Outsider art – the veiled mirror of an inner world3 min read
By Gareth Griffiths, CCS Disability Action Coordinator
While idling away hours on YouTube recently, I came across an unusual documentary I found engrossing, illuminating as well as often quite disturbing. It was a one-off documentary by the brilliant producer Alan Yentob called “Turning the Art World Inside Out” about ‘Outsider art’ he made for the BBC in 2013.
Now art can be disturbing. It is often designed to be. Look at Goya’s Horrors of War, a worthy match for the photorealism of the Vietnam War. Then there is Damien Hirst’s decaying cow’s head in a box covered in flies – a homage to the far more visceral and brutal images of Francis Bacon. All bring life and death into sharp focus.
But what might we notice in artwork created by someone without the usual channels of communication and connection with the rest of the world.
Outsider art is the term given to work produced by those who sit outside the mainstream art world. This is art produced by people who are self-taught and often includes those who were or are locked away in institutions for example, or more often the work produced by disabled people. These artists share the experience of being marginalised and unable to pursue more conventional ways of conveying their own inner, visualised landscape.
If there is one thing that stands out in the documentary it is the vivid visual internal landscapes communicated through the art. All art does this to a greater or lesser extent, but this art is different. Somehow it is more urgent, often bursting with ideas or road maps to known or mystical places.
Some of the art explored seems to convey cryptic symbols of inner turmoil, as with the Spanish artist who was locked up in an institution having been traumatised by the war. Others obsess on sexual imagery or even alien encounters following a claimed abduction at a young age. And still others, on first glance, seem to simply produce random scribbled lines, but with time and effort by the viewer, forms of intense beauty shine through.
It would be simplistic to group all these artists together. They form no identified artistic movement, and their work is often only self-directed. But here is the joy of it all; this artwork is truly liberating. As a student I studied art, I was well taught, and for a while even harboured notions of becoming an artist like my uncle who made his living from it. To be serious about visualising your thoughts or observations is a deeply personal thing. So, what could be more personal and intense than the inner world of those in our society who are alienated and ignored?
This body of work did not go unnoticed for too long though. The art establishment has cottoned onto the commercial potential of many of these ‘Outsiders’ and for good reason. I have to say for me the work explored is a mixed bag, but all of it expresses huge emotional depth, whether it takes a simple approach, or is complex in the extreme. I highly recommend the lightness of touch this little gem of a documentary brings to its subject matter and the way the art reveals a light that shines on something universal in all of us.