Cultural Comment: Patients at an exhibition

A group of mentally ill painters is redefining the idea of art as therapy, says Jeremy Laurance
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A small studio in Hackney, east London, is turning out some striking pictures from an unexpected source. The artists are mostly untrained and new to painting and all, at some stage or other, have strayed across that undefined boundary between sanity and madness. Their work displays a raw talent that asks to be exhibited rather than analysed. It has freshness, vigour and an honesty that challenges the commercially driven art establishment. It is not, as one of its supporters puts it, art as therapy but therapy as art.

The studio is run by Core Arts, a group of current and former mental patients who, with little guidance and slender means, produce their exhilarating work in a former church hall next to Homerton hospital. Their latest project, currently on show at the Guildhall, is portraits of comedians. Sean Hughes, Paul Kaye (Dennis Pennis), Stewart Lee and Brenda Gilhooly (Gayle Tuesday) are among those who agreed to pose.

When one thinks of art therapy one thinks of hyperactive children splashing paint or old ladies weaving baskets. One thinks of Christmas cards painted with the feet and lumps of clay fashioned, hour after endless hour, into ... lumps of clay. Whatever one thinks, one does not think of art.

That cannot be said of the pictures hung here. They are witty, affectionate portraits that hint at darker forces held in check by the public personas of the performers. On the continuum that links sanity and madness, comedians rank madder than most. From Tony Hancock to Spike Milligan and beyond, comedy and mental illness have been comrades in arms. The exploration of failure and social inadequacy is the stock in trade of much comedy. In this exhibition we have artists haunted by a fear of failure - of their own relapse - painting artistes who have learnt how to exploit their fears, mining them for laughs.

An emaciated Sean Hughes is sunk in a huge, lonely armchair. Joan and Joyce, the double act who arrived for their sitting wearing bikinis, stand with pelvises thrust forward, lips pouting, displaying a louche but indifferent sexuality. Brenda Gilhooly, the well-endowed comedienne with the easy laugh, is depicted with a coxcomb of black hair drawn tightly across a white skull, her mouth tense and her eyes full of fear. Although the technique might be a little rough around the edges occasionally, the vision is frank and raw.

The project began by accident in 1992, an unusually happy consequence of the hospital closure programme. Paul Monks, an artist looking for a studio, reckoned that Hackney hospital, then being run down, might have a spare ward waiting to be liberated. The hospital yielded and he brought in his brushes and paints and set to work.

He did not expect the attention his studio would attract from the patients attending the psychiatric clinic which was one of the few services still remaining at the hospital. They began wandering into the studio, were offered brushes and paint and ignited a creative flame that is still burning fiercely six years later.

Anyone is welcome at any time - there is only one condition for membership of the studio. "The golden ticket is to have seen a shrink," said Mr Monks. "We have people who are very unwell and people who are less unwell, plus the whole range in between."

To support themselves financially they started by selling huge eight- foot paintings to the hospital to brighten up the bleak secure psychiatric wards. They have survived since on trickles of money from a variety of sources and are now looking for a large sum to establish a bigger centre in a new venue.

A part of Mr Monks's achievement has been to create an environment in which the boundaries between the well and the unwell are indistinct. About 25 attend on any one day but, for the visitor, it is impossible to distinguish between the patients and the organisers and volunteers.

"A lot of people have no interest in mental health because it lives in an unattractive ghetto," said Mr Monks. "You realise mental health is something we all have in varying degrees. If you make it a little attractive and glamorous and sexy, people are only too willing and interested to discuss their feelings and fears.

"There is a huge resource of talent out there. We are only just opening the tap. Some of these people are teaching us how to see the world."

The idea of painting comedians also happened by accident. Mr Monks and his co-workers had found that the best way of drawing people into painting was to turn the sessions into events. Someone knew someone who knew a comedian ... and it happened from there. Comedians made good subjects because they are easy going, have a natural empathy with those dealt a dud hand in life, and make a living exhibiting bizarre behaviour. The artists were keen to meet them and equally keen to paint them.

The results, according to Andrew Peggie, chairman of the music charity Sound Sense and a supporter of Core Arts, are more shocking than a Whiteread concrete house or a Hirst pickled fish. "Shocking because it is often just the wrong side of obvious - teasingly familiar but with the odd hint of life from other planets," he said.

Therapy becomes art when people realise that they can construct something of their own which is then valued in the world's eyes. "It might be constructed to the weirdest set of rules; it might be the product of a fevered imagination, but if it is valued that is the affirmation they are seeking," said Mr Peggie.

Dr Mark Salter, consultant psychiatrist, who refers patients to the project, echoed the same view. The therapy lies in the valuing of the product as much as the process of producing it, and the value lies in the freshness of their vision. "They are free of the clutter of the art world," said Dr Salter, "as you would expect from a bunch of outsiders."

'Paint the Stars' is at the Guildhall from 3 September to 31 October. Details available from Core Arts: 0181-533 3500.