopying things from our library and getting no support. The only way is to house the collection elsewhere." A venue in Spitalfields market fell through, and it was even apparently discussed that the collection might find a home in the Bankside Tate. Nothing quite materialised.

And so the archive has gone to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, where it is has a two-year tenure. While Kinley emphasises that the Irish museum is an excellent choice - she is impressed with its inquisitive director, Declan McGonagle - the collection will almost certainly receive less traffic than if it were in a UK museum, and the question remains of where it will go when its tenure expires.

"Personally I'm very sad," says John Maizels of Raw Vision magazine, a journal devoted to Outsider art. "It is a British collection and people have given and sold to it for that reason. Also Britain is one of the few countries in the western world without a museum of Outsider work - there is even one in Moscow now."

Indeed, there is now a kind of established Outsider canon, which includes such figures as the London artist Madge Gill, who painted under the spell of a spirit; Scottie Wilson, whose ceramic work was collected by Picasso; and the spookily beautiful child paintings of US-born Henry Darger. Maizels says that Outsider has become an "umbrella concept" with shifting meaning, but one can cite certain tendencies - obsessive detailing, non-centralised picture planes, multiple perspectives, a hallucinogenic sense of pattern, and the use of "naive" materials - felt tip, biro, found wood, etc.

Yet Kinley hopes that people avoid the presumption that Outsiders are by necessity mentally unstable. There are ill Outsiders but, as she says, "Often when they go a bit bananas their work is no good." Another tricky issue is thatcolourful biographical detail often leads Outsiders to be treated as crazy exotics rather than genuine artists. "The trouble is that their lives are very often fascinating," she admits, citing Dusan Kasmic, who made sculpture from food and wallpaper in a refugee camp. But the moral lesson of Outsider art is that we can be illuminated by society's misfits.

There are signs that Outsider art is becoming the next big thing. Since 1993, there has been an annual Outsider Art Fair in New York, and a growing gallery network. It may even be a little bit trendy. "They have to have a Ramirez and a Darger," sighs Kinley, "just like they used to have to have a Stella and a Pollock." But its popularity suggests a deeper shift, in that it attracts those who are disillusioned with contemporary "gallery" art. "The work is popular, cheap and immediate," says John Maizells. "You don't have to have a big rationale of theoretical knowledge to appreciate it. It goes straight to the emotions."

Evidence of the Outsider boom can be seen in new museums in Baltimore - funded by various private benefactors including Anita Roddick - and in Holland and Germany. And Jarvis Cocker of Pulp is currently making a documentary on visionary environments, an architectural sub-set of Outsider work, following his conversion to the Outsider cause at St Martin's art school.

Kinley has concerns about this interest. "It is fine as long as the artists don't get spoilt by it," she says. "But it's not unusual for them to lose their fire, and many of them are fragile people." She also adds that collectors have to remain vigilant to quality: "Most Outsiders work all the time, and you have to plough through masses of work to find the best stuff."

After the opening show in Dublin, McGonagle intends to mix Outsider work with his exhibitions programme, which should be interesting, particularly as Maizels says that Outsider work sits anxiously in established art collections, not quite fitting in - just like the artists themselves. "There is good Outsider work in the art museum of Chicago and the Berne Kunstmuseum, but they don't show much of it," he says. "In a strange way it works against the gallery art. Indeed, it is a fantastic antidote to the cynicism and careerism of much contemporary art." Which is ultimately why Kinley longs for a dedicated museum, probably funded by private benefactors. And in the glossy, flip era of Brit-art, we may well need it more than ever.

Art Unsolved continues to 14 October at Dublin MoMA