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Renegades: Outsider Art at KickArts is the first in a planned series of exhibitions of work by people creating art in unlikely places. The clear focus of the exhibition is the art rather than the creator’s circumstances, and the exhibition literature draws attention to the artist’s creative history rather than their credentials as outsiders. KickArts partnered with Arts Project Australia in Melbourne and Weave Arts Centre in Sydney to organise this touring exhibition, and the curators ‘called upon illiterate people, people with an experience of mental illness, hermits and those marginalised through disabilities’, as well as artists from remote Indigenous communities, hospitals, homes and community centres.1
If you come to this exhibition not having heard of ‘outsider’ art you would not be alone. While there is a group of dedicated collectors and a not insignificant exhibition history in Australia for outsider art, there is not the same level of public visibility as in Europe and North America. There it has featured in large public exhibitions, had books written about it, including one which offers ‘guidelines for aesthetic and collecting judgements’,2 is represented by specialist commercial galleries, features regularly in the sales rooms of large auction houses and has been showcased annually since 1993 in the Outsider Art Fair in New York, and, in 2013, for the first time in Paris.
There are no strict definitions of what exactly constitutes outsider art, which makes for some degree of confusion. Art critic Roger Cardinal first used the term in 1972 to describe art created in unlikely environments by self-taught individuals. French artist Jean Dubuffet first drew attention to the genre in the 1940s when his interest in art created by the institutionally insane led him to develop the term Art Brut, referring to raw, unrefined art which has not been complicated or compromised by official culture.3
Given that there are differing views about what constitutes outsider art, there is bound to be debate over what is selected for inclusion in any given exhibition. Franco-Australian curator Camille Masson-Talansier set wide parameters for Renegades, the most potentially controversial inclusion being ceramic sculptures by Indigenous artists from the art centre on Erub (Darnley Island) in the Torres Strait, declaring them ‘geographically “outside”’.4 Indigenous artists have not previously featured in exhibitions of outsider art, being deemed part of a distinct community, and in this instance firmly part of the commercial art world. A number of other artists in Renegades are also represented by commercial galleries, but this no longer seems to be the threat to maintaining outsider status that it was in past decades.
Is it enough that an exhibition offers insight into a realm of creation not ordinarily traversed by the general public, or should it be good art as well? Outsider art is no different to any other art in that it will not capture and hold audience attention unless it ‘works’ on an artistic level, and this show does. For such a large exhibition, fifty artists, many with multiple works, it is an effortless journey. Style and content vary enormously, with some works representing happy and joyful experiences and others more deeply personal and troubling preoccupations. However, there is no shock or discomfort in viewing these works, possibly because the strange, distorted, intensely introspective and raw, all loom large in works by prominent Australian contemporary artists such as Del Kathryn Barton, Abbey McCulloch, Imants Tillers and Adam Cullen.
The three-dimensional works provide necessary variety in such a large exhibition. Peter Drewett’s Five walking sticks (2009–2011) are fine objects. Importantly starting with a wonderfully diverse range of branches, the techniques of burning, carving and painting have produced a satisfyingly varied but connected group. The very misshapen ceramics by John Murray and Kevin Meagher stand in marked contrast to the polished, culturally themed pieces by Emily Murray and a number of artists from the Darnley Island Art Centre, who may be familiar to audiences from the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Marc Etherington’s portrait of Chuck Norris (Chuck Norris 2012) painted on the back of a plastic owl and mounted on a children’s toy tower is mesmerising, switching your brain between alternatively seeing Norris’s face and the owl.
The paintings are predominantly portraits and naïve genre paintings, many incorporating text. Anthony Mannix’s The not so friendly household guardian (2002), depicting an open-mouthed, six-limbed spirit-figure, is a powerful and beautifully resolved work that would stand proud in any fine art context. So too would John Lennon (2011) by Jodie Noble who has used exquisite gold and pink tones, capturing a sense of Lennon’s irreverent and philosophical character. Two very engaging but stylistically divergent animal studies by Paul Freeman are charming inclusions. Creature musicians (1977) has been etched with such delicacy as to give the impression of being distressed by age, and the band of insects have been given big personalities. The diptych Wild horse (2010) has been painted with equal affection, the horse free and happy in a cool, jade green forest.
A number of very strong abstract works on paper also command serious attention. Warren O’Brien has contributed two very sophisticated works from 2011, Not titled (blue, black, red arches) and Not titled (black, grey, yellow). Stylistically similar to Australian artist Ian Fairweather, O’Brien has balanced colour and composition to stunning effect. Tiwi artist Estelle Munkanome’s works are simultaneously feminine and powerful. Not titled (2012), is geometrically strong but softened through its asymmetry and gentle watercolour and ochre media. In a second work Not Titled (2012) Munkanome has applied white and pink hued ochres to build a pulpy image, with only glimpses of the black background peeping through. The result is a work which defies the term ‘painting’, having the life and depth of a three-dimensional or organic object.
This exhibition paves the way for a future outsider art exhibition at KickArts, which will show the fruits of artists working with ARC Disability Services. Renegades: Outsider Art will tour to seven Australian venues over 2014 and 2015. The timing could not have been better, as the first International Outsider Art Fair is to be held in Melbourne in October 2014 with plans for Renegades to show in Melbourne at the same time. It will be exciting to follow these shows to see how a purely locally produced exhibition of outsider art will compare with this nationally recruited group, and similarly how the pared down version of Renegades, which will not include all of the delicate three-dimensional works, will affect the size and shape of the outsider art template.
Jodie Noble, John Lennon, 2011. Watercolour on paper, 55 x 38cm. Courtesy Arts Project Australia.
Marc Etherington, Chuck Norris, 2012. View from front. Mixed media, 65 x 27 x 20cm. Courtesy the artist.
Marc Etherington, Chuck Norris, 2012. View from back. Mixed media, 65 x 27 x 20cm. Courtesy the artist.
1. Hoffmann, Ingrid, ‘Introduction’, Renegades: Outsider Art, ex. cat., KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns, 2013.
2. Rexer, Lyle, How to look at outsider art, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2005, inside cover.
3. See Rhodes, Colin, ‘Sketch for a renegade history of art’, Renegades: Outsider Art, ex. cat., KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns, 2013, for an up to date essay on the history of outsider art.
4. Masson-Talansier, Camille, ‘Curator’s Note’, Renegades: Outsider Art, ex. cat., KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns, 2013.
Renegades: Outsider Art will tour to the following venues: Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville, Qld – 27 January to 9 March 2014; Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Qld – 22 Mar to 27 April 2014; Grafton Regional Art Gallery, NSW – 14 May to 29 June 2014; Moree Plains Regional Gallery, NSW – 7 July to 27 August 2014; Hawkesbury Regional Gallery, NSW – 5 September to 12 October 2014; Counihan Gallery, Vic – 20 October to 17 November 2014; Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery, Vic – 30 January to 15 March 2015.