Ever seen the artwork of offenders, secure patients and detainees? Well now’s your chance; and it’s not an opportunity you should miss. These artists – exhibiting in a show curated by Sarah Lucas to mark her 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Koestler Trust – and those artists in a similar life situation before them, hold a credible status in the art world, within Outsider art. The term was first coined by English critic, Roger Cardinal in 1972. It was an equivalent phrase to Art Brut, which was created by Jean Dubuffet to describe the art work of prison inmates and mentally unstable patients. Granted, if you explore Outsider Art now, the meaning has developed, changed and perhaps come to represent those artists (who are not in prison or insane) but who are, as literary theorist Terry Castle puts it, “in some way, mentally or socially estranged from us.” (Independent Magazine, Oct 2011.)
Yet it is the type of artists showing in ‘Free: Art by Offenders, Secure Patients and Detainees’ that first inspired Outsider art to exist. They crucially – by default and/or circumstance – hold the key to Outsider art’s foremost aim: to deal with what’s purely emotional before turning it in to art. Whilst many artists hide themselves outside the normal realms of living – such as spot-obsessed, Yayoi Kusuma (ref. Selfridges front window if you’re not aware of her work) commits her life to living in a mental institute, and Spanish artist Xavier Gonzalez d’ Egara, who the acclaimed artist Modest Cuixart once said was “from the real Academy – the one upstairs,” and who shut himself in a room for a few years with a piano and a paintbrush – finding pure emotion comes somewhat easier to the artists that fall into the certified brackets of offenders, secure patients and detainees.
There has been much debate in the past around whether exhibiting and selling art created by these artists is ethically right – is selling the work of an offender a positive action? And is showing the work of a mentally ill patient somewhat exploitative? But then again, is it right big galleries sell the work of multi-millionaire artists who haven’t put one fingerprint on their own work?
This type of Outsider art has sometimes had the ability to repel, but no one can deny it is a visual representation of pure emotion, un-phased by the marketing, money-making and kudos-building nature of most other art. And these days, that’s a rare thing.
‘Free’ marks one of the UK’s largest ever exhibitions of art by prisoners, with 200 works on display. The Koestler Trust is the UK’s most well-known prison arts charity.
20th September – 25th November 2012
‘Free: Art by Offenders, Secure Patients and Detainees’ featuring various artists
Spirit Level, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, Belevedere Road, London, SE1 8XX
Opening times: Mon & Sun 11:30am – 10pm; Tue-Wed :11:30am – 10:30pm Thu-Sat: 11:30am – 11pm