Inside Out: Just how ‘Outside’ is Outsider Art?

During his daily country rounds of about 18 miles and with the help of this faithful wheelbarrow, French postman  Ferdinand Cheval picked up stones. Thirty three years later, this is the result – Le Palais Idéal – an astonishing example of what has been labelled Naïve art or  Art Brut -art created outside the boundaries of ‘official’ culture.

In the 20’s, many artists such as Leonora Carrington, Denise Bellon and André Breton came to visit the Le Palais Idéal several times, taking photos that were exhibited at the Moma in New York in 1936. French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet recognized Ferdinand Cheval as a real pioneer of Art Brut, a term Dubuffet coined and promoted in the 1940s.

These days,  Outsider art is an ambiguous term encompassing folk art, marginal art, visionary art, naïve art and dysfunctional art, art that often illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds. The Outsider art magazine Raw Vision refers to Outsider artists as “unknown geniuses … who invent their own forms, techniques and create private worlds”.

I recently visited The Gallery of Everything  which claims to be London’s first commercial gallery dedicated to non-academic artists and  private art-makers, bringing what it describes as ‘a parallel history of modern and contemporary art’ to a British and international audience. This raises the question of just how ‘outside’ Outsider art really is anymore with many works now displayed in mainstream museums and galleries, belying the original anti-cultural position it was supposed to occupy. By its very definition, Outsider art belongs to a place away from the public gaze, and this is where the contradiction lies.


Jarvis Cocker, who curated the inaugural exhibition at the gallery based on his ‘Journeys Into the Outside‘ documentary series (1998), defines outsider artists as: “People who make art from some inner compulsion, rather than wanting to show off.”  
He makes the point that as time goes on, it becomes more difficult for people not to be caught up in the dominant culture, because we’re all connected to the internet.
When you see people who somehow operate outside that, you’re quite excited by it.”

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