3 Sep 2011

l'art brut

People often ask about the massive poster that hits you upon first entering our house. It’s a gigantic poster that I picked up at a gallery in Lausanne, Switzerland. Even though several people have called it ugly and/or frightening, it’s always found a place in my home (and my heart) since I first dragged the poster back from Switzerland, where I’d been living and working for eight months.

Here it is:
Entrance, featuring a poster by August Walla, a self-taught Austrian artist who painted his environment (walls, furniture, trees + roads) to reflect his own self-invented personal mythology.

Leaving our little village outside of Geneva, my friend and I took a short trip by train to Lausanne, a city noted for its cultural appeal and impressive heritage sites. After stopping in at a typically Swiss museum of contemporary art (tidy, flawless, ahead of the trend) we continued on to another gallery, “La Collection de l’Art Brut”, an experience that still reverberates in my mind.

Literally translated from French, “art brut” means "raw art". The term was coined by Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s to describe art created outside the boundaries of society and official culture.

The gallery offers up a collection of drawing, painting, and sculpture created mostly by people marginalized from society, artists who created their work within the confines of mental institutions or prisons. 

Here are the images that have stuck in my mind from that gallery visit:

  • wild, manic ballpoint pen sketches that stretched across a two-storey wall
  • lurid paintings that buzzed with life and authenticity
  • intricately carved sections of a concrete prison wall
Some pieces were quite technically proficient; some seemed to jab at your eyes, so raw and full of emotion. Others were child-like and fanciful, created by delicate souls in a perpetual state of innocence. Many were indeed the manual ramblings of the possessed. All the works had one thing in common: generated out of the artist’s fierce need to create, they were bold and challenging examples of self-expression without pretense or inhibition. In many cases, the artist him or herself was completely absorbed in the process of creating art, often indifferent to the final result.

Jean Dubuffet was the first person to recognize the significance of such pieces. He praised them as “pure and authentic creative impulses”. In a quote that I’ve since memorized and even used in my own art, Jean Buffet said this:
L’art ne vient pas coucher dans les lits qu’on a faits pour lui; il se sauve aussitôt qu’on pronounce son nom. Ce qu’il aime c’est l’incognito. Ses meillurs moments sont quand il oublie comment il s’appelle.
My [very rough and infinitely less poetic] translation:
Art does not sleep in beds we prepare for him; he disappears as soon as we utter his name. He craves secrecy and anonymity. His best moments happen when he forgets his own name.

Here are some examples of Art Brut (or Outsider Art, as it was later called by art critic Roger Cardinal):

Adolf Wolfli, Swiss artist first associated with Art Brut.
He suffered from psychosis and intense hallucinations.

Judith Scott,  deaf textile artist with Down's Syndrome, mistakenly labeled in childhood as "profoundly retarded" . Judith's twin sister, Joyce, intervened to release her from institutional custody.

Eugene Andolsek created ink drawings on graph paper at his kitchen table. Once completed, the pictures held no interest for him and were put away in a trunk, later found by a caregiver.
Martin Ramirez, self-taught artist and diagnosed catatonic schizophrenic.
Ted Gordon, known for his compulsive doodles of the human face.

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