In Focus: Exhibiting Outsider Art

Welcome to the second installment of ‘In Focus,’ a series of blog posts that see a question and answer session taking place between me and PhD student Marion Scherr. This post focuses on the implications of the term ‘outsider art’ for the artists it describes, and considerations when exhibiting works of outsider art. 

Joanna Simpson - Gum Nut Folk

Joanna Simpson, Good Luck Gum Nut Folk

Marion Scherr (MS): You know many artists yourself and seem to have talked quite a bit with them about the term. Could you give a brief overview of the different opinions and viewpoints artists have about the term? What are the pros and cons people mention when speaking to you about the term ‘Outsider Art’?

Kate Davey (KD): I’ve generally found that artists don’t feel as strongly about the term as academics and curators do, which I find interesting. I’ve had mixed responses, from people who are really pleased to have a found a term (that comes with its own artistic community) that they feel an affinity with. Others have expressed feelings about it being quite limiting, particularly in terms of what kind of shows they can enter or exhibit in, and how they are viewed as an artist.

Interestingly, a couple of years ago I did a blog post focusing on artists’ responses to the term. From this, you can see that a fair few of the artists note that in the term outsider art they have found a ‘movement’ that they feel they themselves and their work can belong in – and belong in successfully. I think there’s something about artists who might see themselves as ‘outsider artists’ finding a community of other artists who view themselves and their work in this way. I find this is quite different to the mainstream art world which can be quite saturated with competition. Certainly I’ve found much more comradery amongst outsider artists, which is always really good to see.

I think I might have mentioned this in a previous answer, but I think that artists who see themselves as ‘outsider’ artists are able to access more support with their professional development and their artistic career through organisations specifically set up to support and promote artists doing this kind of work, which is so important.

Julia Clark

Julia Clark, Owl

MS: Do you think the way in which a work of art is perceived changes, if the audience is told it has been produced by an ‘Outsider’? What is the feedback of gallery/museum visitors like in this regard in your experience?

KD: In my experience, there have been mixed reviews, but generally people are very open to experiencing new kinds of art, and particularly art that might be different to the work they normally view. It’s not to everyone’s taste, and I think this is sometimes where a bit of context can be really useful. I have had a couple of experiences in the past where exhibition-goers have maybe asked ‘what’s wrong with’ one of the artists whose work is on display, but I generally take this as an interest or curiosity in the work and the person who made it – and this is when I’ll talk about outsider art and what it means today.

I think in recent years the market and for and opinion of outsider art has come on leaps and bounds – certainly in the U.K. where we’ve had big exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection and the Hayward Gallery. The main thing, I think, is to display work by ‘outsider artists’ just as you would the work of a ‘mainstream’ artist, so the public see it as valid art and are able to appreciate it for its aesthetic qualities.

I’ve had a few really positive experiences where people weren’t expecting to come across ‘outsider’ art at a gallery or museum, but they have gone away feeling like the work was the most powerful work they saw during their visit.

I think as taste makers, curators and galleries have a role to play here. As long as they are showing ‘outsider’ work (and showing it well) then art audiences (and the more general public) will come to see this work as valid – and, most importantly, as art.

MS: In one of your blog posts you mention that the show ‘Jazz Up Your Lizard’ has changed your mind about curating ‘Outsider Art’. Rather than presenting it in a ‘white cube’ you speak about turning this approach round and “shaping the place to fit the work” and/or finding a space, that works well with particular artworks. What are your opinions on this issue now? What do you normally look out for and what elements do you consider, when you think about the place and setting of a show?

KD: The Jazz Up Your Lizard show was a real turning point for me. As I’ve written about before, I was adamant that outsider art be shown the same way as its ‘mainstream’ parallel. However, this show was a bit different, as I was working very closely with the artist throughout – an artist I have known and admired for a long time. There were also some practical issues involved – the exhibition space had been painted black, and the curator I was working with on the show really liked the colour (and so did I!). The exhibiting artist’s work is very bright, but macabre in content. I think the black just really brought out the colours, as well as the darker side of the works – that on first inspection can sometimes seem fairly jolly.

When curating exhibitions in future, I’d really like to take the lessons I learnt from this show on board. Things I would now consider include what it is we want to pull from the work – what is the essence of it? What might people get from it and how can we help this along? I’ll always work closely with the artist, where possible, as they are the best interpreter of the work. When curating, I really like to think about audiences who might not ‘naturally’ consider visiting an art exhibition – or more specifically an outsider art exhibition. Anything that helps them experience this work is absolutely vital. This includes colour, space, accessibility, accompanying text, events etc. So these are now all things I consider in great detail.

Featured Image: Don’t Look Back in Anger by a Koestler Trust entrant


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