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The art of Jack Napthine is a powerful mix of boldly outlined locks, light bulbs and snatches of text; Julian Martin’s thick pastels give a dense velvety texture to his drawings; and Terry Williams’ soft sculptures of fridges, helicopters and video cameras are flamboyant and witty.
They’re all talented artists whose art is shown and collected in Australia and beyond and whose creations are currently part of Everyday Imagining: New Perspectives on Outsider Art at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne. But a few decades ago, their careers would have been unthinkable. In all likelihood, they would have spent their lives in institutions for the intellectually impaired.
Outsider art was a term coined in 1972 by British art historian Roger Cardinal. It was a roughly equivalent but more inclusive coinage for art brut (raw art), a 1940s label by Jean Dubuffet for work by inmates of insane asylums, which the French artist described as “unscathed by artistic culture … and the conventions of classical or fashionable art”.
Today, as well as including artists with disabilities or mental illness, the term is increasingly applied to others on the margins of art and society: the homeless, ethnic minorities, migrants, folk artists, the self-taught. Outsider art is hot – art fairs dedicated to the work of the marginalised draw large crowds and big bucks. The flagship exhibition of Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale was entitled The Encyclopedic Palace after the work of self-taught Italian outsider artist Marino Auriti.
But while examples of creativity unscathed by artistic fashion can be exhilarating and inspiring for artists and collectors, it’s a salient feature of most outsider art that the people applying the label are invariably on the inside – gallerists, academics, psychologists and artists who are art-school or university trained.
There has long been a fear of including the self-taught in the world of high art, says James Brett, founder of the Museum of Everything, a peripatetic collection of unclassifiable and undiscovered art that has taken up residence at London’s Tate Modern as well as Selfridges department store.
Brett is one of the speakers at Contemporary Outsider Art: the Global Context, a conference taking place in Melbourne from 23 to 26 October. “Being called an outsider artist is a badge of pride if you’ve been labelled as marginal elsewhere,” he says. There are many more art-makers than those who society labels artists, he adds. “Insider” art, with all its rules and gatekeepers, is only a small subset of a much larger world of creativity.
The birth of impressionism now has an exact date and time: it was invented at 7.35am on 13 November 1872, according to an astrophysicist who has calculated exactly when Claude Monet painted Impression: Sunrise, his smoky dawn vision of the port of Le Havre.
This makes a nice headline, but history, sadly for journalists, does not work like that. Things never really happen in a neat, packaged way. That’s why the first historian, Herodotus, dedicated so much of his epic book about the wars between Persian and ancient Greece to a digressive discussion about the entire history of the known world: he was trying to get at the complexity of cause and effect.
Art is just as complex as war. When Monet called his intensely atmospheric morning scene Impression: Sunrise he coined a name for this art movement in which French painters dedicated themselves to capturing the fleeting light of never-to-be-repeated moments. But it was not until they had a group exhibition in 1874 that they were recognised as fighting for a common cause. On the other hand, the ideas impressionism was to make notorious, then famous, then revered, were not new at all.
At the heart of impressionism is a desire to paint the immediate, sensual passing scene, in city or country – ideally and mythically – by placing an easel in the open air. John Singer Sargent beautifully captures this ideal in a portrait of Monet at work in the flux of nature, his easel set up amid the balmy elements.
But this idea did not appear like a flash when Monet painted Impression: Sunrise at 7.35am on 13 November 1872. It had evolved over nearly two centuries – at least. Oil sketching in the open air was already common in the 18th century, when it reflected a Newtonian belief in empirical truth and the Romantic pursuit of oneness with nature. The Welsh 18th-century artist Thomas Jones was a particularly bold Georgian proponent of painting in the open air.
Viewers are supposed to marvel at Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), but do they really? Many of us have unsatisfying responses to the works of the Masters, yet we still troop through the museums by the millions. This disconnect has led Alain de Botton and John Armstrong to guest-curate a selection of 150 works at the Rijksmuseum from their pragmatic point of view.
De Botton and Armstrong assert that art’s purpose is to heal some of the pain and malaise felt in life. It would be easy to dismiss this as didactic and anodyne. But reclaiming this broad, utilitarian view of art and reconnecting with the public in an approachable way is not simplistic. It is an important critical challenge to the reductive and self-referential intellectualism that dominates much contemporary discourse.
Tagging each work with large, yellow Post-it-style notes, the curators chat with the audience about the psychological dynamics of viewing art in a large museum. The notes aim to demystify the thoughts and feelings of viewers. Some notes describe the purpose of museums (“cathedrals of art”), while others name the alienation we feel in a room crowded with strangers. Democratizing the viewing experience in this way touches the soft underbelly of art, where contemporary critique has rejected notions of social purpose, beauty, and meaning and thus alienated much of the public.
Art and dance have had a close relationship, from the Modernist flowerings of the Ballet Russes to the downtown scene in 1970s New York. But they have remained largely distinct disciplines until recently. However, choreographers’ work is increasingly being incorporated into museum and gallery programmes, and as integral works rather than interruptions from a distinct artform. Art Basel brings some of the leading figures in dance together for The Artist as Choreographer, Friday’s Conversation, chaired by Hans Ulrich Obrist and featuring the choreographic artists Alexandra Bachzetsis, Xavier Le Roy and Isabel Lewis.
The background to this phenomenon is the two disciplines’ mutual interest in expanding definitions of what art and dance might be, and in bringing art and everyday life into a closer relationship. Bachzetsis’s work is emblematic of this shift. She has recently devised works for Documenta 13 and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and will appear in the BMW Tate Live event at Tate Modern, London, in October. She is interested in how different spaces—the theatre, the museum, the gallery, online space—“condition both the human body and the contemporary status of performance practice”, she says.
The Art Newspaper
In the lead-up to the June 7 opening of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, director Rem Koolhaas sounded like he was planning a family therapy session for the architectural profession: “This retrospective will generate a fresh understanding of the richness of architecture’s fundamental repertoire, apparently so exhausted today,” he remarked upon the January 2013 announcement that he would curate this year’s edition. Koolhaas cited “the process of the erasure of national characteristics in favor of the almost universal adoption of a single modern language” as one source of architecture’s current predicament. Contemporary architecture, he noted, has become “flattened,” and though Koolhaas doesn’t necessarily see this as a negative quality, he requested that national pavilion curators redirect their attention away from contemporary architecture. Each participating country was asked to produce an exhibition on the influence of modernization in the 20th century on its architecture, as a means of inspiring reflection on the worldwide monotony of contemporary building. With the 2014 Biennale now underway, it’s clear that the combined efforts of the 66 exhibiting countries have produced more questions than answers.
Baseball practice in Montgomery County, Maryland. Photograph: Tomas van Houtryve
When photographer Tomas van Houtryve shows people his picture of a yoga class mid-pose in a San Francisco public park, half see people practising yoga, the other half see people praying. It is this reaction to what drones capture that worries him.
“Imagine if all we knew about the way people in Pakistan lead their lives were derived from images of the tops of their heads, taken from 15,000ft (4,500 metres) in the air. It’s bound to be full of uncertainty. Is this the best way to fight a war?”
The fact that there were few published photographs of US drone activity had been bothering Van Houtryve. Then, last summer, he was sent on assignment to Peru to photograph a mine. It was while trying to secure aerial shots that an engineer introduced him to the use of drones in photography; he soon earned enough to buy his own.
“When I first started looking, they were expensive and difficult to get hold of but they started popping up on Amazon for a more reasonable price,” he says. With the help of online forums and through “internet shopping for bits and bobs” from France, Hong Kong and the US, Van Houtryve modified his drone so that it could carry a high definition camera and transmit video back to his monitor on the ground. In total, the device cost him around $2,500 (£1,500).
Scissors, paper, pins – these were all it took for Matisse, in the last years of his life, often bedridden and feeling he was living on borrowed time, to create the works that now fill a suite of galleries at Tate Modern. What a joyous and fascinating exhibition this is. I eat it with my eyes and never feel sated.
Ravishing, filled with light and decoration, exuberance and a kind of violence, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is about more than just pleasure. It charts not simply the consummation of the artist’s long career but a kind of self-usurpation. In his last years, Matisse went beyond himself.
As well as the works themselves, there is film footage of the artist and his assistants at work, swatches of the hand-painted papers he used, and a wealth of photographic and other material to broaden our understanding.
In April 2009 a forest fire destroyed [James Rosenquist's] Aripeka, Florida, home, including a large studio and his personal art collection. “I didn’t cry in my beer after that,” he says. “I just went back to work and tried to forget about it.” Still, the event, in which he lost a reported $14 million in artwork, seems to have had an understandably traumatic effect. He readily brings it up in conversation—“It was a real dent in my career, destroying a lot of stuff”—goaded by the fact that, because the property is deemed to be in a new flood plain, the government won’t allow him to rebuild.
Asked if the loss of so much of his output in the fire caused him to reevaluate his oeuvre or career, he retorts, with some disdain, that no, he doesn’t concern himself with the past, only with “what’s ahead.” Rosenquist does not look back, doesn’t dwell on history. Indeed, he claims the past doesn’t press on him: “Nothing weighs on me. I don’t feel any weight.” But he is very much concerned with time.
He turned 80 this past November and corrects me when I suggest that his upcoming exhibition, opening April 29 at Bjorn Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm, is composed of recent works. No, he says, they’re “late works.” And unlike those Pop pieces for which he is best known, Rosenquist’s later efforts have few recognizable images. Stars, galactic dust, as well as the effects of red or blue shift abound, usually presented in tightly juxtaposed, sharp-edged prismatic planes. Most were made in 2012, and some were first shown at Acquavella, his gallery in New York. The following summer he had a bout of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, an illness that put him in the hospital for a month, where, he recounts, “I had hallucinations that were very vivid. They were cinematic, not like paintings.”
Blouin Art Info
3-D printers are typically used make high-resolution models or functional prototypes, but artist Shane Hope manipulates them to channel his inner Jackson Pollock. The Brooklyn-based artist creates “paintings” that are densely packed with a rainbow of 3-D printed barnacles. The results are massive, dazzling assemblages—beautiful in the way that spectacular computer glitches can be—and are only matched in manic energy by Hope’s descriptions of them. “Seeing 3-D printing as a sort of gateway drug en route toward molecular manufacturing, I thereafter decided I’d visually/literally relate the operative ideologies, promises, and hype of 3-D printing to the R&D and forecasts regarding nanofacture.” Heady stuff, and while this jargon-filled description is a tad grandiose, the paintings push the boundaries of low-cost 3-D printers in new and interesting ways.