Inside the world of the Outsiders art movement

Graffiti, taxidermy, porn as fine art – this is a movement that delights in subverting the old order. Gallery owner Steve Lazarides explains why he became its champion

Monday 27 October 2008 01:00
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The Outsiders' work is actually chosen very subjectively. It's just a collection of work I admire, as do other people it seems from the numbers. The Outsiders' show that we have running in New York, has, since 26 September, had more than 30,000 visitors, and this is without any advertising for the show. This more than anything gives an indication of the populist nature of the work, and how far it has come in the past decade.

The internet has played a huge part in the popularity of the Outsider artists. What other museum is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no entry fee? All the artists have websites and a considerable net presence. Mostly, though, the art we show is so popular now because people enjoy its aesthetics as well as its messages, even if they don't agree with them. We live in highly politicised times and that doesn't get addressed a great deal by culture. The majority of the Outsiders' work is very accessible – you don't need an art history degree to understand it; the same way an idea isn't necessarily any less powerful if not communicated in a complex manner.

Both the book and the show are entitled "Outsiders" because a considerable proportion of the artists included have chosen to display their work in the public domain of the street. But equally they're Outsiders because they've made their name without taking the traditional path. Many haven't had any formal art training. Some landed on my desk by chance. But most I took the first step in approaching after seeing their work in – or on – their chosen medium of the "outside" world. These artists' greatest claim to the tag of "Outsiders", however, is that while they've regularly been accused of "not being art" they've ended up gracing major museums and art galleries.

From the start our supporters have ranged from landed gentry to teenagers. We've always encouraged gallery visitors to simply come and see the art – the last thing I want is for them to feel at all nervous around the work, or that they don't have the credentials to be there. All they have in common is a personality that's drawn to the new and isn't swayed by orthodoxy. I believe most people generally find contemporary art to be quite personal and also rather intimidating. They want to be excited and entertained, which is maybe something they've missed out on in the age of white boxes and private views, where it's all as much about commodity as the work itself.

Hob-nobbing and money may be fun, but the Outsider artists aren't producing their work just so a millionaire can put their work up in his Swiss chalet. They do it to communicate their message to a mass audience. Some of these artists travel the world exposing their work and ploughing the money they gain from selling pieces back into even more ambitious projects. This purity of purpose is easy for everyone to admire.

© Steve Lazarides 2008. All extracts are from his book 'Outsiders', which will be published by Century on 30 October, priced £14.99. For more information about current and forthcoming exhibitions featuring these artists, see www.lazinc.com . To order 'Outsiders' for £13.49 (free postage), please call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Polly Morgan

Traditionally, taxidermists place their preserved animal corpses in scenes which replicate their natural surroundings, mimicking and containing what we think to be "nature" in a glass box. Polly Morgan subverts this craft to create an art form, by constructing sculptural moments that often ask us to look again at the beauty of nature and the artifice of modern life. A dead rat, for example, becomes less about disease and squalor when placed inside the context of a champagne glass, just as the glass becomes less about decadence and luxury.

Polly's art fits in with the rest of the Outsiders in that it inventively jolts the viewer into re-evaluating their environment. Rabbits sleep on hats rather than being pulled out of them, and dead birds are served on golden platters. Our relationship to the natural world seems less predictable and straightforward when Polly Morgan creates her taxidermy situations.

3D

Robert Del Naja's painting and graphic design work have visually represented the music of his band, Massive Attack, for almost two decades. Under his tag 3D was a central figure in the Bristol graffiti movement, and his more recent work has a hypnotic quality to it. Often depicting faceless zombie-like figures, his powerful and haunting work has been a massive influence on many of today's Outsider artists.

Jonathan Yeo

Jonathan Yeo might be termed an inside-Outsider. A talented self-taught portrait painter, he's nonetheless created of some of the most controversial and amusing artworks of the past few years. His representations of the great and the good are often coloured by a very scampish sense of irony, even in his traditional portraiture. For instance, when commissioned as official artist of the 2001 General Election, each of the party leaders was scaled according to their electoral popularity.

It is, however, with his more recent porn collages of public figures like George Bush, Gordon Brown, Lucian Freud and Paris Hilton that Yeo has become legendary. Pushing his irreverent attitude to celebrity as far as decency will allow, his work comments wittily on the proliferation and disposability of images of today's elite.

Antony Micallef

Antony Micallef is an accomplished painter and sculptor who has managed to achieve recognition within the art establishment (in November his work will feature in the Royal Academy's GSK Contemporary season), and yet continue to maintain an uneasy relationship with the mainstream.

His work, at once beautiful and troubling, examines the tensions and hypocrisies in our relationships with consumerism and capitalism. Micallef's art often evokes that very contemporary sense of loneliness that is felt when we make friends with brands rather than people, and questions how we can profess to be suspicious or critical of multinational companies, and yet allow ourselves to be repeatedly seduced by their wares.

Paul Insect

Paul Insect is one of cult art's most colourful talents, and an increasingly daring one. His last exhibition, which was held in a former sex shop and Victorian bath house in King's Cross, north London, featured an extraordinary body of work – literally, a body of work, as bronze casts of skeletons and skulls decked out in Playboy Bunny gear savagely and wittily forced the viewer to think about the commodification of sex in our modern world.

In both sculpture and his paintings and graphic work, Paul is at his core a satirist. As he strips layers off the most recognisable motifs of mass media to reveal the violence, greed and depravity that often lie beneath, we wonder at the seamy world we seem to have made for ourselves.

Conor Harrington

In both style and subject, Conor's work presents a colourful fusion of the traditional and the contemporary. Painted figures of heroic men in military attire might be found in any stately home or museum, but as handled by Conor, such images take on an intriguing modern resonance.

His uniformed figures are less about some historic military elite, and more about modern men, and how they connect to "old-fashioned" values like courage, dignity and stoicism. The graffiti and vibrantly graphic elements refer to alternative cultures of contemporary masculinity, such as hip-hop, and immediately ask us if there is such a thing as some timeless quality of manliness that carries through the ages.

Mark Jenkins

Mark Jenkins is undoubtedly the mischief-maker of the Outsiders, a prankster who nonetheless reveals a serious purpose with his urban interventions. Using Scotch Tape (well, Sellotape – he's from Washington DC, so we'll forgive him), he makes empty life-scale casts of human forms, dresses them in his own hand-me-down clothes, and then leaves them in alarming, surreal or impossible situations on our streets. These dummies, fabricated from the most disposable of materials yet clad in recycled garb, startle passers-by into remembering to look at the homeless and outcast of the modern city, and reflect on the things, and people, we allow ourselves to throw away.

Vhils

Portuguese-born Alexandre Farto ranges in his work from collage to portraiture, and has recently focused on the creative use of found materials. The idea of Vandalism As Art is taken to its conclusion, as advertising billboards are torn away to make fresh images, and plaster is drilled away until the remaining relief forms the work.

Faile

This New York collective is responsible for some of the smartest and most instantly recognisable art in the Outsiders movement. Their work both uses and pastiches the throw-away pop imagery of advertising, flyposting, comic books and TV, to create paintings, many of which are layered and collaged, which hum with a quintessentially American energy. Heroes, icons and legends of US culture are scattered throughout their work, from boxing stars pasted on to a wall in Palestine, to a comic book Red Indian bursting through the wall of Tate Modern. Their works are often playful but are nonetheless thoughtful in how they think about how we can make sense of anything in a world so saturated with pictures. They're about to pop up again in London in a new show in Vauxhall, which opens on 6 November.

JR

French photographer JR has developed a unique brand of visually arresting social activism. From the slums of Paris and Rio to the conflict-ridden streets of the Middle East and Sierra Leone, JR uses his camera to capture his sense of outrage at the poverty and injustice suffered by millions around the world. Monumental monochrome images of those victims are mounted in impossible-to-miss situations. At the moment, anyone strolling past Charing Cross Road's iconic bookshop, Foyles, is forced to confront the faces of the people JR photographed in Rio's favelas.

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