Goodbye to Everything

Thursday 11 February 2010

The Museum of Everything closes on Sunday. This remarkable hoard of “outsider art” (for want of a better term) hidden away off a sidestreet in Primrose Hill has been the hotspot for jaded punters over the past few months. The exhibition is a crash course in the past century of artworks by autodidacts, the mentally ill, folk artists, backyard shamans and the otherwise obsessed.

This is the second ambitious attempt I’ve seen in London to find a way of accommodating this art into mainstream practice, the other being an exhibition at Whitechapel a few years ago which intermingled the “outsiders” and the, um, “insiders”. It’s reassuring to read that the Museum founder James Brett rejects the term “outsider”, preferring “self-taught”. The unusual presentation of the exhibition doesn’t try to normalise the art, but it is similar enough to typical underground art spaces to prevent the work being trivialised. Sensational aspects of the artists’ biographies are, for the most part, kept to the minimum necessary to contextualise their art. Strangely enough, the growth of the public’s prurient interest in other people’s private lives has met the outsiders halfway, so that scrutiny of their personal affairs is no less than for any other painter, politician or priest.

Despite the claims of outsider art’s champions, it’s not hard to spot discrepancies between it and the “normal” art world. This self-taught art is frighteningly earnest; it presents in starkest terms the case for art as (to adapt Ezra Pound’s saying) objects charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. Each item is saturated with significance, a desperate need to communicate a truth not otherwise evident in the material world. In this respect the exhibition is the clearest possible refutation of the modern lie (told by non-artists) that art is self-expression.

The wall texts, thankfully confined to artists and not individual works, are variable in quality and point to the greatest tensions underpinning the show. It was a nice idea to have each text written by a different person, each presumably with some insight or deeply felt response to that particular artist. At their best they present an interesting perspective on the artist’s work, as with the blurbs for Henry Darger and Alexandre P Lobanov. At their worst they manifest the worst traits in discussing outsider art: hyperbole (relativism + overcompensation = genius), misrepresentation (the self-expression canard again) and London’s Appeal to Authority, the celeb endorsement (Q: Does Nick Cave really think Louis Wain is “the greatest”? A: Who cares?). In any case the curators find it hard to discuss the artworks without making them seem like relics of a personality, surrogates for the real topic of interest – but this is a problem with most cultural criticism across the board, these days.

Like the art itself, the exhibition was overstuffed. Room after room crammed with paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, of the highest overall standard I’ve seen in a big show for a long time. I’ve been twice now and each time came away feeling overwhelmed, knowing that there was still plenty more I’d missed.