As human beings, we were all born geniuses. Then, when we started to build on our personal talents, we lost it. This is one of the statements made in the catalogue of Robert Filliou's Stedelijk show La Republique Geniale, in which the French artist and economist discussed artistic solutions to the problems of the world with the museum's visitors. This revolutionary naiveté (we're talking about 1971) also underlines the whole of Genius Without Talent, the group exhibition currently on show at De Appel. From its very title, the show is a call to tap into the amateur inside us – and I write “amateur” in its most passionate meaning.
If Filliou's statement is quite strong, the pieces featured in the show all feel quite raw and bare, stripped down from that artsy polish that usually permeates contemporary art exhibitions. Some of them actually show sparks of genius (Jakup Ferri's illustrations), but many focus on the practice of learning the craft itself. More than the production of artworks, in fact, it seems like the process of learning and its impact on untrained individuals is more interesting to the artists invited. Piotr Uklanski and Suzy Lake experience it themselves, by working in accordance to the advice given by popular handbooks. The former used the successful The Joy of Photography to take banal pictures of breath-taking phenomena, like light glimmering on water; the latter referred to The Natural Way to Paint to portray her persona on her own body. Other artists were fascinated by the way other people absorb the technique: Pantelis Makkas interviewed a child about the deepest nature of images; Beatrice Gibson, instead, focused on studying cab drivers in London, who have to memorize an incredible amount of possible routes for a professional test.
In many cases, the aforementioned pieces are more interesting than beautiful, which is of course a plus in a show whose premise is the lack of talent. This means, however, that despite most of the works being paintings or illustrations the experience is not very rewarding to the casual exhibition walker. In this sense, each piece is more interesting for its historical or social context than in its own evidence, more like a conceptual piece than a painting.
Overall, Genius Without Talent is a formative show, an invitation to the core of artistic practice. The ugliness of many of the works exhibited should not scare you off then, since its potential is more inspirational than aesthetic.
~ Nicola Bozzi, a writer living in Amsterdam.
(Images: Sylvia Sleigh, Arakawa and Madeline Gins, 1962, Oil on canvas; Courtesy of the Estate of Sylvia Sleigh & Freymond-Guth Fine Arts Ltd.; Jakup Ferri, drawing; Courtesy of De Appel, Amsterdam; Suzy Lake, The Natural Way to Draw (1975), video still; Courtesy of Vtape, Toronto. )