3 Apr

The Wellcome Trust, London, 28th March–30th June 2013

C0085418 Shoichi KOGA, "Seitenmodoki" (Ganesha Nan

Shoichi Koga, Seitenmodoki (Ganesha (Nandikeshvara)-oid), 2006.

Having seen this great exhibition of so-called Outsider Art– i.e. art by untrained people in care– I’m more convinced than ever that there’s either an absolutely massive number of respected contemporary artists running around with serious but undiagnosed mental illnesses and learning disabilities… or going to art school, having an MA or a PhD, knowing the right people in the art world, being shown in the “right” [sic] galleries, and being spoken of and approved of in high level critical discourses around contemporary art all signify absolutely bugger all about an artist’s talent or ability in most cases. Because there’s basically no difference between much of the work in Souzou and much of the work to be seen in contemporary art galleries and art fairs all over the developed world. Except possibly there’s a slight difference in the sense that some of the Outsider Art is much better because it completely lacks the cynicism, arid conceptualism, dated Modernist concerns, condescension and sneering pretensions of the Frieze brigade.

Some of the artists in Souzou don’t know, don’t care or perhaps even can’t comprehend how their work is received and understood outside of its original and intensely personal therapeutic context. It doesn’t effect in the slightest their ability to make art that connects with people; art that it beautiful, art that is well-crafted, art that in some way says something to us about our own lives, feelings and thoughts, art that expresses something of the artist’s soul for other people to share, art that is special and desirable enough for somebody to want it on their wall.

Of course some of the art here is also– to use the un-PC word that’s usually assiduously avoided in discussions of Outsider Art– (stereo)typically crazy: there are pages full of OCD mark-making, world building exercises based on opaque and personal logic, one artist’s obsessive knitting of nothing but breast-like forms, another’s somehow both banal and harrowing depiction of her mother as a reptile-eyed Office Lady who expands inexorably and implacably through a series of childish felt pen drawings until she becomes an overwhelming cuboid presence who threatens to burst out of the confines of the page and smother us like Tetsuo at the climax of Akira. You don’t really need to be a mental health professional to diagnose in a general sense what makes these people psychologically atypical and why they might have trouble coping on their own with the demands of adult existence, or what might have happened in their early lives to make some of them do the things they do and draw the things they draw. Takuya Gamo’s (lovely) drawings of animals appear to be an expression of form agnosia, for example, the seeing of objects or beings as collections of disassociated parts rather than being able to comprehend them as a whole.

This isn’t the whole story though. Once again falling back onto lazy, judgemental stereotyping one might think, “Well, how artistic or special can something be when it’s just a bunch of little men made from wire rubbish sack ties by a 21-year old lad with learning disabilities?” The answer is: very. As with most great sculpture, photographs don’t tell the whole story so you’ll just have to believe me when I say that Shota Katsube’s 3cm tall, jewel-like figures are beautiful, both alone and in their hundreds as an army of ruby, emerald, gold or sapphire warriors and robots.


Shota Katsube, untitled figure made from wire twist ties, 2011.

Similarly, the ragged and humble appearance of Shoichi Koga’s figures made from scrap paper (top of this page) belie the fact that they’re incredibly well made and that his eye for human posture, weight and proportion is equal to almost any trained figurative artist alive or dead. The photo I’ve used here doesn’t really convey it, but in some images of his work the figures have such nuanced poses and such a sense of movement and life that they look like real people in costumes instead of what they really are, about 40cm tall and stuffed with paper.

I was also very taken with Sakiko Kono’s increasingly large and ambitious, slyly funny dolls; with Daisuke Kibushi’s recreated-from-memory vintage movie posters done in felt tip pen, although like Outsider icon Henry Darger, Kibushi appears to have no idea how to draw a woman, so all the actresses look like male bruisers in drag. This adds to the appeal and charm rather than diminishing it; I loved Masatoshi Nishimoto’s meticulous but slightly abstracted, overly vivid and cartoony wooden recreations of Japanese buses; and Koichi Fujino’s incredibly smooth, dense drawings using India ink absolutely transcend any Outsider labelling and would sit perfectly happily in any contemporary gallery.

The only thing that makes me a bit sad is that I’ve not been so excited about any exhibition by Insider Artists for such a very long time.

PS: If you visit and enjoy this exhibition, nab the book that’s on sale– Outsider Art From Japan– while you can. It features all the artists from the show. It’s not published by Wellcome, it’s rarely available elsewhere in the UK, and when I checked Amazon copies of it were going for about £110, over four times the retail price. I wasn’t paid to write this little advert for the book or anything, it’s just a nice book. It’s published by W Books/Museum Het Dolhuys. As a bonus it’s in English but occasionally lapses into charming and slightly baffling Japlish instead.


  1. FawnReview 04/04/2013 at 12:42 PM #

    Great review, thanks for sharing. Always interesting to hear about another side of art than the ‘Frieze Brigade’, very excited to head down and see the exhibition myself now!

  2. Alistair 06/04/2013 at 4:39 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.


  1. Souzou is creating a storm at the Wellcome Collection | Outsider Art/ Art Brut/ Raw Art - 21/04/2013

    […] […]


    […] of this blog will know that in fact I have a lot of sympathy for the outsider, the self-made and the self taught (as I am), for demolition of the fetishised and unassailable “expert”, and for […]


    […] of outsider art like Souzou] are important because they counter a tendency in the art world to favour increasingly younger […]

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