Artistic pursuit outside the institutionalised art scene, and sometimes outside of a sense of artistic tradition, is most precisely termed art brut – the name given it by Jean Dubuffet when he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948. (In English we have only the more nebulous term ‘outsider art’.) But interest in such works predates Dubuffet; it began, perhaps, with Der Blaue Reiter, when Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky amongst others became interested in works of art created by children and the mentally ill. The draw, particularly to those who have spent their lives studying classical artistic traditions, is entirely bound up with the escape from artistic normativity, and Dubuffet articulated it well: “These works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”
It was with an open mind that I visited the 2016 Koestler Awards at the Southbank Centre. The Koestler trust, established in 1962, is the UK’s leading prison art charity. It aims to give current convicts and ex-offenders a sense of purpose through artistic pursuit and to support their reintegration into society. The showcase also includes works by patients in secure psychiatric facilities and immigration detainees, and the media range from paint to matchstick modelling. Typically the Koestler Trust recruits an established art critic or artist to curate the national exhibition and this year the British-Jamaican writer, dub poet and Rastafarian Benjamin Zephaniah was at the helm. The exhibition itself, entitled ‘We are all Human’ features more than 100 works selected from 6,733 pieces submitted.
The quality is remarkably high; three works in particular stand out. The first, called My Village but by an anonymous inmate at HM Prison Dartmoor received the ‘Frederick Davies Highly Commended Award for Braille’. The work on paper shows a bird’s eye view of a small hamlet, identified as ‘Abbey Gate’ in Braille on the top left hand corner of the work, some further information about it in Braille, and coordinates appended to the diagram in that raised textual language. Various houses can be seen and these are merely assigned two initials in Braille each, significant perhaps of the proprietors or residents of the building. As the work was created through superimposition of the various Braille words and phrases on paper of the same quality and color, it becomes a mounted three-dimensional quasi-sculpture, ironically most accessible to those with impaired vision. In a visual culture the ability to see is taken for granted – it is exactly the function of Art Brut that it should shake us into reassessing our most basic assumptions, and by creating a piece that is less, not more, accessible to those who can see, this sculpture manages, in a quite extraordinary way, exactly that.
As for the curating aspect of the show, the use of term itself is stretching it, as far as I could tell there were no underlying grouping, theme or sequence, with a salmagundi of amateur watercolours next to ceramics of questionable purpose. Considering the conditions under which these works were made, it was surprising that the topics of liberty, solitude, and escapism through art were not further explored. The one work that really stood out as contemplative in exactly this nature was titled Dante’s Fireplace by Tom created in HM Prison Peterborough) which won the ‘Inspiration Platinum Award for Sculpture’ This particular sculpture, made entirely of soap and wood, displays three frieze-like panels not unlike Rodin’s gates of hell; called a fireplace because, presumably, not just because of its architectural structure but also because of what it displays: beings in scenes of torture, torment and fiery suffering. This work really complements the matchstick model sculptures that are (bizarrely in my view) dispersed throughout the show, as these traditional media of the fringe workers or the dispossessed resonate perfectly with the plight of offenders and art in incarceration. If anything this is the embodiment of Art Brut, with macabre figures fighting for breath in a cramped space overseen by an Orwellian eye.
Another work, one which reminded me of Claes Oldenburg, consisted of an elaborate display of various British sweets and chocolate all expertly hand woven with felt and thread by ‘Dena’ (no last names are noted – for reasons of privacy, I assume), who is incarcerated HM Prison Send (a women’s prison). The technicality of this particular work is exceptional and as with the others, if this work was placed in a group exhibition in Hirschl & Adler Modern or Vito Schnabel it might incite grandiloquent language referring to the artistic misdirection of dimensionality, the occupation of space, and the use of trompe-l’œil effects. However, the sobering raison d’être for this exhibition forces one to take off that pompous art world hat at the door. And thus we come to the crux of this exhibition – can works created so far apart from the cultural and historical context of what we normally examine as ‘art’ be similarly meaningful? Surely one must be aware of participating in a game and abide by the implicit or explicit rules, otherwise no game is being played at all? Or would we want to say that the artistic impulse is inherent, and irrelevant of circumstance, and to agree with Picasso that “We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell”? If that holds true and one is able to disregard provenance, auction record, gallery association or representation and the status of artist, perhaps you are left with just the work itself – and Dubuffet would say that that is the only thing worth investigating.