The Museum of Everything, inaugurated in 2009 as a pop-up showcase for "outsider art," has left its usual home in Camden to occupy a specially-created grotto at the heart of Selfridges on Oxford Street. The shop windows are filled with prints and ephemera relating to the show. Inside, over 200 drawings, paintings and objects have been packed into a hotchpotch of low-lit rooms.
Exhibition #4 surveys works from studios around the world for people with developmental impairments (videos of some of them at work punctuate the exhibition). It takes its cue, in some ways, from Gaston Ferdiere’s pivotal exhibition of art by the mentally ill in Paris in 1946, although the curator James Brett has stressed that the exhibition is “less about those with general mental health issues and more about those with learning difficulties.”
Moreover, the breezy mood of this show in one of London’s secular cathedrals is a far cry from the pathological tenor of early exhibitions of outsider art (a term which Brett pointedly disavows). American artist Daniel Brendal has produced a serious of "childlike" paintings of US presidents, amusingly hung up the side of a miniature staircase. Australian Alan Constable has modelled cameras and camcorders out of clay, their details fastidiously scored across their glazed surfaces. In Ruby Bradford's portraits of royal family, Superman makes occasional appearances, meeting Prince Charles in one painting. Bradford’s works are not unlike Stella Vine’s sloppy portraits, and yet are disarmingly free of Vine’s ironic intent. A series of drawings and collages by Belgian Dominique Théâte call to mind cartoons and the contorted figures of Otto Dix.
But it is perhaps illogical to discuss the works in terms of such parallels. Moreover, the mood of Théâte’s works and of many others is difficult to judge; his pictures of a flabby mouthed, spectacled man in a suit are like gleeful caricatures, yet a glance at the wall text reveals them to be self portraits. Suddenly, this awkward, comedic figure is shot through by poignancy. In one work, he is drawn on top of a photograph of filing soldiers, as if squaring up to these uniformed "others."
It is hard to interpret any of the works in terms of intentionality of style or theme. The exhibition is a medley of self-taught art superficially comparable to the Bad Art Salon recently on display at the Festival Hall. But it is really at odds with the tongue-in-cheek curatorship of that project, which played knowingly with distinctions between "good" and "bad," "high" and "low" – distinctions which do not, and cannot, apply here. The works have been produced without a directive in the usual sense, although as psychoanalyst Phillips has stated in an interview with the curator, “somebody making something is always responding to a demand somewhere.” Rather, the show presents a glimpse – by turns beguiling, funny, and morose – of the makers’ subjective selves.
The fairground whimsy and cluttered layout of the exhibition run the risk of enervating certain works, whose formal and psychological nuances might be magnified in the dispassionate context of a gallery. Such context would probably also magnify the offbeat humour of many pieces, which is somehow dampened by the pleonastic quirkiness of the setting.
Ultimately, these works achieve their power precisely by dint of their unusual origin and outsider status. They undoubtedly merit exposure to wider audiences, and the Museum of Everything valiantly attempts this by setting the project in such an unlikely venue as Selfridges; Exhibition #4 is as incongruous a spectacle as the Christmas store which sits nearby. But it is also a deeply compelling and thought-provoking one.
-- James Cahill
All images courtesy The Museum of Everything
Images: Tarik Echols, Little City USA King of Pop, graphite; Harold Stoffers, Untitled, 2009, ink, waterproof felt pen on paper, 70x100cm, Galerie der Villa, Germany.
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