Outsider art

The definition of what makes an artist an outsider is riddled with contradiction and controversy but it comes down to a need to produce work for its own sake rather than for recognition

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Artist Jan Williams distinctly remembers stepping inside the flat of her recently deceased uncle, Ron Gittins, for the first time.

“You could hardly move as the place was absolutely chock-full of stuff. There were things everywhere and you could only just see these massive fireplaces looming over boxes, a pram and piles of wood. But as we uncovered things I was absolutely blown away.”

What was uncovered inside that flat, in Oxton, near Birkenhead, includes vast, three-metre high lion and minotaur fireplaces, intricate friezes and entire rooms decorated along classical Greco-Roman themes. Sculpture and decoration adorn almost every surface with creations from Gittins’ incredible imagination.

“We knew he was a prolific artist but he just wouldn’t let anyone into his flat as he had this fear of being told he couldn’t carry on doing what he was doing,” Williams continues before adding, with understatement: “This was absolutely not the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a domestic, rented flat.”

Since the contents of Gittins’ home became public knowledge, the term “outsider” has been used to describe both the man himself and his modus operandi. Traditionally that outsider artist tag is hung around the necks of those who create without formal training, the self-taught and those with work regarded as naïve or exceptionally raw – individuals, in other words, who work outside the boundaries of official culture. Complications arise, however, when these same artists find themselves suddenly feted by the art world, widely exhibited in conventional gallery spaces and mentioned in mainstream media. Surely the simple act of being recognised by the establishment as an outsider artist immediately renders the term void?

“Outsider art is a hugely loaded term, one that mixes aesthetic judgements with social, economic, psychological and even political labels,” says curator Holly Grange. “It isn’t a school, a style or a movement. There is no uniting manifesto or shared set of aims or sensibilities.”

Grange is currently exhibitions curator at Leeds Art Gallery but, until earlier this year, curated the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection at Manchester’s Whitworth. Gifted to the gallery by Monika Kinley a decade ago, the collection comprises over 1,100 individual artworks by 129 artists. Kinley, along with fellow gallerist and curator Victor Musgrave, felt the majority of contemporary art was “bland and supine in the well-crafted chains of its own making” and subsequently assembled a collection of work that demonstrated genuine intuition and “tapped into the mains electricity of the imagination”.

During her time at the Whitworth, Grange also oversaw the acquisition of much new outsider art.

“I was keen that the gallery continued working with artists who haven’t been through conventional routes of art education or who may be experiencing barriers to getting their work out there and seen, whether this be because of physical disability or ill health, social marginalisation, learning difficulties or any number of other factors.”

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To this end, the Whitworth recently showed Other Transmissions: Conversations with Outsider Art. The exhibition represented the result of a year-long artist residency project, led by Manchester’s Venture Arts organisation, which brought together a group of learning disabled and non-learning disabled artists to explore themes of labelling, categorisation and art world power dynamics. Joe Beedles, James Desser, Amy Ellison, Frances Heap, Andrew Johnstone and John Powell-Jones are the new artists who showed their multimedia works, a direct response to the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection. The artists’ pieces were exhibited directly alongside art they themselves selected from the MKOAC as being particularly inspiring and demonstrated some startlingly original approaches to modern art.

If the work displayed in the Other Transmissions show displayed a single theme it is the sense of a need to create, often verging on compulsion, each artist possesses. These are not vanity projects; rather the paintings, photographs, digital artwork and even costume pieces represent an outlet for the artistic mind. This, to many, is the very definition of outsider art.

Similarly, although during Gittins’ life his eccentricities were well known – dress sense flamboyant and that unbridled creativity widely recognised – the work produced inside his flat remained unknown until after his September 2019 death. Indeed, despite tales of him closely identifying with Roman emperors, carrying out frequent renditions of Shakespearean soliloquies and his general delusions of grandeur – something particularly anomalous for a man who grew up in working class Birkenhead – he never felt the need to promote his work. And throughout all this, Williams found Gittins consistently encouraging and nothing but inspirational regarding her own art. “From him I got the sense that it was always possible to be creative whenever and wherever you are.”

And how would Gittins have reacted to the outsider artist tag? “It is a controversial term but Ron was certainly working to his own parameters. He really was outside the art world – he went to art school for a short time but didn’t last as he’d never listen to anyone telling him what to do – and his work wasn’t really about individual pieces but the immersive whole, the environment he created.

“On the other hand, he could be really difficult at times and that’s why he sometimes became estranged from his family. We always kept in touch but he did have some mental health problems and could create some difficult situations. But he didn’t seem to worry if other people sometimes thought he was mad. I think he believed he was ahead of the game somehow and if other people didn’t get it then that was their problem.”

Nick Blinko is another example of the British outsider. In his Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives book, academic Colin Rhodes notes that Blinko’s need to make pictures “is stronger than the desire for psychic ‘stability’ brought by therapeutic drugs which adversely affect his ability to work”.

Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, the 58-year-old artist produces intense, often surreal and almost wholly bleak pen and ink drawings. His artwork first came to prominence on the sleeves of recordings by his one-time anarcho-punk band Rudimentary Peni – the music and lyrics he wrote equally oblique and uncompromising – and is now feted across the globe and exhibited internationally.

Described by those who know him as “quite shy” and “a very private person”, Blinko is relatively straightforward to contact but tricky to interview. When quizzed about his recent grand prix award from the Triennial of Self-Taught Visionary Art in Serbia he claims, via email, that his “penance was scraping international Banksy’s from the ancient, picturesque, war-torn facades of the non-BioBelgradeable Dream City”.

And asked whether he regards himself as part of an outsider art movement Blinko replies: “Normal is the least understood yet commonest mediocrity. It were them came up with ‘neuro typical’. I always thought thrashing [guitar] and screaming would be cathartic yet I don’t think it really is. Makes you weary perhaps, and helps you sleep.”

In contrast to Gittins – who Williams claims would be “delighted at the attention and admiration his work is now receiving” – Blinko appears conflicted, obviously happy to have his incredible work exhibited in conventional gallery spaces but also somewhat uncomfortable with the attention this inevitably brings. His acceptance speech at Serbia’s Museum of Naïve and Marginal Art, on receiving his award, is brief and awkward.

The differences between Blinko, Gittins and those in the Other Transmissions show are many but some factors do unite them: that need to produce, that drive and the fact that their work is capable of existing for its own sake. Public recognition remains secondary – though is important to some.

Grange notes the contradiction. “It is concerning how some purist outsider art critics and collectors have questioned and rejected artists who have sought to promote their art or achieve a degree of fame or recognition, claiming that this destroys their innocence and purity of vision. As Marc Steene of Outside In – a charity which works to support marginalised artists – puts it so well, this attitude has placed outsider artists in a seemingly impossible position. These artists are expected to work unknown, without gaining a sense of value of their work, preferably to die in obscurity and then be discovered by an enlightened critic or psychiatrist.”

Opaque as the outsider tag may be, support fot those who wear it remains paramount. “I believe the institutions which make up the art world need to fundamentally rethink their approach to the type of art they show on their walls,” says Grange. “They have an ethical responsibility to represent the broadest gamut of work rather than just showing artists who have come through the conventional art school routes. Museums and galleries really should challenge themselves.”

Visit ronsplace.co.uk to follow the campaign to preserve Ron Gittins flat

Main image: Perifimou, Lost on the Frontiers of Hell and Paradise

Interact: Responses to Outsider art

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