Outsider Artists – still outside?

Recently I went with my partner to visit the Castlefields Gallery in Manchester’s Deansgate, partly because they have an exhibition of Outsider Art there, curated by art therapist and lecturer, David McLaggan, partly because we both find some contemporary art these days rather empty and soulless, and Outsider Art has more to offer. The art of the insane, autistic, criminal, reclusive or eccentric individual who has a need to portray his or her world, often in intensely laborious detail and then allows us to view his private world – well, it’s a privilege to see that.

As a subscriber to Raw Vision, and admirer of the Prinzhorn Collection, I recognised some of the work at Castlefields as being of such intricate, minute, painstaking construction that my brain couldn’t compute the time it must have taken. But maybe time wasn’t a factor for them. 

Richard Dadd, 1817-1888, a Victorian artist who suffered episodes of madness, during one of which he killed his father, was encouraged to continue painting by his doctors who recognised both his enormous talent and his drive to express himself through his art. He was cared for in Bedlam and Broadmoor and left an extraordinary legacy of work, finely executed and undeniably strange.

His work does not appear to us today to be ‘outsider art’, since it features fantasy subjects we can find today on the covers of Sci-fi and fantasy game promotional material. The Castlefields Gallery exhibits are rather different, maybe because Dadd and fantasy artists had training in art. Dadd was already an accomplished painter before his episodes of madness and his paintings are logically constructed, beautifully realised.  Fairies, goblins, the whole kingdom of imagined creatures, are there.

What a number of the paintings in the Outsider Art Exhibition (and in Raw Vision) have as themes are: mandalas, often with a central eye or mouth and surrounding circles containing items of preoccupation – feet and hands, eyes, mouths. Colours are unsubtle, shapes are enmeshed, entwined, intricate. Interestingly, McLaggan included some of his own work in the exhibition. I’m still pondering that one.

Some motifs appear again and again in Outsider Art: black dogs, figures that appear like ciphers inside huge voluminous dresses, disproportionate hands, more eyes, strange invented vulval flowers.

Suspicion, paranoia, feelings of being trapped, being like a ghost with no real substance, murderous rage, fathomless despair, sexual longing; these are the real subject matter.

The painters dare to express themselves and their emotions without fear of the consequences. I did wonder, given that the curator was male, whether a female curator might have chosen more work by women, and if they had whether the collection would look much different. Maybe that’s a subject for another day.

Sadly the gallery did not put any reference number or information next to the paintings (I know this a trend nowadays) so I had to look at the map of each room, locate the painting, remember the number on the map, then look through the catalogue to read the artist’s name and the title. As the maps weren’t accurate and the gallery is on three levels, this was annoying, to say the least. One sheet with the number, the artist’s name and title of work was really all that was needed. I know the argument is that a number or name near the painting distracts the viewer, but so do visitors shuffling maps and sheets of paper.

The gallery, which I never visited before, looks like an up market interior décor shop or something from outside. It does not look like a gallery exhibiting exciting artworks. A pity.

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