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.