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Henry Darger: Reclusive janitor by day and visionary artist by night

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A blog by David Chan, Collection Intern with the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection

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Henry Darger, Attack of the Tuskahorians, c.1932-72
Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper
© 2018 Kiyoko Lerner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henry Joseph Darger (1892-1973), was a Chicago born artist who created hidden gems in a single room apartment. Working as custodian janitor in the daytime, he would return to his room of fantasy realms, with his beloved little painted heroines. Discovered after his death by his landlord, famous photographer Nathan Lerner, the works he unearthed turned out to be an epic masterpiece. It’s hard to believe that the unassuming janitor in St. Joseph Hospital was also an exceptional self-taught artist.

Darger started to write The Story of the Vivian Girls, which is known as In the Realms of the Unreal when he was nineteen. It turned out to be a fifteen volume tome, consisting of 15,145 pages. Paintings were drawn with the description accompanied by the storyline. It is a story of seven little heroines who rebel and fight against the evil adults, the Glandelinians. Attacks, murder and torture are committed by the heinous male adults. Sometimes this violence is graphic and even scenes of disembowelment can be found inside the novel. It is also worth noting that the sexuality of the little girls as they all have male genitals in the paintings. This transgender or hermaphrodite status of the little girls is something that art historians have theorised about for years, however, Darger’s reasoning behind giving the Vivian girls penises is unknown. One theory is that Darger is expressing his gender fluidity by seeing the Vivian girls as almost avatars for himself – deliberately calling into question the idea of gender as a binary of male vs female.

Darger never received any formal art training, the main technique he used for drawing was collecting photos of little children from books, comic strips and newspapers, which he the used to make tracings from. Victor Musgrave stated in Outsiders: An Art without Precedent or Tradition, the exhibition catalogue that was produced alongside his 1979 Hayward exhibition of the same, that Darger’s works were the exception to the rule. By this he means that his criteria for selection in the exhibition were that artists must be unaware of cultural norms and untainted by popular culture. Darger, on the other hand, used popular culture -drawings in old albums, magazines, and comics as his source material. He would have these images photographed and have them reduced or enlarged by the local chemist to fit the scale of his pictures, from which he made altered tracings.

Darger repeatedly attempted to adopt a child but failed each time. His keenness to care for and nurture a child is hardly surprising when we review his background. Darger lost his mother when he was three years old while she was giving birth to his sister. His sister was adopted after her birth and he never saw or knew her name. Interned in the Illnois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children when he was 12 years old, records of his admission papers state ‘self abuse’ as the reason. The Asylum held the notorious reputation of being one of the most corrupt and scandalous institutions of its time. While residing at what he later referred to as ‘that childrens [sic] nuthouse,’ he suffered various forms of physical, emotional and, very likely, sexual abuse. So it is perhaps unsurprisingly that the adults in his story are the evil overlords and the children the heroines fighting against oppression.

Living a solitary life for most of his time on this earth, perhaps it is the world of his imagination that was the real world for Darger, together with his loving Vivian girls.

The Whitworth has two watercolours by Henry Darger in the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection. Images of both can be found above and below. N.B. The last two images are the front and back of the same work.

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Henry Darger, Side A.  At Journall.  Are discovered by the Glandelinians and are trapped in an enclosure./At Calverinia. The enemy blows the building up but in the meantime the little girls escapes through an underground tunnel./At Journall. Secure queerly formed plans of the enemy. Side B. At Jennie Richee. Persued by the fury of the long tropical thunderstorm they get lost in volcanic cavern, both c.1932-72
Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper
© 2018 Kiyoko Lerner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

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A review of ‘Your Consequences Have Actions’ at The Tetley, featuring works from the Musgrave Kinley Collection

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This is an exhibition review by collections intern Rachel Hughes of artist Saelia Aparicio’s exhibition Your Consequences Have Actions, which was displayed alongside works from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection (MKOAC) at The Tetley in Leeds – 24 November 2017 – 28 January 2018.

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Saelia Aparicio Your Consequences Have Actions, The Tetley, Leeds, Nov 2017 – Jan 2018. Photography: Jules Lister

 Your Consequences Have Actions

Your Consequences Have Actions was co-curated with the artist Saelia Aparicio in collaboration with Bryony Bond, Director of The Tetley in November, 2017. While Aparicio directed the installation of her own works, Bond selected the works of six female artists from the Whitworth’s Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection at the Whitworth to be shown alongside, creating an intriguing and revealing dialogue. In January I spoke to Bryony about her interest in uncovering art by marginalised artists, seeking out commonalities between different artists, and creating dialogue between different collections.

Bond explained the approach to programming exhibition at the Tetley- ‘alongside contemporary artists we often show a selection from an archive or a collection in the region. And we often find a collection that has some resonance so has a relationship with the artist that we’re showing in some way.’ In this particular instance, she explains, ‘we wanted to present a selection of female artists from the Musgrave Kinley Collection who connect in some way with Saelia’s work…a group of artists who were outside of formal art training so they didn’t go through traditional routes into becoming artists. Some of those artists have mental and physical disabilities. So for example Judith Scott had Down’s syndrome and was deaf but actually she became an incredibly well regarded artist in her lifetime. Outsider Art is something of a contested term because it’s seen as in opposition; it’s putting art outside of the system. So it’s significant that these artists went through different routes into art but have become incredibly well renowned and influenced contemporary artists today like Saelia.’

The overwhelming impression on visiting the exhibition is the sense of a number of different characters present in Aparicio’s work, inhabiting and activating the gallery space. Bond spoke of how these almost appear to be ‘visiting’ the ‘characters’ (or works) from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Collection.

The text panel reads rather mysteriously that Saelia Aparicio was born in 1982 on Secret Island, in Spain. After studying for a BA Fine Art, University of Castilla La Mancha in Cuenca (2009) Aparicio studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London (MFA, 2015) and is currently still based in London and on last account was living on another secret island. In her own words Aparicio states that she is ‘an installation artist’, working ‘with a lot with found objects, drawing, sculpture and all sorts of materials’ and describes her practice as ‘very experimental, and getting more experimental’, encompassing drawing, sculpture, installation, and animation.

While Saelia Aparicio does not feel that she was inspired directly by her childhood experiences, she has spoken of her introduction to corporeality through her father’s profession as a pathologist, which meant that there were always jars of body parts in formaldehyde in the home. From a young age Aparicio was drawn to sketching people and was interested in the structures and systems imposed on the body while questioning what she calls ‘the deception of materiality’, a theme that still features heavily in her drawings and sculptures.

Found objects are central to Aparicio’s practice, she employs them in such a way to emphasise their material qualities – creating new objects that are both alluring and visually ‘a bit gross’, as she calls them. She derives all of her final work from drawing, even when it is sculptural or an installation, aiming to respond in some way to the specificities of the space or site. The installation in the atrium at The Tetley, be humble (2017), combines a mural wall drawing with carved stools made from hunched over and contorted figures – designed in collaboration with her younger sister Attua Aparicio. She explains that this work is about ‘the different physicalities of the body’, and it marks her first interactive piece in the sense that visitors are invited to sit on the stools while contemplating her hand-painted mural depicting spiraling, deflated bodies- their tendons unravelling like ribbons.

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Saelia Aparicio Your Consequences Have Actions, The Tetley, Leeds, Nov 2017 – Jan 2018. Photography: Jules Lister

The exhibition covers ten galleries: galleries 1-9 consist of small rooms that are reached by the main corridor, some are separate while others are adjoining including the large atrium. Rooms lead off others in a labyrinthine fashion. The atmosphere that’s evoked is one that is both homely yet also corporate, as a result of the Tetley’s unique environment as a former brewery headquarters. Offices and private rooms separate the flow of the gallery, causing the visitor to feel like an intruder; apt considering much of the Outsider Art on display would have been produced privately and not necessarily for public consumption.

Works from The Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection in the exhibition include those by artists Madge Gill, Aloise Corbaz, Lee Godie, Martha Grünenwaldt, Marie Rose Lortet, and Judith Scott; all female artists, many of whom are interested in the figure and portraiture. While the works are not explicitly split thematically, the idea of different characters meeting and conversing in this space is evident throughout. The paintings, drawings and sculptures are diverse and share a preoccupation with the female body and identity, complemented by Aparicio’s work.

Artistic Relationships: Outsider and Contemporary in Conversation

For the most part, Saelia Aparicio’s work and the work of the Outsider artists feels deeply connected. The sculptural parts of Saelia’s work were taken from her previous solo exhibition Peaks & Troughs held at Turf Projects in Croydon, which explored the relationship between regeneration and the physical and emotional effects this has had on the neighbourhood. By relocating Aparicio’s works here to The Tetley and in dialogue with the work of the Outsider artists, they take on multiple new narratives and meanings as they engage in thought-provoking conversations with one another. Thus the exhibition moves beyond the specific South London environmental context to adopt a broader, more universal approach to our relationship to the body, its mental and physical environment.

Aparicio has stated in interview that she is interested in creating ‘dimensions of the absurd’ in which ‘the viewer relies on perception opposed to conventional social assumptions.’ She is interested in the illogical and unnamable in art- that which dodges attempts at fixed meaning-making. Her interest in Outsider Art stems from this fascination with the unknowable worlds of the psyche and how these are expressed aesthetically. Confronted with a work of Outsider Art- viewers cannot rely on pre-existing strategies for decoding meaning – as they often differ radically from what we are used to seeing on our gallery walls.  Viewing Outsider Art can often lead to a sense of estrangement from what we know but also a strong feeling of attraction to the unknown. This is a feeling that Aparicio is trying to capture in her own work.

The exhibition’s wall texts display minimal information so that the Outsider artists work can be exhibited without stigmatisation, arguably as the original founder of the collection Monika Kinley would have intended. The personal lives (and struggles) of the artists are not explored in detail, only by watching the exhibition video or reading the exhibition guide would you discover this biographical information. The artists are therefore allowed to speak for themselves through their artwork primarily, and their work is given equal footing alongside Aparicio’s work.

Outsider artists often use art-making as a visual form of expression as verbal and written communication may prove difficult. Aparicio too, does not employ language within her art, demonstrating a shared relinquishing of the linguistic in favour of a technique that emphasises feeling. Moreover, Aparacio is drawn to the material qualities of found objects in a way that many Outsider artists are. For example, the American artist Judith Scott who worked by drawing together stray objects – cutlery, car keys and bric-a-brac found around the Creative Growth studio and wrapping these things in cocoons of wool and string. Another MKOAC artist Marie-Rose Lortet was inspired by the textile traditions of the women in her family to create 3-dimensional works from thread and lace. Aparicio’s Broken Builder, a fractured pane of glass sat in a steel structure reminiscent of a torso and legs, looms over Lortet’s Chambre de Lin (Linen Room) dwarfing the small textile house. There is a stark contrast between the cold industrial materials of Aparacio’s Builder and the domestic craft of Lortet’s lace structure- but both display a delicacy and fragility that alludes to the effects of modern life on a person. The transparency of both works; the glass body, clear plastic accessories, exposed optic nerves of Aparicio’s builder and the see-through structure of Lortet, allow the external world to seep into the internal.

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Saelia Aparicio, Broken Builder, 2017 (right) and Marie-Rose Lortet, Chambre de Lin, 1994 (left). On display in Your Consequences Have Actions, The Tetley, Leeds, Nov 2017 – Jan 2018. Photography: Jules Lister

Judith Scott’s yarn sculptures add another element of experimenting with the deception of materiality as they are suspended from the ceiling by invisible fishing wire giving a feeling of weightlessness. In the same room Aparicio’s Pompeii Casts, two faceless figures, slump lifeless on the floor. Aparicio states that she has had a long interest in Judith Scott, saying that her 2012 exhibition San Borondón (produced at La Conservera, Murcia) was a direct reference to Scott’s work. Aparicio says that when she discovered Scott’s work she became fascinated, finding the work striking and interesting, and while aware of Scott’s deafness and the fact that she was an artist with Down’s Syndrome, this was not something which Aparicio was aiming to highlight. Instead she questions whether an artist’s life story causes people to add more value to their practice and whether an artist should have to expose themselves in order to be successful. In this particular exhibition the work of art by the Outsider artists is privileged for its creativity rather than the artist’s biography. There is also a fascination with the exterior and hidden interior of things, present in both Scott and Aparicio’s work- the exterior materiality of their works masking or protecting the fragile or vulnerable interior core, whether under layers of wool and string (with Scott’s sculptures) or jesmonite (with Aparicio’s Pompeii casts).

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Two sculptures by Judith Scott from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection. On display in Your Consequences Have Actions, The Tetley, Leeds, Nov 2017 – Jan 2018. Photography: Jules Lister

Aparicio’s work A Study of Cubic Women, depicts several contorted, jagged, and ghostly female presences, which appear to ‘look up to’ three surrounding works by MKOAC artist Martha Grünenwaldt. Not only do these works share their use of bright colours, Aparicio’s work echoes a feminine yet haunting presence found in Grünenwaldt’s portraits, with their empty eyes and mouths agape. The low spotlighting in the room casts a shadow over Aparicio’s work when viewing it, this sense of presence and absence is also suggested in Grünenwaldt’s work.

One connection the curator Bryony Bond makes between Saelia’s practice and the Outsider artists is a shared freehand approach and use of repeated motifs and designs. One artist from the MKOAC who works in such a fashion is Madge Gill. Gill believed that a mysterious spirit called MYRINTEREST would possess her, causing a burst of creativity in a trance-like state. Similarly, Aparicio’s freehand approach represents an act of relinquishing control to convey the immediacy of feeling. This surrender of the mind, worn down by daily life, to the hand is arguably a shared connection between Aparicio’s practice and the work, not just of Madge Gill, but many of the Outsider artists.

Aparicio’s sculpture Clogged Filter is constructed from various materials including the grill of an electric heater and a range of powdered metals, found in the polluted atmosphere. Although mechanical and industrial, the body (the electric heater containing coloured metals resembling human organs) is weak, supported by a walking frame. This work is shown alongside Aloïse Corbaz’s richly coloured Palais Rumine and Lee Godie’s Chicago – The Heaven on Earth and Prince of Chicago. Both Godie and Corbaz’s works illustrate a world of glamour and exuberance. By displaying these works with Aparicio’s, Bond is highlighting the ideas of identity and dressing up with the inevitable breakdown of female physical beauty over time. This draws on the different attitudes shown and values ascribed towards the young and the old (based on physical attractiveness). Bryony is very interested in this idea of identity and its relationship to the self-portrait, the notion of the artist playing with looking towards themselves, as she discusses how Lee Godie would dress up and take photo booth self-portraits, which she would then hand-colour by rouging her lips and cheeks or adding long eyelashes.

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Martha Grunenwaldt, Untitled, date unknown. On loan from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection and on display in Your Consequences Have Actions, The Tetley, Leeds, Nov 2017 – Jan 2018. Photography: Jules Lister

Bryony observed that the urge to create that is so integral to Outsider artists, proves that people will continue to be driven to make art whether or not there is a gallery to exhibit the work in. She feels like Aparicio is similar to the Outsider artists in that they share this compulsive need to make things, gathering whatever is at hand from the world around them. Aparicio agrees, saying ‘I am too tactile!’. She is driven by a need to bring inert materials to life, luckily for us!

SAELIA APARICIO: YOUR CONSEQUENCES HAVE ACTIONS ran from 24th November 2017 – 28th January 2018, click the link below to take an amazing virtual 3D tour through the exhibition courtesy of Apollo3D

Click Here to See

 

Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art

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At the end of October I had the pleasure of visiting Paris and Lille funded by an ICOM Heritage without Borders travel grant, a scheme designed to enable staff from regional UK museums to visit greater Europe to develop mutually beneficial projects and partnerships.

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The first leg of my journey involved visiting colleagues at the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (aka LaM). Opened in 1983 on a two-hectare sculpture park in Villeneuve d’Ascq on the outskirts of Lille, the first thing that strikes you as you approach LaM  is its distinctive architecture. Emerging from the parkland is an accumulation of red brick and glass modular units stacked one on top of another -forming a unique low-rise structure. The vision of architect Roland Simounet, the building is now listed for its architectural importance.  Reaching around and almost embracing Simounet’s building, is a pale concrete extension perforated with holes. This new extension was opened in 2010 and was designed by Manuelle Gautrand – it’s unique ‘mashrabiya-like’ façade specially designed to keep the light-sensitive Outsider art works inside in dappled sunlight and shade.

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Along with the Whitworth, LaM is the only museum in Europe to simultaneously present the main components of the art of the 20th and 21st centuries – modern art, contemporary art and Outsider Art, in a single institution. As such, I was very keen to visit LaM to find out how they have approached exhibiting their Outsider Art Collection alongside their other collections. Over coffee , LaM’s senior curator Savine Faupin told me the story of how they came to acquire one of the most significant collections of Outsider Art certainly on French soil, if not in Europe.

Just like the Whitworth, LaM was the recipient of a hugely generous gift – a fully formed collection- reflecting the passions and interests of three artists/collectors – Madeleine Lommel, Claire Teller and Michel Nedjar (also known as the association L’Aracine). The catalyst that kick-started the association’s collecting was the departure of Dubuffet’s art brut collection from Paris to its current home in Lausanne in Switzerland. This move provoked in Lommel ‘a feeling of indignation that turned into a mad desire: to pursue the adventure in France.’ They began collecting in earnest in 1982, displaying the work in a chateau in Neuilly-sur-Marne, an eastern suburb of Paris. Ten years later and the association L’Aracine, as they were called then, decided that it was time for the collection to go to a larger organisation that could staff and resource the collection, in a way they were unable to do as practicing artists. Hence the collection (of over 3500 works) was moved to LaM where it was officially donated in 1999.

The donation was not without certain stipulations, however. The main condition was that the museum was required to build new permanent galleries specially to house the gift, and that LaM must agree to commit to one art brut exhibition per year whilst waiting for the extension to be built. Of chief concern to the association L’Aracine was the ‘legitimacy of bringing different art fields into close contact’ which they believed ‘risked destroying the specificity of art brut’ and ‘normalising it’ (Savine Faupin). This is in direct contrast to Monika’s wishes that the Musgrave Kinley Collection be shown fully integrated with works from the Whitworth’s wider collection, with no clear distinction made. L’Aracine were also clear about how the work should or rather shouldn’t be hung. Michel Nedjar in 2010 stated ‘[These works] should not be hung as if they were contemporary art…because you can’t show them the way you do other works…spaced out every few metres…the more there are, the better it is.’ Furthermore, the museum also had to contend with resistance from a number of their stakeholders who did not recognise the quality and power of the work, believing it to be devoid of interest or merit. Some members of the local council even went as far as to suggest that the work be better suited to be housed in the psychiatric hospital at Armentières, a suggestion that both the museum and L’Aracine fought hard against until the plans were overturned.

After much reflection and some negotiation with L’Aracine and the local government, LaM eventually established their concept for the museum as a ‘museum of collections’. This was intended to preserve the identity of the Masurel donation (216 modernist works), for which the museum was created to house in the first place, as well as the specificity of the L’Aracine.  As Savine explained, the leading exhibition principle was the assertion of 3 distinct collections- modern, contemporary and art brut- and ‘on their being presented separately’. The modern collection is still presented in the rooms designed to house it and in chronological order so the visitor ‘can appreciate the artistic movements represented in the collection.’ There are spaces allotted to contemporary art- either shown chronologically or thematically. Finally, the L’Aracine collection is represented by a permanent display of 400 works in rooms designed by Gautrand, which fan out from each other like a concertina or as Savine rather poetically described it ‘like a hand opening its fingers into the park’.

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Sculpture by A.C.M. on display at LaM, 2017

Savine went on to describe LaM’s curatorial approach to displaying the collection – ‘As far as possible, the world of each creator is preserved in all its singularity, and works by the same creator are presented as a set.’ The artist’s biography is usually made manifest in the interpretation to more of a degree then perhaps accorded to the works of modern/contemporary art in the rest of the museum. The first room of the permanent display provides a grounding in the history of art brut, from the interest of psychiatrists in the early 20th century, and the surrealist fascination with the works of Adolf Wölfli and Emile Hodinos, to the research conducted by Dubuffet from 1945. Next there is a room dedicated to the art of spiritualists and visionaries – with works by Augustin Lesage and Fleury Joseph Crépin. The theme of the following room is ‘Emotionally charged traces and objects’ and focuses on the important role played by memories and familiar objects in the creative process, via works by André Robillard, Michel Nedjar, and Judith Scott. In another section of the gallery is a gathering of totemic wooden figures- some reaching over 4 metres in height. These are by Theo Weisen, a trained carpenter who filled his garden in the German countryside with rough-hewn wooden people; stand-ins for the family he lost when he was a child (see below). In another room, a vast table-top sculpture by reclusive French sculptor A.C.M. dominates the space, like a plan for a long-lost ancient civilisation; it is made from the recycled inner-workings of clocks, radios and typewriters (see above).

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Sculptures by Theo Wiesen on display at LaM, 2017

Most of the display is permanent, however, the more fragile works on paper and textiles are regularly rotated to avoid light exposure. Since 1999 major efforts have be made to preserve the works. During the construction years, Savine, along with fellow curators and gallery staff members re-homed the entire collection in new storage spaces, built as part of the new extension. Savine showed me some of the wonderful bespoke storage solutions that she and colleagues had designed for some unusually shaped or fragile objects (see image below). In UK museums of this size the hands-on work of re-homing is often undertaken by specialist conservators – so it was refreshing to see a curator working in such a way, which also meant that Savine had acquired intimate knowledge of the material condition of every object in the collection. Also factored into the new extension was the creation of a conservation studio- where treatment could be carried out on-site and substantial costs saved. It was useful to have conversations about the ethics of conserving some of these works – which my conservator colleague Pavlos has touched on in his blog below, and I’m sure there will be much sharing of knowledge and techniques between our respective conservation departments as our project progresses.

Curator at LaM Savine Faupin displaying bespoke storage for Art Brut works
Curator of LaM Savine Faupin with bespoke storage for works from L’Aracine collection

In terms of LaM’s acquisitions policy- there is a desire for the collection to be representative of all the major names associated with art brut. Their policy is to focus on reinforcing holdings for artists already in the L’Aracine collection, or the acquisition of historical artists that the association would have collected if they have had the chance. Occasionally LaM might purchase something they believe to be significant that would not have been collected by L’Aracine due to personal preference. For example, the work of Prussian artist Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern who drew scenes of torture and grotesque amalgamations of the human and animal, which are more than a little reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. The original founders did not consider him to be a true Outsider because he claimed to have copied his style from a psychiatric patient he met in an asylum, so when LaM purchased a work by Schröder-Sonnenstern a few years ago they accessioned the work into the modern collection, not the L’Aracine collection, out of respect for the founders’ wishes.

Since the collection was gifted, it has grown by a further 1000 works, some of these are due to gifts (i.e. a substantial gift of works by Judith Scott from the Creative Growth Center and 5 Henry Darger drawings from Kiyoko Lerner), while others have been strategic purchases. The collection currently stands at around 4,500 works. The collection is also supplemented with long loan of works by psychiatric patients from The French Society of Psychopathology of Expression and Art Therapy, whose main aim is the promotion of the study and research of all forms of artistic expression and its connection to therapy and pedagogy. As Savine explained- this long loan is indefinite but cannot be officially gifted to the museum, as French law dictates that any artworks produced in hospital are owned by the patient, who has sole control over what happens to it. This poses some important questions around legal ownership of works produced in psychiatric clinics in the UK that I would like to explore further as we begin to consider how we might shape an acquisitions policy for the Musgrave Kinley Collection.

We also spoke about acquiring work from ateliers that work with marginalised artists. In each case LaM works with a solicitor to draw up a contract that requires the agreement and signature of the artist. Typically payment for the work would be split, with a third going to the artist, a third to the atelier to enable them to continue their programmes and a third to a bank account where it is held for the artist. One of the concerns raised in our discussions was the danger of jeopardising an artist’s social welfare or disability allowance through the purchase of works, and how this might be avoided.

LaM hosts two major temporary exhibitions of art brut every year – which draw on the collection and loans in. Currently, in collaboration with the American Folk Art Museum, they are presenting a joint, two-part project on the structure of narratives in art brut- ‘Les Refuges du Récit,’ which compares various types of autobiographies and fiction composed from invented and imagined languages. These stories are often accompanied by illustrations and use a wide range of media, from notebooks with coded texts to journals with collaged ephemera, cartography to audio cassettes (see below).

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Install shot of Les Refuges du Récit exhibition with Jim Kaliski works on wall

 

Jim Kaliski, untitled, 1999, collage, ink nd watercolour wash
James Kaliski, Untitled, 1999. Watercolour, ink and collage on paper.  Exhibited as part of Les Refuges du Récit, LaM, 2017

LaM is also home to a research centre combining the Dominique Bozo library and the documentation on art brut. The centre generates critical writing on art brut and its connections to contemporary art as well as its place within 20th century artistic movements. The centre encourages interdisciplinary collaboration between art historians, historians, philosophers, writers, sociologists, ethnologists, psychiatrists and psychologists. In addition, LaM has close links with a number of local universities, having collaborated with the Lille Catholic University and a group of medical students there to curate two exhibitions, as well as working with researchers at the science and engineering University to design a bespoke climate-controlled display unit for a large fabric scroll work in the collection.

Outreach and educational activities are at the heart of LaM’s mission, in particular reaching out to disadvantaged audiences and encouraging and supporting the work of marginalised creators. The educational department at LaM conducts programmes in schools, social centres, hospitals and prisons- taking facsimiles of works from the art brut collection to stimulate discussion of topics such as mental health, social exclusion, and creativity as a form of therapeutic expression. Groups are also invited to come and work in their fantastic atelier space – a place for messy experimentation and exploration. Some groups stay for a week on an intensive residency, while others visit weekly over the course of years. These studios are closed off from the general public- which allows for quiet reflection and private art-making away from watchful eyes. For the general visitor there is the ‘Atelier Coopératif’ (see image below) a wonderful light-filled space filled with different making activities inspired by collection works- designed to encourage participation and play.

L'atelier coopératif at LaM. A space for visitors to create and exhibit their work made within the gallery

Savine showed me some wonderful tactile replicas of 2D works from the art brut collection- produced for blind visitors and partially sighted visitors- with raised lines and braille descriptions underneath (see image below).

Textured facsimile of a work by Fleury Joseph Crépin from the Art Brut collection at LaM_created for signt-impaired visitors

Many of the scultpures in the collection were recreated on a 1:2:1 or smaller scale as facsimiles that visitors could touch or interact with. Below is a replica of a sculpture by the outsider artist Andre Robillard especially for sight-impaired visitors to interact with (see image below). Robillard was specially commissioned to make this replica for their handling collection.

Facsimile work by Outsider artist André Robillard created especially for LaM for their handling collection
Facsimile of gun sculpture made by Andre Robillard for the tactile collection

It was fascinating to see how another organisation with a very similar collection has approached exhibiting the work of Outsider artists quite differently to us. It was also invaluable to spend time learning about LaM’s methods of conservation, approach to programming and their varied engagement work. It has given me many ideas to explore regarding how we can make the Musgrave Kinley Collection more accessible to partially sighted visitors and how we might as an organisation seek to provide platforms for the marginalised artists in our community. I very much look forward to opportunities for LaM and the Whitworth to partner and work together in the future- so watch this space!

A follow-up blog detailing the second part of my ICOM HWB funded trip to the Outsider Art Fair in Paris will follow shortly.

Two current exhibitions: Highlights from the collection of a pioneering art therapist and artist Francis Marshall’s open air-theatre of sculptures transplanted to a West End barbershop

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Last week I visited two fantastic exhibitions in London: The Gallery of Everything, which is currently playing host to French artist Francis Marshall’s stuffed people (open till 10 Sept) and Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, on display at Birkbeck’s Peltz Gallery (until 25 July 2017).

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Francis Marshall and the Beautiful People, The Gallery of Everything

For many years Marshall has surrounded himself with a coterie of friends and acquaintances. These friends he makes with his own hands using mattress stuffing, rags, stockings and wire that he finds discarded in the French countryside. In the grounds of his country house he has created a sprawling outdoor studio filled with various mise en scène  (dinner parties and other gatherings of sorts) populated with what he terms his ‘bourrages’ (or stuffings). The press release for the exhibition describes these beings as ‘living  in the wilderness, unattended for decades’ till their ‘skins share a patina of dirt, stink and sun. Like the leathery works of a time long forgot…’ The handwritten signs that the artist hangs on the figures offer clues to their possible identities or motivations.

This is one of the first times in years that Marshall’s figures have been displayed indoors in a gallery. They were shown first in the UK by Victor Musgrave and Roger Cardinal who selected Marshall for their Outsiders exhibition at the Hayward gallery in 1979. We currently have a number of works by Marshall in the Musgrave Kinley Collection, which are undergoing conservation treatment.

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Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, The Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck, University of London

This exhibition explores the artwork collected by Edward Adamson, a pioneer art therapist and one of the founder members of the British Association of Art Therapists. Adamson pioneered a humanistic approach which focused on individuals at a time when treating mental illness often meant controlling symptoms through drugs, electric shock or operations. His collection is comprised of over 5,000 paintings, drawings, sculpture and ceramics produced by patients who worked with him from 1946 to the mid-1990s. Most of the artwork was created within the five studios Edward established at Netherne Psychiatric Hospital, Surrey; the remainder being produced from his private practice after his retirement from Netherne in 1981. After Edward’s death in 1996, Alice Jackson (Art Therapist and Curator of the collection from 1997) brought the collection to Lambeth Hospital where it was displayed in a small gallery and on numerous corridor walls across South London and Maudsley NHS, Lambeth. And in December 2015 the Trustees of the Adamson Collection Trust (ACT) signed a binding contract with the Wellcome Collection Trust to protect the future of over 4000 pieces of work from the Adamson Collection. These are currently being catalogued and made available at Wellcome Library.

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Watercolour by Helen Greig, painted at Netherene Hospital, 1966. Image credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library.

 

Curated by Dr Heather Tilley and Dr Fiona Johnstone, the exhibition touches on the history of the post-war mental institution, the development of psychiatric practice in the UK, and the origins of art therapy as a profession. It also tells a number of individual stories, including that of Adamson himself, and of the people who produced work under his guidance. There are 8 artists in the show who were chosen for their ‘distinctive visual styles and particular histories.’  This is the first time that these artists have been named in an exhibition, instead of just listed by their archive numbers. The curators explain that ‘by presenting these individuals as artists, rather than as un-named and undifferentiated psychiatric patients’ they hope ‘to highlight the aesthetic, personal and historical dimensions of the collection, whilst remaining sensitive to its medical and therapeutic contexts.’

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‘The Escape’, artist unknown. Image credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library.
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Watercolour by T.E. Hart, painted at Netherne Hospital, 1967. Image credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library.
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Known as ‘the flint lady’, Rowlands was admitted to Netherne in the early 1960s. She initially copied naturalistic images of butterflies onto smooth pebbles, progressing to paint increasingly sophisticated compositions on flints. Here’s a selection of those flints on display in the Wellcome Collection Reading Rooms.

 

 

Caring for an Outsider Art Collection

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Project Conservator, Pavlos Kapetanakis, on the challenges of preserving and treating Outsider Art

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Anna Zemánková, Untitled, undated. Crayon, ballpoint pen, graphite, gold metallic paint, embroidery silk on paper

My role is project conservator on the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection (MKOAC). I am halfway through a 12 month placement, during which I will be undertaking a detailed conservation survey of all the works on paper with recommendations as to their treatment and rehousing. I will also be treating a large number of these works so they are in a good condition to be exhibited. The first step in this process involves identifying the materials and methods used in the execution of an artwork through intense technical study. This first study provides insights into the artist’s unique process of creation. Outsider artists present a challenge to conservators as they primarily use highly unconventional and found materials. Close visual examination of the physical qualities of media and supports and, when possible, material characterisation using analytical techniques, as well as close discussion with curators, are among the tools used by the conservator to inform the care of works of art.

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Hans Krüsi, Untitled, undated. Fibre- tipped pen, opaque watercolour, matt opaque synthetic polymer paint on serviette on medium, smooth, white, coated paper attached to medium, smooth, white, machine made paper.

Swiss born Hans Krüsi loved to paint cows in the countryside where he lived. Using several tape recorders, he also made sound montages during his walks, in which animals and insect noises are combined with primitive chanting, percussive noises and distorted radio folk songs. You can listen to them on Youtube here. He was also a tireless experimenter, who used collage techniques and also spray-painted over real fern leaves to create decorative patterns on his painting surfaces. Often he laid down colours in what appeared to be a random manner. Later he would pick out shapes from these colour compositions, forms that suggested human faces, trees or animals. These he would highlight with bold, black outlines. This particular work (see above) was drawn and painted onto a white serviette napkin, possibly grabbed from a coffee shop table in a moment of inspiration.

Hans Krüsi, like other artists represented in the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, often used a range of commercial art materials as well as a wealth of unconventional ones. In many cases these are as difficult to determine visually as the techniques used to apply them. The works tend to be untitled, undated and not signed which adds to the challenge of tracing an artist’s output and progress. Interestingly, some drawing media, particularly modern synthetic colourants and their dates of manufacture, could help indicate the earliest possible dates for some of the works. In addition, the wealth of commercially printed supports used (brochures, magazines, packaging, or napkins in this case), can provide us with evidence for the dating of some works.

The ‘dry media’ used by artists in the MKOAC include soft pastels, oil pastels, and wax crayons which exhibit a remarkable visual similarity under high magnification. The most widely used medium encountered in the collection, however, is the fibre- tipped pen, (officially known as ‘porous pointed pen’) and often referred to by its brand name ‘Magic Marker’ which was developed in the mid- 20th century. These markers were preferred due to their bright, saturated colours, faster drying times, and rapid execution. Unfortunately, however, their dye- (solvent) based inks, extremely sensitive to light, make them susceptible to fading and colour transfer.

Perifimou, Untitled, fibre- tipped pen, graphite on medium, smooth, white, machine made paper (back of patient menu card).

Alexander Georgiou (nicknamed Perifimou- Greek for ‘famous one’), was a prolific artist who began to draw at 59 to counter the boredom of his job as a warden at the Tate. Most of his work is small and consists of imaginary narrative scenes with animals and people in fantastical landscapes and forests. He would sit in the galleries and doodle on a small piece of paper resting on his knee. As you can see from the image above, the fibre- tipped pen he has used in this drawing has faded due to light exposure, and the pen has also seeped through onto the reverse.

Ballpoint pens were also highly favoured by Outsider artists because of their cheapness and easy availability. Although patented in 1888, ballpoint pens only became popular in the mid 1940’s and historically their formulations included a drying oil ink mixed with a dye and resin and fast drying glycol inks that were dried by solvent evaporation. Other materials, such as lubricants, surfactants, thickeners, and preservatives are also incorporated. Some inks are sensitive to solvents and may contain fugitive dyes; while some formulations are not lightfast (this is a conservation term, which means prone to discolouration if exposed to light).

Clockwise from top left: 1) T. H. Gordon, Untitled, c.1993-4. Fibre- tipped pen, ballpoint pen on medium, smooth, white, machine made, printing paper. 2) Reverse of same work 3) Detail showing raised ridges/indentations in paper and pen-work 4) Tear caused by excessive working of the media.

Their use is often quite unique and resourceful and the result rather effective. For example the distinctive work of Theodore Gordon: T.H.Gordon (as he liked to be called) made endless, compulsive line drawing portraits, which he called ‘doodles’, often on the back of leaflets from the hospital he worked as a file clerk in California. The details above show the crimped paper surface and vigorous working of his ballpoint pen, which has caused extensive tearing along the outlines. The tears have been repaired with pressure sensitive tapes from the reverse. Thankfully these were applied recently and are not yet degraded, which would hopefully make their removal easier without the use of solvents.

Outsider artists seem to both understand and take advantage of the unique qualities and working properties of the supports they choose – smooth, sized surfaces versus uneven, textured ones- sometimes partially altering them by vigorous working to create contrasting or textural effects or deliberately incorporating the flaws of the paper or support into their composition. As a result, the lines and washes not only owe their appearance to the application methods, but also the physical characteristics of the supports in equal measure.

Gaston Teuscher, Untitled, undated. Ink, graphite, crayon, adhesive on thick, smooth, grey card with smooth, white, coated paper facing (detergent box cardboard).

Gaston Teuscher is one such artist who works the natural characteristics of his support to his advantage. He only began making art the age of 71, producing an outpouring of drawings often featuring undulating faces. He considered himself an amateur as he had not received an art school education. He used found papers, such as cigarette or candy wrapping papers, whose irregularities inspired his pencil or his pen.

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Martha Grünenwaldt, Untitled, undated. Poster paint and crayon on medium, smooth, off white, machine made, coated paper, backed with magazine printed glossy paper

Martha Grünenwaldt began making art at 71, instinctively taking up her grand-children’s colouring pencils, making her distinctive colourful drawings of women often on the back of posters. Here the smooth finish of the coated paper support promotes the fluid application of the poster paint, which sits on the surface, however, this has also resulted in flaking issues and loss in certain areas. My prescribed treatment is a consolidation campaign, which means securing the flaking paint using an appropriate adhesive that will not saturate the surface of the matt paint, altering its appearance.

The combination of materials that would ordinarily never meet e.g. paper and embroidery silk- can produce striking results, as in the case of self-taught Czech painter Anna Zemánková below.

Images (left to right) Anna Zemánková, Untitled, undated. Crayon, ballpoint pen, graphite, gold metallic paint, embroidery silk on medium, smooth, cream, machine made, wove paper. Detail of work and image of reverse of work.

Zemánková believed in the kinship between man and plants. She began to draw prompted by creator spirits and worked at the state of exaltation, usually around dawn, freed from the constraints of everyday life. Her innovative techniques included perforating the paper or crimping the drawings to create relief or using embroidery as in this example. Here, Zemánková used an adhesive along the support’s edges as well as to attach some of the needlework on the reverse. These residues have now dried and discoloured and have in turn caused staining on the paper. The treatment will only involve surface cleaning with a soft sable brush and removal of old hinges. The work will be rehoused in a sink mount- essentially a deeper mount- to protect the relief and needlework.

To sum up, Outsider artists often show little or no consideration for the preservation of their works- making them in an instinctive manner with any materials within easy reach. However, with these works increasingly being collected by museums, we now face issues of how to preserve them so they are around for visitors to enjoy for many years to come. Unstable materials can complicate the work of conservators committed to preserving the ‘artists’ original intent’. For example, we are often faced with ethical dilemmas concerning whether or not to remove something i.e. yellowing pressure sensitive tape, adhesive residues, or acidic secondary paper support that is damaging the artwork, or to leave it in order to ‘stay true’ to the original artwork. We hope to find many answers from surviving artists in the collection by interviewing them, which will inform how we preserve, treat and care for these idiosyncratic artworks, while adhering to the artists’ original wishes.

April 2017

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Curator of the Musgrave Kinley Collection, Holly Grange, on a month’s worth of research trips and exhibitions. Including: Chinese Outsider Art in Amsterdam, OutsiderXchanges, Carl Peploe’s magnum opus and the largest collection of spiritualist artist Madge Gill’s drawings.

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Derk Wessels, Portrait with Black Hair, 2011, oil pastel on paper

Over the last month I’ve been lucky to meet with some inspiring individuals and organisations who work with marginalised artists, as well as having the opportunity to visit a few Outsider Art exhibitions and collections, both in the UK and abroad. This blog is a round-up of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen – with plenty of photographs of course.

Pool Arts

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Members of Pool Arts with Alison Kershaw far right

Earlier this month I attended the launch of a terrific new artist studios at 18 Grosvenor Street, in the Ardwick area of Manchester, just a short 5 minute walk from Manchester Met University. The studios are home to Pool Arts, an organisation that provides opportunities for artists that find themselves isolated or excluded- sometimes socially, and often from involvement in the arts. I met with Alison Kershaw there, an artist and facilitator who works closely with these artists to tackle the barriers they may experience by nurturing artistic development- whether through mentoring, providing the space and facilities to make art or creating collaborative exhibition opportunities.

Alison is currently the keeper of the Carl Peploe archive. Carl is a self-taught artist from Warrington who Alison has worked with for over twenty years. Together they are engaged in a lengthy project to archive his huge collection of artwork – which takes the form of hundreds of books- exercise books, diaries, notebooks, all filled with drawings, cartoons, poems and collages. Carl started making books as a child and continues to produce several a week, though recent health issues have affected his dexterity- he still makes work but at a slower speed. His magnus opus is not just an autobiographical record, but also constitutes an intriguing picture of British culture and society over the last 40 years. His imagery is typically drawn from newspapers and magazines of the day, often riffing off pop culture and the political landscape at the time, all underscored with a sharp sense of humour and of the absurd, which is uniquely his own.  Alison wonderfully describes his work as ‘a fusion of Hieronymus Bosch and the seaside postcard, pre-Raphaelite romanticism and Viz comics, with settings in and around Warrington and throughout history and all over the world.’

Carl’s work entered the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Collection after Alison wrote a profile piece about Carl’s work for Raw Vision magazine, which peaked Monika’s interest. Alison recalls how she picked Monika up from Manchester train station and drove her to Carl’s tiny bedsit in Salford. She recalls that his flat at the time was ‘like a work of art in itself’, with the collages extending off the pages of his books to little assemblages and collections of toys, pictures and artificial and real flowers, dolls, page 3 girls and classical painting reproductions. ‘Monika was charming and interested in Carl’s welfare’ and Carl was more than happy to sell her a few of his books to enter her collection.

To learn more about Alison archiving project and Carl’s work you can follow her blog here …

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(Images above) The Carl Peploe Archive
 

Amsterdam- Outsider Art Museum

Over the Easter weekend I visited the Outsider Art Museum (OAM) in Amsterdam. The OAM resides within the Hermitage Amsterdam, a satellite of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. The OAM is the only museum in the Netherlands to display acclaimed works by leading Dutch and international outsider artists and was opened in 2016. It is a unique collaboration between Dutch care organisation Cordaan, the Hermitage Amsterdam and Haarlem’s The Dolhuys I museum of the mind. A space has been created for an Outsider Art Gallery, an art library (where you can borrow an artwork for €50 a year) and an atelier for artists from Cordaan. There is also a commercial wing to the gallery, which enables marginalised artists to sell their works – an admirable enterprise given how Outsider artists are so often side-lined from the sale of their work.

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Their current exhibition China (open from now until 5th June 2017), showcases the work of Chinese Outsider artists alongside work by their Dutch counterparts. Featuring over 200 works, it was the result of a collaboration with artist Guo Haiping, founder of the Fengqiyuan Community and Prototype Arts Center in Nanjing and Hans Looijen, joint Director of the Outsider Art Museum (Amsterdam) and Dolhuys | Museum of the Mind in Haarlem.

This exhibition is one of the first international exhibitions of Chinese Outsider Art, which is only just starting to become known outside of the country. This in large part to the important work of Guo Haiping, who has sought to tackle the stigma around mental illness and disability in China by founding two creative studios for disadvantaged artists. In the exhibition catalogue Guo explains that many Chinese families chose to keep physically disabled and learning disabled children or relatives at home, with their primary focus being ‘to do their utmost to allow them to function in line with [societal] expectations.’ His studios offer a place they can come to explore creativity, free from judgement or expectation. ‘Parents and neighbours are stunned by how the participants flourish, open up and make contact. They finally understand who they are, find renewed energy and start to appreciate their artistic talent. New friendships with other participants and recognition from the supervisors at the studio give some participants wings; they blossom into artists. The recognition and the effect of this recognition on the artists themselves and on their position in society cannot be underestimated.’

The difficulties Guo experienced in gaining support for this work is documented at length in his fascinating catalogue essay. He explains that Outsider Art is a relatively new concept in China, with the majority of the Chinese population only becoming aware of the term in 2004, when The Story of Art Brut was published by author Hong Mizhen.  As Guo explains ‘in Asian culture, much is thought of the contribution of an individual to society, sacrificing oneself for the benefit of others earns repute and respect. Those who do not, risk rejection and exclusion. With its free expression, Outsider Art therefore has to overcome significantly larger obstacles in Asia than in Europe.’

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Pin Fang, Inner Scenery, undated, felt tip pen on paper

By displaying the work of the Chinese artists alongside their Dutch counterparts- comparisons can be drawn between the different visual styles and subject matter. The Chinese artworks depict the Beijing Opera in a personal language of forms, unique takes on the shapes and codes of Chinese characters (or hànzì), creatures drawn from Chinese mythology and depictions of everyday life, of fish, birds and landscapes. Likewise, the work of the Dutch artists, clearly show them expressing ideas and images adapted from local folk cultures as well as the popular culture they have been exposed to. The exhibition left me reflecting on how often the cultural background of Outsider artists are roundly ignored (or simply a token footnote)- the implicit assumption being that Outsider artists are somehow paragons of uninfluenced and universal forms of creativity. This exhibition proves that, on the contrary, these individuals are far from ‘savants creating artwork in a cultural vacuum’, but very much draw their inspiration from their specific local contexts, which is then refracted through their individual experiences of reality.

 

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Qiao Yulong, Work No.17, undated

 

Venture Arts

Last week I visited the fabulous Venture Arts in Hulme and met with Director Amanda Sutton and Studio Manager Katherine Long. Since 1985, Venture Arts has been providing a space where professional artists run a huge variety of workshops to enable learning-disabled people to explore their creativity and as Amanda explains ‘play a valued role in the region’s vibrant and diverse culture’. Venture Arts focuses on nurturing talent and overall wellbeing through the arts. The have a firmly held belief that the arts can play a very real and tangible role in transforming lives and in reducing isolation and marginalisation. With a small team of dedicated staff  – what they manage to achieve as an organisation is nothing short of phenomenal. Within the last year alone they have run 1000 creative workshops and showcased the work of all of their participating artists widely in large scale exhibitions and arts festivals.

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They have just wound-up a year-long project called OutsiderXchanges, a visual arts project based on collaboration, reciprocal learning and creative exchange, that brought together six learning disabled artists and six contemporary visual artists. Artists involved in the project include: Juliet Davis, Barry Anthony Finan, Matt Girling, Jane Louise Graham, David James, Sophie Lee, Sarah Lee, Horace Lindezey, Simon Raven, Rosanne Robertson, Leslie Thompson and acclaimed artist Tanya Raabe-Webber. Taking parity of ideas and aesthetic approaches as a starting point, the project focuses on collaboration as equals rather than adopting the usual mentor/mentee model, the resulting works blur the line between art and life, inviting the viewer to challenge their own conceptions of art and what might be considered Outsider Art. New works developed throughout the project were exhibited at the Quay Gallery, BALTIC and Manchester Contemporary. The artists also hosted a riotous art party at the Whitworth last November, which involved video, performance, happenings, a special gig from The Psychedelic Brain Cells, sound art, installations, party food, a disco and much more (see photo below).

Pschyedelic Braincells at Whitworth Gallery Credit to John Lynch
The Psychedelic Brain Cells performing live at the Whitworth, Nov 2016
Horace Lindezey and Juliet Davis (close-up). ‘Rudolf Walker (if you could invite anybody in the world to our party who would it be)_. Photo credit John Leech
Horace Lindezey and Juliet Davis, close up of Rudolph Walker (if you could invite anybody in the world to our party who would it be). Photo: John Leech

A number of Venture Art’s artists are included in Radical Craft which is currently in the Barony Centre in West Kilbride (8 April- 10 June) and then touring to the Aberystwyth Arts Centre (24 June – 2 September) and finally the Walford Mill Crafts, Dorset (16 Sept – 5 November). The exhibition showcases artworks by historically renowned artists associated with Outsider Art such as Judith Scott and Willem van Genk, alongside contemporary self-taught artists who see themselves as facing barriers to the art world for reasons including health, disability, social circumstance or isolation.

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Barry Anthony Finan, Untitled (YES IWANNT TO DO TRRICKSSERRSS), 2016

Venture Arts are also full speed ahead with an ambitious project, partnering with other visual arts organisations, to build a national Contemporary Learning Disability Visual Arts network and art collection over coming years. And we are exploring ways that the Whitworth can work together with Venture Arts in relation to the Musgrave Kinley collection so watch this space!

Newham Archives

Earlier this week I visited Newham Council’s museum services’ store in East London. Newham Council are home to the largest collection of the spiritualist artist Madge Gill’s work. Her son Laurie bequeathed over 1200 works to them following his mother’s death in 1961. It was a rare treat to be able to access the collection, which includes some of Madge’s largest works, including the 9 metres long calico piece The Red Woman, pictured partially unfurled below.

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Viewing Madge Gill’s The Red Lady at Newham Council Museum Services’ stores, April 2017

Gill was an East-End housewife who between 1920 and 1961 generated an outpouring of inspired writings, colourful embroidery and compelling drawings in pen and ink after receiving inspiration from a personal spirit guide named Myrninerest.

Gill was born out of wedlock and was hidden away by her mother and aunt for several years, until she was admitted into an orphanage in London. Later in life she developed an interest in spiritualism and astrology after losing her son to the Spanish flu. In 1920, after losing an eye and almost dying while giving birth to a stillborn daughter, Gill began to paint and draw. She worked in bed by the light of an oil lamp, sometimes even painting in complete darkness.  Drawing on paper or rolled calico, she unrolled small sections at a time – never viewing the composition in its entirety until completion. Some of her drawings reach up to 35 feet in length. They have an almost hallucinatory quality, the surface being filled with checkerboard patterns that suggest dizzy, quasi-architectural spaces. A mysterious figure of a young woman dressed in flowing robes appears thousands of times in her work, and it is unclear if this is Gill’s spirit guide or perhaps her deceased daughter. Gill exhibited her work rarely during her lifetime and never sold any of it for fear of angering Myrninerest.

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Madge Gill, Untitled, undated (circa 1920-55), pen and ink on calico. In the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Collection, the Whitworth.

Monika’s Story

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Monika Kinley and the artist Dusan Kusmic, 1986

‘If the Pope makes up his mind to get married I would recommend to him Monika Kinley’ Dusan Kusmic

This rather unusual endorsement was given to Monika Kinley by the Outsider artist Dusan Kusmic. In 1986, Monika travelled to Dublin to meet the artist in the squat where he was living. This was her first encounter with his work and she purchased a sculpture covered in miniature shoes made from chewed bread and saliva, which would become one of the proudest examples in her collection. Later she would arrange a grant of £600 and included his work in an exhibition in Japan.  Kusmic’s comment is testament to the high-esteem in which Outsider artists held Monika. She was not just a patron, but also a loyal supporter and friend to many, which is evidenced by the numerous letters in her personal archive (now held by Tate). This blog is a profile of Monika, collector, curator, dealer and unrelenting champion of Outsider Art.  

Monika was born Monika Wolf in Berlin in 1925, the daughter of Austrian-Jewish parents, August and Paula Wolf. Monika says – ‘I had wonderful parents, very cultured people. Father was a writer and my mother was always interested in everything.’ In 1932 the family moved to Vienna because ‘it was the liveliest and most cultured of cities’ but left in 1938 the very day that German troops entered the city. They stayed in Prague until 1939, where her parents had to queue for 2 days to get the necessary stamps in their passports. They eventually fled across Europe by train to escape the Nazis, arriving in Britain on 2 April 1939.  As intellectuals politically opposed to the far-right government and as Jews, they were marked people, and it’s only thanks to her father’s foresight in moving the family to Britain that they survived.

Despite her parent’s outspoken opposition to the Nazis, the family were still closely watched because of their German/Austrian heritage, and for a while her father was interned in England as an enemy alien. Her mother Paula found the trauma of their dislocation from their former lives too much to bear and she passed away that year from what Monika termed the ‘shock of the move’.

This was a very difficult time for the family. Monika was placed on a train to Whitby to avoid the blitz and was schooled in a boarding school ran by Anglican nuns. She was 14 years old and spoke no English. She describes the school as a ‘wonderful teaching community’ run by ‘very intelligent women.’ After school she was supposed to go to Durham University to become a teacher, but her true love was art, so she pushed against her teachers and father and applied to Hull School of Art to study Fine Art. However, she quickly realised that she did not want to chase a career as a painter although the art history lessons interested her greatly.  In Monika’s words ‘I realised I was no good so I left’. The determined and resourceful teenager sold her bicycle and used the proceeds to go to London- ‘I lived in awful places and worked in a hotel, but what is unusual about that? All young people do it.’

Through her father’s contacts she got a job working as an assistant to another refugee artist the potter Lucie Rie, whom she used to help make buttons. Lucie Rie, later Dame Lucie Rie, went on to become one of Britain’s most eminent ceramic artists. It was around 1945 that Monika fell in love with a Polish airman, who sadly perished in the war, leaving her to care for their newborn son Peter. It was difficult time to be an unmarried mother and Monika talks about having to leave her job in the ceramic studio because of the pregnancy.

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Lucie Rie’s Buttons

Monika knew that she wanted to work in the arts and so bravely walked up the Tate gallery steps one day and asked for a job. There were only 4 members of staff employed at the time and she was told there were no vacancies, apart from on the postcard counter. Monika gladly accepted the role and she has since described this as ‘the best thing I ever did.’ Being at the Tate opened up a whole world to her, she speaks fondly of the ‘many conversations about art over coffee…with David Sylvester and Lawrence Alloway.’ ‘It was quite wonderful at the Tate. Everybody, every day, discussed art. I could bathe in art.’ It was there in 1953, at the time of the Mexican exhibition that she met Joanna Drew, the Arts Council organiser of the exhibition, who enlisted Monika’s help with the show. As Monika says- ‘this was typical of the times. It didn’t matter that you were just selling postcards, if you wanted to join in, extra hands were always welcome and you became part of the team.’

In 1954 (at 29 years old) Monika married the painter Peter Kinley. They bought a dilapidated top floor flat on Notting Hill High Street with no ceilings and mushrooms growing everywhere. But they were both exceedingly creative and resourceful, and between them they made a very unique and unusual flat.

Peter Kinley, Figure with a Wall of Paintings
Peter Kinley, Figure with a Wall of Paintings (Green), 1968

Shortly afterwards she entered the world of art dealing. Her introduction to the commercial art world was through working front of house at Victor Waddington’s gallery and then later for Eric Estorick at the Grosvenor Gallery. While at the Grosvenor, a man came in with a suitcase full of Madge Gill’s dream-like ink drawings. This was her very first encounter with Outsider Art. After a successful exhibition of Peter’s in New York and some profitable dealing on Monika’s part, they were able to out a deposit down on a flat in Hammersmith overlooking the river. When the marriage ended, Monika stayed on in the flat and, inspired by gallerists in New York, begin ‘dealing’ from her home, which was a novel thing in England at the time.

As a dealer, Monika had the confidence of artists- Prunella Clough, Keith Vaughan, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, – as well as being well regarded by collectors and museums. One of her ‘clients’ was Douglas Hall, the first director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, to whom she sold an Auerbach and a Hilton. She was in demand as a curator with her finger on the pulse and a keen eye for a good hang. She curated shows of Prunella Clough and Jack Smith at the Serpentine and a show of Derrick Greaves’ work in a rented basement in Hanover Square. In 1977 she was invited to curate a prestigious exhibition of British painting 1952-77 at the RA, along with the painter John Hoyland.

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British Painting 1952-77 at the Royal Academy. Monika pictured with Carel Weight and work behind by Merlyn Evans, 1977

It was in Oxford at the Frank Stella private view in 1977 that Monika met Victor Musgrave, who would become her partner in life and art. They spent the afterparty talking excitedly about art and Victor took down her number. He rang the next day and not long after that came to see her bearing gifts. Monika reminisces in her book – ‘How was I to resist such a beautiful and interesting person? I did not.’ Victor was a poet and gallery owner of the radical Gallery One in Soho. He had been dealing in the field of Outsider Art for over a decade and they bonded over a mutual love of the Scottish Outsider artist Scottie Wilson. Shortly after Victor curated the seminal Outsiders show at the Hayward in 79, they began amassing the extraordinary Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection. Within a few years, their growing collection necessitated a move to a larger house in Lambeth, where they exhibited the collection on the walls, filling nearly every available bit of wall space.

Sadly Victor passed away in 1984 aged just 65, but Monika decided to continue the work they had started championing the creative practice of these Outsider artists. ‘Kinley’s eye for the original and authentic, especially in the art of self-taught artists, is unerring.’ Commented Roger Malbert, Curator at Hayward Touring- ‘She loves the strangely unsettling humour of ‘outsiders’, who produce art solely for their own amusement, and she is a passionate non-conformist.’ Her unceasing quest for Outsider Art took her on visits to retirement homes, the Salvation Army and the homeless in order to uncover these marginalised artists. She undertook road trips across the southern states of America and France, and was a consultant for Jarvis Cocker on his Channel 4 documentary series – Journeys into the Outside in the late 90s.  Her obituary in the Times says ‘She drove with friends through South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama in 1980s, staying in motels and consuming large amounts of fried chicken and cold tea.’

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Photograph of the artist J.B.Murry, taken by Monika at his home in Georgia, 1987

In 1987, she was asked by the Arts Council to curate a touring show of Outsiders, which she called In Another World. This exhibition provided a great opportunity to travel, she travelled to see Sava Sekulić in Belgrade, Anna Zemánková’s family in Prague, she revisited Pascal Verbana in Marseilles, Michel Nedjar and L’Aracine in Paris and Dusan Kusmic in Dublin, as well as Phyllis Kind in NY and Nathan Lerner in Chicago. She said ‘these are visits which will always remain with me. They helped me to get close to the work, seeing the artists in their surroundings, spending time with them, looking at their work for hours on end. It was such fun.’ After this her journeys looking for works for the collection continued. ‘Outsider artists have opened so many doors for me. They have been a passport to the world.’

Monika worked tirelessly to find a permanent home for their collection (this struggle could easily be the topic of many future blogs). There are countless boxes of letters in the Tate archive documenting these ‘nearly but not quite’ fundraising efforts and building negotiations. Finally, in 1997 Monika succeeded in finding a home for the works, which was lent for 10 years to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, then in 2010 she made the incredibly generous decision to gift these works to the Whitworth.

For the last 9 years of her life, Monika lived in Plymouth near her son Peter, now a military ship restorer, and his family. There she continued to curate exhibitions- including Artists Make Faces at Plymouth City Art Gallery. A book Monika’s Story, was published by the Trust in 2006 and she was appointed an OBE in 2012 for her contribution to the arts. She died aged 88, after making an indelible mark on the world of Outsider Art and the lives of those marginalised artists that she came into contact with.

 

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Monika Kinley, 2013