LONDON — Back in the 1970s, England, the home of such pioneering researchers in the outsider art field as Roger Cardinal and the late Victor Musgrave, played a significant role in calling attention to a subfield which, at that time, was still emerging within the art world’s international terrain.
Today, though, unlike in New York, there are no London galleries that largely or primarily deal in works made by self-taught artists. However, notable presentations of such art do turn up. A good example was last summer’s Alternative Guide to the Universe, a wide-ranging exhibition of paintings and mixed-media sculptures from around the world. It was shown at the Hayward Gallery, a non-commercial space in the Southbank Centre performing-arts complex.
Now, two recently opened exhibitions, on display at two different kinds of venues, offer some very satisfying discoveries in this field. One has been assembled by a non-profit organization, the other by one of the international art market’s most blue-chip vendors.
The Inner Self: Drawings from the Subconscious is a group show on view at CGP London, The Gallery, a kind of community art center, whose gallery/café is located in Southwark Park, in southeastern London. Finding it can entail a bit of a trek, but the payoff is substantial.
The Inner Self has been organized and is being presented by Outside In, a program associated with Pallant House Gallery, a museum in Chichester. In that city in southeastern England, which is known for its centuries-old cathedral, Pallant House boasts a fine collection of British modern art, including works by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Richard Hamilton, among other notable artists. It is also both the originator and home of Outside In, a program founded in 2006 which, as its website notes, seeks “to provide opportunities for artists with a desire to create who see themselves as facing a barrier to the art world.” In effect, Outside In proposes a broader definition of which kinds of art-makers can or should be considered “marginalized” or not.
In addition to a regular, large exhibition at Pallant House Gallery featuring works by artists from around the United Kingdom, Outside In also routinely presents smaller group shows at venues in different cities. The Inner Self is one of them. In it, seven artists, all of whom work in various media on paper, are making their public debuts. Alongside this presentation, a show-within-a-show focuses on the mysterious, moody, black-and-white drawings of the self-taught artist Nick Blinko, works that already have become known in the outsider art world. (Blinko is also familiar as the lead singer and guitarist of the anarcho-punk band Rudimentary Peni.)
The Inner Self showcases a diverse range of image-making styles in works on paper by Jan Arden, Hannah Swain, Terence Wilde, Imma Maddox, Nigel Kingsbury, Pat Mear and Billy Weston. All of these artists make drawings. They all appear to be enchanted by the expressive power of a monochromatic palette in the service of an impulsive or liquid and florid or detail-rendering line.
Maddox’s depictions of human figures or faces are austere, like quick notes from a dream. Mear makes free-flowing semi-abstractions on small sheets of colored paper (from notebooks she had found at Woolworths, originally the U.K. division of a well-known American chain of general stores, which finally disappeared from Britain’s “high streets” a few years ago). Weston, who learned to draw using his left hand after suffering a brain hemorrhage as a teen, makes densely packed compositions whose thick lines, random psychedelic patterning and sci-fi characters bring to mind underground comics of the 1960s.
Wilde’s compositions are dense with renderings of otherworldly faces and, sometimes, with obsessively repetitive words or phrases. In one, the word “sane” and the phrase “conforming to the standard” help form an all-over background scrim of text. Swain’s flocks of fluffy-winged angels evoke a soothing, lush oasis somewhere beyond the clouds, while Kingsbury’s whirlwinds of scratchy lines give voluptuous form to enigmatic women or fleeting spirits whose ethereal heads and bodies seem to float right off the surface of large sheets of paper. Kingsbury’s pictures made me think of what some of Cy Twombly’s big, hyperventilating confections might look and feel like minus the bombast.
Along with Kingsbury’s, Arden’s drawings of birds, animals, plants and ambiguous human figures, all packed together in tight groupings, are some of the most sophisticated images on view here. At the opening reception of The Inner Self, Arden told me he was a young boy when his father first took him to what is now Tate Britain, the British-art museum on Millbank, just south of Westminster, in central London.
Arden, a former dancer, recalled, “My father gave me drawing materials and encouraged me to make my own pictures. I copied works in the museum but also, at home, where I had a difficult childhood, drawing became my means of escape.” Arden obviously assimilated a lot from the many artworks he encountered on routine visits to the museum many years ago but he brings an original and peculiar sense of movement and spectacle to the shamanistic-feeling scenes he conjures up. In them, birds, plants, animals and human figures cluster and shimmy together in dense compositions. As one examines them, somewhere in the background can be heard an echo of the same rhythms that provide the soundtrack for many of the Cuban-born modernist Wifredo Lam’s semi-abstract images, with their Afro-Caribbean influences and vibe.
For each of the artists represented here, making their art has been (implicitly as well as explicitly, as evidenced by some of the notes accompanying the works) a therapeutic experience, but none of the pieces on view is a specimen of art-therapy workshop art per se. Revealing aspects of their inner selves through their art is, of course, what some — many? — artists do. Still, nowadays it seems to take courage to expose one’s vulnerability spontaneously rather than through a self-protective, neatly labeled, critically positioned, artist’s-statement-accompanied staging. By contrast, an unfiltered, uncalculated directness of creative spirit gives many of the works in The Inner Self a sense of freshness and urgency.
Jack Bilbo, another notable showing of a self-taught artist’s work, is now on view at the New York dealer David Zwirner’s Mayfair outpost. Bilbo (1907-1967) was born Hugo Baruch in Berlin into a German-Jewish family that ran a theater-costumes company. He assumed his nom’ d’artiste in 1922 and fled Germany in the early 1930s after having campaigned against the Nazis. Making his way to Britain via Spain, he eventually settled in London, where in 1941 he founded the Modern Art Gallery. There, he showed the work of Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters and unknown artists, too. He was interested in Dadaist poetry, and his political outlook, at least as he expressed it through his art, was decidedly socialist and anti-capitalist; it championed the common man.
Zwirner’s show, featuring drawings by Bilbo from the 1940s, was organized in collaboration with Jane England, the director of the London-based gallery England & Co. She is the world’s leading expert on Bilbo’s life and work. England has pointed out that Bilbo’s political viewpoint was shared by such German artists of his time as George Grosz and John Heartfield. Still, sometimes it seems that Bilbo’s art aims to poke everyone in the eye with equal potency, no matter what his or her political sentiments might be.
Among the drawings on view, there is one that depicts, as its title notes, five politicians courting “the vote of the village idiot.” Another shows a prisoner awaiting his turn at the gallows. Its caption: “The hangman is a respectable citizen. If he murders you for the state, that’s justice. If you murder for the state, that’s patriotism.”
Thickets of wiry lines, as well as sassy humor, abound in Bilbo’s pictures. Another drawing shows a pair of naked buttocks seated on a bench. Ingeniously, the artist transforms them into a demure face under the inscription “Afternoon in the Garden.” The exhibition also features a vitrine filled with posters for his own exhibitions, which the artist had created himself, along with other related material. Bilbo produced colorful text-and-image books, too, in which he presented his autobiography. Later in the 1940s, he made large cement sculptures in the garden of his home, and in the 1950s, he moved to France. Later Bilbo was reinstated as a German citizen. He moved back to Berlin, where he continued making art until his death.
Bilbo’s oeuvre is somewhat familiar outside Europe to aficionados of self-taught artists’ work, but it is not as well known as, say, that of some of the legendary European figures of the earlier art brut period of this field’s history. It deserves to become better-known in the U.S. With its punchy sensibility, buoyed by an increasing interest on the part of the mainstream art world in the work and ideas of outsiders, it is noteworthy that Bilbo’s drawings have turned up this season at Zwirner.
Considering their strengths, many of the works on view in these two exhibitions would probably look good anywhere. With this city’s historical ties to the development of the outsider art field in mind, it’s especially rewarding to encounter both of these substantive shows now, at the same time, in London.
The Inner Self: Drawings from the Subconscious, continues at CGP (Cafe Gallery, Southwark Park, London), through September 21, 2014.
Jack Bilbo continues at David Zwirner (24 Grafton Street, Mayfair, London) through October 4, 2014.