Project Gallery, Dublin, January 28th - March 6th 2004
If Outsider Art was supposed to be about the value of raw, unmediated expression – the art of insane or self-taught, visionary individuals – it was only ever the vehicle for the discontent of artistic radicals, for whom it functioned as a challenge to the conformist trammels of what Jean Dubuffet would term bourgeois society’s ‘asphyxiating culture’. No one bothers too much about Outsider Art anymore but, if its star has fallen, this is more a sign of the dispersed success of its project, not its failure. Everyone is an outsider now. Insider artists everywhere adopt outsider personae as declarations of their allegiance to an authentic subjectivity, grounded in those cultures supposedly excluded from art: in the age of cultural inclusion no boundary can go unchallenged, even if the profession of challenging boundaries has the perverse effect of perpetually reasserting them.
So bringing the historical artefacts of Outsider Art into the context of contemporary art is no innocent gesture, even if Shahin Afrassiabi’s ambitious installation at Project handles such a charged move with an insouciant lightness of touch. Afrassiabi has selected five works from the Musgrave Kinley collection of Outsider Art, housed at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and combined them with his own assemblages of prosaic materials and objects. A list details the works, but gives no clue as to which objects are which. Two works, Michel Nedjar’s Untitled (doll multiple faces) Triple Head (all works undated), a tortured bundle of sewn eyes and mouths, and Angelus’s Mountain, an attempt to make modern representation, a psychedelic landscape of incandescent geometry in coloured pencil, are obvious enough. With Madge Gill’s cubistic line drawing Untitled (dedicated to Conan Doyle), these works immediately conform to the stereotype of Outsider Art; obsessively overwrought, expressionist and burdened with some implied psychological suffering. More difficult to locate are the two Untitled attributed to ‘JB Murray’, nondescript little folded cloths covered in cryptic marks. In this instance, the rhetorical bombast of Outsider Art – its notional subjective excess and intensity – is lost and, rather than a model for liberated subjectivity, one is left with the psychological symptoms of alienated existence.
Undermining the identity of things as carriers of artistic discourse becomes the critical axis of the show. Afrassiabi’s interventions – timber, shelving track, sheet ply, plate-glass, paint tins, rolls of wallpaper, retro curtain fabric – are so unassuming in their happenstance accumulation that they barely register as the product of any intentional act, artistic or otherwise. If Afrassiabi’s previous arrangements of ordinary stuff in the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s ‘Early One Morning’ could invoke ghosts of Constructivism, 60s formalism or Minimalism, it was because these precedents suggested what Afrassiabi’s structures so clearly abstained from, and what art now finds so difficult to assert: a bygone artistic confidence, dynamically engaged in the establishment of common criteria for cultural and artistic significance.
Afrassiabi’s purposefully weak, sleepy aesthetic mischievously works to resist the nostalgic desire for modernist certainties, just as it refuses any sentimentalising idealisation of the unmediated authenticity of outsider art. In contrast to his evasive forms, the outsider work looks not only like much contemporary art that looks like (old) modern art, but also as much like the outcome of cultured, historical traditions of art-making as the high art of which it is supposedly innocent. But Outsider Art could only ever be a discourse internal to art, whatever its advocates pretended otherwise, because the types of subject it privileges are, by definition, those who cannot actively contest an equal claim to cultural status. So Afrassiabi’s gambit suggests that, whilst art may now wish to be no more valid than other forms of culture, it still cannot undo the relative self-consciousness its position implies. Art’s obsessive embrace of the outsider is less a challenge to a proscriptive bourgeois culture, than it is an expression of anxiety about exerting any kind of special status, for fear of reintroducing division and conflict into the conciliatory cultural facade of liberal democracy.
‘Tyia … tieh … tiouh …’ In the gallery we can hear nonsense words spoken with deliberation. Discovering that we’re listening to a Chinese pronunciation exercise, we no longer recognise the outsider’s irreconcilable difference, but the potentially translatable identity of the foreigner. By seeing Outsider Art as the object of a discourse to which it isn’t party, while simultaneously removing sculpture from the purely specialist preoccupation of an insider sensibility, Afrassiabi cuts across the stale divisions of both and returns the question of cultural separation and community to the conditions and subjects of the present. Conflict and cross-purpose may produce differences between outsiders and insiders, but it is only from this process that the possibility of new, actively achieved cultural identities can ever emerge.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated