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I like making pretty things. I like animals and places I remember from childhood. I like making work with cotton but also enjoy drawing and painting. I hope that I can make everybody happy with my artwork. Barbara Symmons.
Barbara Symmons (1936-2019), a vibrant and prolific Welsh artist, died on 6 April 2019 at Norwich Hospital. She was 83. Her works are held in the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection at the Whitworth In Manchester.
‘She had an idyllic childhood surrounded by love, nature and the sea. She never forgot her parents and often spoke lovingly of them, telling of happy times past, and how her mother taught her to sew.’ Sarah Ballard, Barrington Farm curator
Born in 1936 in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, in a supportive, middle-class family, Ms Symmons learned sewing and decorating from her mother and was interested in art from a young age.
Ms. Symmons resided at The Rookery care home, on the Norfolk coast, from the late 1970’s, and was a defining presence at Barrington Farm Art Barn since its opening. Barrington Farm is an art hub for adults with learning difficulties, set in 20 acres of farmland, it celebrated Its 30th anniversary of activity in 2017.
At Barrington Farm, Ms Symmons discovered a congenial space, which fuelled her insatiable love for doing and making things. Over the years, her impulse to create brought her to experiment and excel with various media: textiles, ceramic, ready-made, painting and printmaking, whilst retaining a distinctive and original visual language.
In her work, ornaments and natural elements meet a bright and a playful palette. Ms Symmons’ practice shows a sincere and deep interest in nature, admittedly a reminiscence of her youth in Wales. Birds, dogs, cats (possibly a recollection of her dog Bobby and beloved cat Joey), flowers, trees all feature prominently in, and inhabit, her joyful landscapes.
In 2017, Ms Symmons was the subject of a short documentary directed by Dr. Amanda Ravetz (Creations, 2017) kindly made available on Vimeo following Ms Symmon’s passing. Dr Clive Parkinson, Director of Arts for Health at Manchester School of Art, has described the film as ‘an absorption in another person’s space, time and place…a haiku of a film’. You can watch the film here …
Since 1996, Ms Symmons took part in over a hundred exhibitions in the UK and abroad and her work was met with critical success.
An intriguing ceramic work Sea Eagle over Ireland and a jewel-like and decoratively patterned landscape drawing in coloured pencil, are today part of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, housed at the Whitworth, The University of Manchester.
Barrington Farm have issued a statement describing her as ‘an exceptional artist and a much loved and respected member of Barrington Farm.’ Her personality and creativity will surely be missed by all those who had the opportunity to spend time with her.
Written by Paolo Ricciardi, volunteer assistant with the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection.
Conversations Series II: Other Transmissions. Responding to the Whitworth’s Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art collection as part of an artists’ residency.
The latest blog is written by Jennifer Gilbert, Creative Producer at Venture Arts and Director of Jennifer Lauren Gallery. Gilbert was the producer of the artists’ residency Conversation Series II: Other Transmissions, for which Castlefield Gallery and the Whitworth were partners.
From October 2018 – February 2019 six artists with and without learning disabilities met once a week as part of a residency led by Venture Arts, in collaboration with Castlefield Gallery and the Whitworth. Conversations Series II: Other Transmissions saw three learning-disabled artists from Venture Arts work alongside three artists from the North West of England selected through an open call-out. The artists were: Joe Beedles, James Desser, Amy Ellison, Frances Heap, Andrew Johnstone and John Powell-Jones. The resulting works were debuted at Tate Liverpool as part of a Tate Exchange event, and are currently being shown in the gallery space at Artlink Hull. From here there is a special live performance at Paradise Works in Salford on 28 June and the exhibition will tour to more art venues in the North West after that. Six third year Graphic Design students from the University of Salford documented the project throughout using photography, filming and drawing.
The Whitworth’s Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection was used as a starting point for the artists, in particular, exploring the issues that lie around labelling artists, as Outsider Artists. The six artists spent two afternoons, early on in the project, at the Whitworth with Holly Grange, the Curator of this collection. Holly gave an overview of the collection and the term Outsider Art and its history, alongside pulling out select pieces of art to share and discuss. On the second session a quiz was played guessing the so-called Outsider Artist, designed to draw to attention the often contradictory and problematic criteria applied to artists who have historically labelled ‘Outsider’. We also looked at quotes from individuals who have shaped the discourse around Outsider Art such as Jean Dubuffet, Victor Musgrave and Monika Kinley and Roger Cardinal, to name a few. We discussed how these quotes made the six residency artists feel – with the quotes coming from both artists whose work is in the collection, as well as art world insiders like Nicolas Serota. This proved a lively conversation, with differing viewpoints.
Holly also spoke to the artists about the Whitworth re-evaluating the language they use to talk about the collection based on several recent conversations she has had, including with Hipkiss and with Richard Nie. With Outsider Art being a hugely loaded term, some artists don’t mind the label and wear it with pride. Others, particularly those who might already feel marginalised in society through mental ill health or disability for example, might also find the term ‘outsider’ yet more ostracising. As with Holly, I agree that it is quite impossible to exist exempt from culture these days, and some Outsider Artists have gone on to get recognition within the mainstream art world today like Bill Traylor, Henry Darger and Judith Scott. Holly is now asking all living artists within the collection (that she can get hold of) how they would like to be described. The credit line noting that the work is from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection always has to stay, due to the owners of the collection passing away. Holly is, however, looking at adding other text from the artists to describe their feeling on the label. With seven pieces from this collection being shown alongside the artists works at Artlink Hull, the six residency artists made a collective decision to not share the artists biographies of the Outsider works, so that work was judged purely aesthetically without the back story that so often taints the viewers impression of the
One poignant discussion happened at the Whitworth when Holly spoke of fellow Venture Arts artist Barry Anthony Finan, whose work was recently acquired by the Whitworth. James Desser who attends Venture Arts wondered whether the term Outsider Art was isolating or liberating for artists? As a learning disabled artist he asked whether all learning disabled artists get shoved under the Outsider Art umbrella, as this was a term he felt uncomfortable with, instead preferring the term self-taught. Before Holly explained that Barry’s work was actually accessioned as part of the main collection at the Whitworth, she had also spoken of other learning-disabled artists works whose artworks were part of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection like Ian Partridge and Shafique Uddin. This discussion led to James’ interactive piece in the exhibition where he asked audiences to use his handmade letter tiles to write a word reflecting something that they felt was isolating or liberating, or that could be both, and to photograph it. An accompanying film of the Tate Liverpool interactions forms part of the exhibition in Hull.
After the Whitworth sessions Amy came back to the studio and used index cards to remember all the artists that she had seen from the collection. She chose her favourite pieces, which included works by Judith Scott and Hipkiss, and did her own interpretations of these on the iPad Pro on ProCreate – one of which can be seen framed in the exhibition (see image below). This was Amy’s first foray into drawing on an iPad Pro and she continues with this technique of building layers on the iPad Pro to this day. Amy said, “I used different brushes; big long brushes and small pencils. I used different colours, ones that looked nice to me. I changed the images and made them look new and different.” Andrew, an artist with non-functioning speech, also took some of the images that Amy found of the artists we looked at from the Whitworth collection and did his own colourful interpretations of these. This included a drawing of a photograph of Andre Robbilard, where Andrew changed Andre’s name to his own in the piece.
Frances spoke of working with the Whitworth collection as being a real education. Before this project she hadn’t known much about Outsider Art other than thinking that it was an amazing field, but felt that, “looking at the wide range of work and discussing both the difficult and inspiring elements with the group was particularly enlightening.” Also that looking at the role of labelling more generally, especially in view of working with learning disabled artists, has made her see that labels are “more nuanced and problematic than they first seem.” This is something that has really stuck with Frances.
John Powell-Jones spoke about his work for the Conversations Series II residency all linking to his interest in labels and him questioning why they are there. He spoke of a book he’s reading called Staying with the Trouble by Donna Harraway, which asks why labels are given, for what reason and who is the author of the stories we tell. John spoke of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection giving all the artists a wealth of inspiration for the residency, directly and indirectly – even if this is not seen within the final pieces exhibited. This residency has made John realise “the apparent need that we, as a society, have to label people”, and that it has made him think more about how he describes his work for future audiences, so that the interpretation is truer to that which is actually meant by him. He said one topic that particularly resonated with him “is the western fascination or fetishisation of ‘the other’, and our continual need to label that which we distinguish as different.”
Joe Beedles spent time taking 3D scans of the two Judith Scott pieces in the collection and these feature as spinning art objects in one of his final films – this being the first time he has delved into film as a medium to use! Like Frances, this field of art was relatively unknown to him and he was excited to hear more about it. His overall feeling now, however, is one of some negativity due to hearing how some people in the collection feel that the label has ostracised them.
The artists all spoke of it being useful to consider the collection from each different artists viewpoints, and that this added to their engagement with the collection as well as their thinking around the whole term. John Powell-Jones also spoke about their conversations around labelling, and how occasionally he would leave the sessions feeling burnt out, but that he knew he had a week to go away, digest it and go back again the following week to discuss it further – feeling that this was beneficial. The other artists agreed.
At the end of the residency the artists gave a talk about the overall experience, with all saying that, across the period they had all felt inspired and had learnt from one another. They all spoke of the enjoyment of being able to take part, with the five-month period allowing plenty of time for discussion, play and trial and error. Being in a small studio space for five months did not come without its challenges, but these were always overcome by working through any issues. Amy ended the talk by saying she felt like they had become a family … and everyone nodded in agreement.
To find out more about the residency visit: www.conversations-series.com
The work is at Artlink Hull until 21 June 2019, hanging alongside seven works from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection – check their website for opening hours. On Friday 28 June from 6-9pm there will be a live performance by Joe Beedles alongside some of the residency works at Paradise Works in Salford – free entrance.
Venture Arts is a progressive visual arts charity based in Hulme, Manchester. It works alongside learning disabled artists to create and show exciting new collaborative visual art. The organisation’s vision is to see learning disabled people play a valued and valuable role within arts and culture as artists, critics, audiences, advocates and workers. To this effect it delivers over 1000 visual arts workshops per year working with over 200 people and run work schemes which help learning disabled people to work and volunteer in cultural and educational environments. Venture Arts showcase the work of its artists locally, nationally and internationally. For more information please visit http://www.venturearts.org
Venture Arts is part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio and is a cultural partner of Manchester City Council 2018-22.
This latest blog is an exhibition insight guest-written by Julia Makojnik, Front of House Assistant at the MAC, Belfast. The MAC is currently host to an exhibition, The Fragmented Mind, featuring over 20 works from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection. It is open for another week, closing this Sunday 29 July, so catch it while you can!
The Fragmented Mind at the MAC is a group exhibition and public programme about the individual experience of mental illness, as well as the stigma and perceptions surrounding it. It is designed to encourage open discussion around mental health. It was curated alongside Lindsay Seers’ new commission Every Thought There Ever Was, a 30 minute multi-channel video projection, which explores the condition of schizophrenia. The Fragmented Mind contextualises Seers’ work in the wider world of artworks dealing with the subject or experience of mental illness. It also addresses the state of mental health provision specifically, as mental health problems are now the largest cause of ill health in Northern Ireland.
Works by artists from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection – such as Richard Nie, Carlo Zinelli and Oswald Tschirtner – who have experienced some form of mental illness in their lives were selected to be part of The Fragmented Mind and form the more unmediated and intuitive artistic expression within the exhibition. Lindsay Seers’ The Letter Paintings and Pedro Rebelo’s Listening to Voices are shown alongside the MKOAC selection, and the tall back room of the gallery has been turned into a welcoming hub where visitors can create their personal responses to the exhibition, as well as take part in workshops, discussions and talks.
There is a feeling of calm on entering the exhibition space – the walls where works by artists from MKOAC are hung are an inviting green colour, different from the usual white. The obvious change of pace between the often busy and bustling outside of the gallery and the soft atmosphere of the inside, encourages slowing down before reflecting on the works on show. And these works certainly require time and a sustained commitment to looking.
Richard Nie, who has suffered from depression since early adulthood, fills the whole page with intricate detail in his ink drawings. His Improvisation First Version draws the eye from one elongated character – a lot of them not unlike Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas – to another, always discovering a new figure, a head adorned by a turban or a cyclops immersed in a crowd of fine black lines. Time invested in Nie’s works brings new details to light, figures and details appear, blending into one another and disappearing, impossible to focus on all at once.
The majority of the pieces here require a similar investment. Carlo Zinelli’s gouache paintings flow between imagery inspired by his childhood in the country and the horrors of war. Zinelli was born and grew up in the Italian countryside near Verona and voluntarily enlisted in the military in 1939 to fight in the Spanish Civil War, however his schizophrenia forced him to leave the army after just two months of service and in 1947, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he also began to lose his verbal faculties. He was eventually admitted to a painting atelier, where he painted for eight hours a day, often on both sides of the paper, creating his own visual language to replace the breakdown of his verbal communication. Zinelli’s works are rhythmic, as figures in profile, insects and visual themes of violence repeat throughout the page, solidifying his visual language and expressing his states of mind, which vary between the the idyllic and violent. His inclination is to fill all of the page, with figures becoming smaller to accommodate the shrinking free space.
Other artists from the MKOAC reflect similar visual themes. Farouq Molloy drew patterns similar to those found in Islamic art during his night shifts as a switchboard operator in a hospital, filling pages with intricate, colourful detail. Dwight Mackintosh created black and white x-ray like drawings of cars, buses and male bodies with repetitive use of indiscernible text alongside them, solidifying his own recognisable visual language. Paul Duhem methodically painted three paintings in the morning and three in the afternoon, often focusing on portraits of a male, differentiated by slight changes in colour, shape or composition. James Price’s beautiful drawings are filled with colour and fine detail, images drawn directly on top of others, making the works difficult to read and constantly shifting the focus from one shape to another without narrative.
Although both are in the same gallery, there is a transition between works from MKOAC and a series of works by Lindsay Seers. The colour of the walls are now white, providing a starker contrast for the monochrome drawings in black frames. Lindsay Seers’ The Letter Paintings provide a contrast between the intuitive, impulsive expressions of mental illness and her mediated attempts to understand the visual language of artists living with schizophrenia. Seers’ interest in schizophrenia and its effect on human consciousness was sparked when she taught a student diagnosed with the condition. Since then, she has exchanged letters and drawings with artists , resulting in a series of works inspired by the exchanges. The three dimensional collages are created from photocopied drawings, blown up or reduced in size to create intense compositions filled with insects, botanicals, organic forms and surreal characters, cutting up and rearranging the visual language developed from her letters. Seers not only draws inspiration from the desire to fill the whole page, but takes it further and fills the frames and the space outside of them, crumpled up drawings spilling out from their corners, reflecting the inability to contain creativity necessitated by illness.
Pedro Rebello’s Listening to Voices is the result of a 3 day retreat in Scotland, where Rebello interviewed participants about their personal experience of hearing voices. The 30 minute audio piece deals with the description and reenactment of voice-hearing, at times recreating the auditory experience of the inside of the mind, contributing to the visual expressions produced by MKOAC artists and Seers and to the variety of individual experiences of mental illness.
Alongside discussions around changing perceptions of mental health issues, the works created by outsider artists have been influencing discussion. For example, the experience of ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’ art within a thematic exhibition, as well as how curatorial decisions can shift the focus away from the problematic term ‘outsider’ onto common themes within the works or biographies of the artists. Something to note is the difference in the way visitors approach works from the Musgrave Kinley collection once they realise they were not created by a ‘professional’ or classically trained artist. As these artists were largely driven by impulse and intuition, and were not concerned with appeasing the art world or fitting into specific contexts – even infrequent gallery visitors quickly become comfortable with engaging in discussions and visual analysis of the artworks, openly giving their opinion. This initial openness eventually translates into willingness to discuss the topic of the whole exhibition, and the works of other artists involved without the usual initial hesitance, as well as getting involved in creative responses in the back room of the gallery.
The back space of the gallery is often visited last. Flooded with natural daylight, it is a wonderful and welcoming space that feels bright and lively. Here conversations unfold further over a large glass table where art materials are laid out and further resources on experiences of mental illness, mental health provision in Northern Ireland and the issues surrounding Outsider Art are provided, encouraging creative responses and research. A couple of times a week, it also becomes a creative and almost therapeutic space, where artists have facilitated public and closed workshops. These have included collage, bees wax work and embroidery techniques, encouraging free, intuitive expression. These creative workshops highlight the positive benefits to mental health that can be found through therapy, supporting the importance of an intuitive, creative outlet for mental illness.
The inclusion of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection in The Fragmented Mind provides a starting point for discussion on the subject of mental health and a comfortable environment for exhibition visitors and workshops participants to be open and expressive about their opinions of the work and experience/s of mental illness. Shown alongside Lindsay Seers’ and Pedro Rebello’s works, it also highlights the similarities and differences between an unmediated expression of a state of mind and a mediated exploration of schizophrenia.
A blog by David Chan, Collection Intern with the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection
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.
A review of ‘Your Consequences Have Actions’ at The Tetley, featuring works from the Musgrave Kinley Collection
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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’.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.’